The Goals of Critical Thinking
What are the primary goals, or aims, of critical thinking?
I think there are two distinct sets of goals.
Goal 1: Improve the Quality of Our Thinking (Beliefs, Judgments and Decisions)
The first has to do with the quality of our thinking. One of the aims of critical thinking is to improve the quality of our beliefs, judgments and decisions.
What does this mean? It can mean different things, depending on which of these we’re talking about.
When we’re talking about beliefs, the most obvious measure of quality is how likely they are to be true. All other things being equal, I want my beliefs to be true, not false.
When we’re talking about judgments, in this context I’m using the term to refer to the process by which we arrive at a belief or a decision. I want my judgments to be reasonable, justifiable, reliable, and so on.
When we’re talking about decisions, or choices, that’s a different category again. Decisions are actions of some kind; they can’t be true or false. But they can be rational or irrational, justified or unjustified, effective or ineffective, and so on.
These are all different ways that the quality of our thinking can be improved, and this is one of the goals of critical thinking — to improve the quality of our thinking.
Goal 2: Learn to Think Critically and Independently for Ourselves
What’s the second goal of critical thinking?
The second goal is captured by phrases like
- I want to be an independent thinker
- I want to teach my daughter how to think for herself
What do these phrases mean?
First and foremost, they express values, things we care about.
They express the value of freedom of thought.
They express the value of autonomy, the ability to make decisions for ourselves and pursue our own goals.
They express the values of agency and responsibility, the notion that as individuals we want to claim authorship and ownership of our own beliefs and values. We don’t want to think of ourselves as mindlessly parroting what we’ve been told to believe by governments, corporations, the media, religion, our peers, and so on.
These values are often associated with the aims of critical thinking, and they should be.
Thus, another important aim of critical thinking is to learn to think for ourselves, to be able to claim ownership and responsibility for our beliefs, judgments and decisions.
The Simple Version
In my more recent writing I’ve condensed this discussion even further, when I need to be brief.
The goals of critical thinking are:
- To improve the quality of our thinking.
- To learn to think for ourselves.
These goals express our fundamental critical thinking values.