Discernment, judgements, reasoning and critical thinking.

One benefit to be gained from a general study of the liberal arts, and a particular benefit of the discipline of philosophy, is an increased level of discernment. This is most readily apparent in the vocabulary, or at least the careful use language, employed by those exposed to higher education. From close analysis of classic texts or contemporary case studies, the student inevitably learns that distinctions in terminology often have a much greater significance than the similarity of the words themselves might indicate.

I know well the exasperation that most jurors experience when they hear lawyers objecting to terms employed their adversaries when a simple re-statement makes the objection moot. I know the frustration that caring citizens feel when they find out that legislation intended to create a better community, state or nation is torn apart over the wording of the legislation. Students often get turned-off to studies they may initially be attracted to simply because they view it as hair-splitting verbage. Contracts, warrantees, advertisements are all based on careful definitions, many of which use words in ways that may seem "counter-intuitive" -- and at worst, down-right deceptive. I agree, quite readily, that many things are said which could be expressed much more simply, clearly and effectively, if only we were more straight-forward with our language. Yet, insight into the subtle differences of some words can sometimes reveal whole new dimensions of significance.

When teaching about ethical issues today, I often get a response from very thoughtful, concerned students who express a firm conviction on a moral issue yet quickly add, "But, I know others feel differently, and who am I to judge them?" I fully recognize that what these individuals mean is that in our pluralistic society, we have to be tolerant of a wide diversity of conflicting opinions. Indeed, tolerance is a virtue that ought to be taught, encouraged, practiced and rewarded. But I point out to these students that, in fact, they have made a judgement. In selecting their moral position they necessarily are saying "this choice is not only good for me, this is the kind of choice I wish everyone would make." Isn't that what we do at the ballot box or the voting booth? I usually follow this up by saying that if we don't take stands on these issues, we are really saying that there is no ultimate right or wrong. If we simply say "everyone should just make up their own mind and do what they feel is right," we imply that any position of right or wrong is merely opinion. Without making judgements, we are all reduced to ethical relativism. Anything goes. What's the discernment? There is a discernable difference between JUDGING and being JUDGEMENTAL. The words sound similar, but there is a world of difference. We should not be judgemental. By this I agree that we should not arbitrarily pass summary evaluation on others simply because they say, do or defend things that we disagree with. Archie Bunker was judgemental. Clearly, such dogmatic condemnation of others is a moral flaw. But certainly we must make careful, reasoned judgements about the positions we hold. We might tollerate those who choose differently than we do, but we must be ready to defend our views by arguments that both justify our choices and aim to persuade others that they should choose likewise. In making a reasoned judgement, and defending it publicly, we are contributing to the free exchange of ideas essential to a democracy and the health of a pluralistic society.

Even more subtle than this distinction is one related to critical thinking, the difference between REASONING and RATIONALIZATION. I often have students that will make statements to the effect of, "In my own rationalization..." or, "I agree with her rationalization..." What they clearly intend to convey is that there is a line of reasoning defending a point being made in a given argument. When I suggest that they should use the simpler term "reasoning" in its place, they often fail to see the difference. "Rationalization" is a psychological term for one type of "defense mechanism," that is, mechanism we unconsciously develop to protect ourselves from negative impact of facing the truth about ourselves. Rationalism refers to an "explaining away" of any serious objections, usually providing the "rationalizer" a guilt-free conscience to proceed with a course of action they generally wouldn't take. Examples of rationalization include those individuals who feel justified in taking office supplies or other work-related property because they didn't get the raise they deserved, or those who cheat (on taxes? spouses?) contending that "everyone else is doing it, why can't I?" Note, these examples also contain elements of other psychological defence mechanisms, such as overgeneralization and projection. Reasoning -- far from what most people refer to as "common sense" -- is actually a rare and difficult intellectual process that demands we back up our opinions with truthful premisses and these premisses are so well ordered as to provide convincing proof to those who might disagree with our positions. That's why we need REASONED JUDGEMENTS as opposed to RATIONALIZING OUR BEING JUDGEMENTAL.

This leads us to yet another distinction which most of us fail to make, yet tend to agree with upon the slightest reflection. I just mentioned how reasoning is discernably different from "common sense." The term, common sense, implies that this sense of rational discernment and "right thinking" is available to us all, that we are born with it, and we often assume that it is a commodity that is evenly distributed. The problem, as we 'right thinking types' see it (!), is that common sense is a tool that is simply not used as often as it should be -- especially by politicians, bureaucrats, bosses, spouses, etc. Here I am reminded of one of France's greatest philosophers. Rene Descartes began a treatise on "Seeking the Truth in the Sciences" by saying everyone thinks that they are already so abundantly provided with good sense that no one ever desires more than they already have... Think about that! We are always desirous of more money, more free time, more tolerance, and so on, but no one ever wishes for more common sense (though, obviously, we wish OTHER people had more!). Descartes wisely followed up on this by saying that he never held himself to have any greater an intellect than the general population, but he found that he applied his intellectual faculties in a way that was markedly different, and this lead him to conclusions that were very different from the opinions derived from common sense. I want to distinguish this COMMON SENSE from the higher-ordered skill of Critical Thinking, or what is more simply put, UNCOMMONLY GOOD SENSE. Common sense told the undiscerning mind that the earth was flat; it takes more reflection to override what is obvious to the senses to realize the truth about the shape of the earth, it's position in the solar system, and the importance of human kind in the cosmos. Common sense also tells many that the solution to the AIDS crisis is to "ship 'em all off to an island somewhere and quarrantee 'em," or that the solution to our monitary crisis is to "stop giving so much money away to other countires and worry more about helping ourselves." These and other views, such as solving the problems of teenage pregnancies, the drug crisis, decisions regarding those in terminal pain, or the pain of the computer terminal -- regulation of the internet -- often have simple, direct, common sense appeal. Nevertheless, the real solutions involve greater critical relfection, uncommonly good sense, recognizing that problems are not solved by depriving rights and shipping people off out of sight (re: the AIDS crisis) or closing ranks and ignoring the plights of others (re: international monitary aid), especially when an ounce of prevention is the most cost-efficient expenditure of funds. It takes UNCOMMONLY GOOD SENSE to discern the best course of action.

Now I have to be careful here. If I come off sounding Judgemental about those that hold "common sense" opinions, then I will appear to simply be Rationalizing my personal perspective, and therefore I would contradict everything I've been saying. (And contraditions go against both common sense and critical thinking!) No, I do not wish to be judgemental. I do not have the solutions to the AIDS crisis, nor a plan for distribution of U.S. foreign aid, but I have made a judgement. Simple solutions that appeal to common sense need just as much review from Critical Reasoners -- that is, both you and I -- as other, more convoluted and contrived solutions. Should we distribute condoms in our high schools? Should we have free methadone clinics and distribute clean needles to those who are addicted? Should physicians assist in a patients wish to die? Should we censor the internet? All I know is that to avoid simplistic, judgmental rationalization, we must encourage debate. We should carefully examine our own opinions while being tolerant of the opinions of others. We should recognize that good reasoning is sometimes less obvious and less common, than common sense. Finally, none of us is so well endowed with the gift of reasoned judgement that we can afford not to listen to the reasoned judgment of others.

I started off with sympathy for those who feel frustrated with the hair-splitting terminology that allows for the baffle-gab that fills up warrantees, contracts and advertising... and college philosophy classes. I recognized the virtues in speaking plainly and clearly -- and perhaps I have not been as virtuous here as I should be! Yet I conclude now, contending that if we employ the powers of uncommonly good sense that we all have latent within us, we can discern the true and distinct meanings of terms that appear similar, and that this is a valuable task, necessary to accomplish reasoned debate and reach good judgments -- in a world that... is no longer flat.