Weak versus Strong Critical Thinking
Critical thinking involves basic intellectual skills, but these skills can be used to serve two incompatible ends: self-centeredness or fair-mindedness. As we are learning the basic intellectual skills that critical thinking entails, we can begin to use those skills in a selfish or in a fair-minded way. For example, when students are taught how to recognize mistakes in reasoning (commonly called fallacies), most students see those mistakes principally in the reasoning they already disapprove of rather than in their own reasoning. They develop some proficiency in making their opponent’s thinking look bad.
Liberals see mistakes in the arguments of conservatives; conservatives see mistakes in the arguments of liberals. Believers see mistakes in the thinking of nonbelievers; nonbelievers see mistakes in the thinking of believers. Those who oppose abortion readily see mistakes in the arguments for abortion; those who favor abortion readily see mistakes in the arguments against it.
We call these thinkers weak-sense critical thinkers. We call the thinking “weak” because, though it is working well for the thinker in some respects, it is missing certain important higher-level skills and values of critical thinking. Most significantly, it fails to consider, in good faith, viewpoints that contradict its own viewpoint. It lacks fair-mindedness.
Another traditional name for the weak-sense thinker is found in the word sophist. Sophistry is the art of winning arguments regardless of whether there are obvious problems in the thinking being used. There is a set of lower-level skills of rhetoric, or argumentation, by which one can make poor thinking look good and good thinking look bad. We see this often in unethical lawyers and politicians who are more concerned with winning than with anything else. They use emotionalism and trickery in an intellectually skilled way.