“Doing the right things start with knowing the right things.” In what way does responsible action depend on sound critical thinking?
Most of the world’s citizens fancy themselves know a great many things for certain. One would take a certain justified action over another after one has compared the justification base on what one believes one knows.
However in the course of doing the right things, we still have to justify why we think we know the things we know? We also need to understand that there are many categories of ‘rightness’. And sometimes, when they exist together they do not always reconcile with each other. So what would influence the choosing of one rightness over another? This is one question we have to analyze if we are to discuss this issue in an holistic manner. To complicate matters, responsible duty does not always support responsible moral. There are times when those two are at the conflicting ends of things. Therefore, we should analyze the role of sound critical thinking in this circumstance; which would sound critical thinking favours, to be dutiful or to be moral? There are times when we ended up doing the responsible things even without first critically analyzing the situation. Would the lack of sound critical thinking make our action any less responsible? All these questions need to be answered before we can decide just to what extent does responsible action depend on sound critical thinking.
Responsibility is an obligation that one must meet because it is expected of one and other people have the rights to benefit it from one. For example, one’s wife and kids have every right to expect to be provided and cared for. The responsibility comes with the position as the head of the family. Quite straightforward. However, there are times when carrying out responsibility is a dilemma. Consider the situation where a soldier who receives an order to shoot unarmed civilians refuses to execute it because it is morally wrong. The superior would say that he is not following orders and therefore is not responsible. On the other hand, some argue that even if he did follow orders, he is still morally irresponsible. Now, we have two types of responsibility; that of duty and moral. Alas, both of them do not reconcile. Even though there may be other types of responsibilities, but in doing the right thing, usually the conflict is between duty responsibility, when other people have rights to expect it from one and moral responsibility, when other people may not have claims on one being responsible and any good deed is for one to give or withhold.
In order to be responsible, sound critical thinking should have a set of criteria to measure the action upon. One of the criteria could be rightness since being responsible is almost always associated with being right. However, there are no sure ways to determine whether some things are right or not. The justification of rightness is relative, at best. It depends on factors like culture variability, personal principles or values and religion. Consider the situation where a singer who, whether she likes it or not, is a role model for teenagers. With fame, comes responsibility. She would like to influence teenagers to dress modestly. But, how do we categorize the right dressing for modesty? Some think ankle-length skirt is modest. Some say knee length skirt is modest. Some have no compunction at wearing mini-skirts. This is the fact that most men are ethnocentric. They believe there is only one true morality and it is their own. Judging from the situation, is there any way to determine ‘rightness’ at all? Therefore, I am inclined to adopt the transcendentalist view that identifies rightness with whatever God prescribes. Religious teaching is revealed knowledge from our Maker, who would be the only one who knows how He meant for us to behave. However, there are people who are atheist, which further complicates the argument where rightness is concerned. Furthermore, different religions have different approaches. Unless there comes a time when we can agree on one true religion, then ‘rightness’ could not be made objective in all matters. From the above discussion, we could conclude that the relativity of ‘rightness’ is already one constraint in our quest to obtain responsible result from sound, critical thinking.
Actions could be “right” or “wrong” in different ways. When the soldier refuses to kill unarmed civilians, his refusal is based on moral rightness. A painter chooses a certain colour instead of others because it is an aesthetically right thing to do. We choose to wear track bottom instead of mini skirt when we jog because it is a pragmatically right thing to do. Usually, when it is imperative that the task meets its objective, practical rightness would beat aesthetical rightness every single time. The aesthetical element would have to be compromised to a certain degree depending upon the pragmatic requirement. It is when considering moral rightness and pragmatic rightness (like the case of the soldier) that sound critical thinking would be most challenged. Rightness A vs Rightness B is also a constraint for sound critical thinking to produce responsible action.
Consider a situation where a father is trying to save some of his trapped family members from a burning house. If he died in his effort, who will be looking after the already saved family members, now that they have lost everything in the fire? He will have to think where his responsibility to protect most lies; on the already saved family members outside the burning house or on the yet to be saved family members inside the burning house, both have claims on his being responsible. In this situation, if he reneges on one responsibility and performs the other, would he still be responsible? Duty A vs Duty B is also another constraint in sound critical thinking.
Having identified the constraints of sound critical thinking, let’s now discuss as to what extent is responsible action dependent on sound critical thinking. Sound critical thinking does not always produce responsible action. There are times when it is used to implement irresponsible action too. For example, a professional jewel thief would have to use his sound critical thinking in order to steal a well-guarded diamond from an exhibition without being caught. To get pass the sophisticated security system is no easy feat. It requires a lot of planning, and a lot of critical thinking and sound judgment. Therefore it does not always follow that adopting sound critical thinking would only produce responsible action. The jewel thief will first have to know that stealing is wrong, only then he can channel his sound critical thinking in a responsible way. Without knowledge, sound critical thinking alone cannot be trusted to produce responsible action.
There are times when responsible action is produced through other ways of knowing like emotion, instinct and impulse. In the case of the father who tried to save his family members from the blazing house, what would prompt him to immediately save his children would be love and fatherly instinct. If he uses his sound critical thinking, he would take time to weigh where his responsibility most lies. By the time he finishes thinking, the house would be burnt to the ground. Sound critical thinking here would only waylay him in protecting his family. In this situation, it is emotion and instinct that bring out the responsible action from him.
From the discussion above, we have established the fact that responsible action does not always depend on sound critical thinking. However, in the quest for responsible action, the presence of sound critical thinking signifies the effort of the individual to be responsible even though the result may not be so responsible in the end (because of the many factors; moral vs. duty, duty A vs. duty B, rightness A vs. rightness B). If, after the commendable effort in which he tries to be responsible, yet bad consequence still happens, we can excuse it if in our estimation, he could not be expected to have foreseen the bad consequences or because he could not reasonably have known how to prevent the consequences from happening.
The presence of sound critical thinking in producing irresponsible action serves to signify that the action is purposeful. In planning morally irresponsible action, the culprit has to analyze the situation, weigh the pros and the cons of doing it, and manoeuvre the situation in such a way that he would be able to carry it out without being caught. Therefore, the doer would be held accountable for the outcomes of this sort of sound, critical thinking. There is no excuse for him.
In the circumstance where the lack of sound critical thinking produces bad consequence, the doer is answerable for negligence, because in our estimation, there is no effort on his part to be responsible.
In the situation where the lack of sound critical thinking produces good consequences anyway, we would of course be pleased and perhaps grateful to the doer but we woul attribute the good consequence to good luck and fate, not to his thinking prowess.
Responsible action does not always depend on sound, critical thinking. It also depends on the situation and the many variables that exist around the individual who is to perform the thinking. However, we could generalize that sound critical thinking should be applied in the quest of responsible action. Whatever comes from it, at least we know that we have included the effort to be responsible. Although the outcome of our sound critical thinking cannot be guaranteed to be right (because of the too many constraints that need to be considered) but the probability of reaching a responsible outcome is considerably higher in comparison to no thinking at all.
Fred D. Miller Junior, Nicholas D. Smith, 1989, Thought Probes, Second Edition, Prentice Hall.
Taylor, 1967, Problems of Moral Philosophy, Dickenson Publishing Company, Inc., pg 295.
Reader’s Digest Magazine, June 1989, pg 26.
P/S: This was my first attempt at writing a philosophical essay. It was done as a compulsory assignment for my IB diploma. And I am humbly proud (oxymoron) to mention that I got an A for it. I think it deserves to be in my blog because I could not think of any other ways to permanently (as permanent as this world could ever get) save it for future perusal. I mean, kertas akan dimakan anai2. Simpan dlm CD pun, tahan 5 tahun jer. So here it is. My first attempt at philosophical essay. And though I did not enjoy the research and the headache that it took to do it, but writing it was a pleasure to me.