It can be tempting to suppose that thinking well is simply a matter of following the right rules. As long as we evaluate our evidence in the right way, make sure our premises support our conclusions, and don’t make mistakes, then we’ll be good thinkers.
But this actually isn’t the case. As much as we might wish, good thinking is not ultimately about following rules. It can seem that way, especially when we get to our later chapters on deductive logic, but in reality only a small number of situations are appropriate for deductive reasoning. We learn rules of reasoning primarily to train our brains how to think clearly and carefully, not because the rules will be always applicable. In most situations thinking well is a matter of good judgment, where we have to decide what makes the most sense to believe given these particular facts and values in this particular situation. How we reason in one context might not make sense in the next context when new information or methods of investigation arise.
We learn how to map arguments and understand validity to discover basic patterns that generally lead towards truthful beliefs. Thinking well means learning when particular patterns apply and when they don’t. So how do we become people of good judgment?
Good judgment requires combining our reasoning abilities and the techniques we learn in this class with a practice of building up in ourselves intellectual virtues while avoiding intellectual vices. Virtues are character traits or dispositions about a person that help them be a good overall person. Artistic virtues make one a good artist; social virtues make us likeable to others, and ethical virtues help us to promote flourishing in our own lives and the lives of others. The intellectual virtues are like these—they help us be better thinkers and to think well with others. It’s not just how we think that matters; it also matters the kind of person we are.
Examples can help, so let’s take a quick glance at some artistic virtues to help us understand what we’re talking about. One artistic virtue is probably creativity. Artists must be creative people, who can take familiar representational materials and imagine new, purposeful ways to create those materials and present their creations as art. It’s difficult to flourish as an artist if one lacks creativity. Good desires are also important virtues; an artist who does not desire to create will find it difficult to employ their creativity. It’s not enough to have a creative mind; you also have to be motivated to use it. Finally, creating a piece of art, whether a painting or a collage or a sculpture or a theatre production, is hard work and takes an enormous amount of patience and perseverance. Creative people with a desire to create can still fall short of their artistic ambitions if they don’t have the patience and perseverance to see their project all the way through.
I mentioned there are social virtues (sometimes called “social graces”) and ethical virtues. Can you think of what some of these might be, using the artistic examples as a guide?
Of course, our textbook is about thinking well, and our focus will be on the intellectual virtues and their vices. Learning some intellectual virtues uses our character as thinkers to explain when we think well and when we don’t. To keep our topic manageable, we’re only going to focus on four central intellectual virtues, even though there are many, many more. Then, we’ll discuss some ways people can lack virtue in their thinking, what we’ll call intellectual vices. Vices are character traits or dispositions which inhibit our flourishing—so intellectual vices are those that make us think worse, rather than well.
The skills you’ll pick up in this chapter—skills in identifying virtues and vices—can often be used as weapons. Especially online, where the goal is often to win and even humiliate rather than to connect and understand, charging someone with lacking virtue can be treated as a way of shutting someone out of a conversation. Don’t use them this way.
The primary goal of learning how reasoning goes wrong is always to learn to think more clearly and to better yourself. When these tools are used to make you seem more worthy of having your voice heard, they are being misused. So instead of being on the lookout for bad reasoning in others and being quick to shout “VICES!!” when someone missteps in their reasoning, instead be sure that you’re having the discussion you’re having because you want to understand the viewpoint of another, and take great care with how you treat those who haven’t had the privilege of taking a class like logic and critical thinking with an amazing teacher like yours ;).
In short, focus on your own reasoning, but when you feel you must educate someone else, do so gently and in a spirit of mutual understanding.