Critical Thinking in Business Ethics, Part 1

This is the first in an open-ended series I’ll be doing on the role of critical thinking in business ethics. From an academic perspective, “Business Ethics” just is the application of a critical thinking skills to the moral standards that apply to the world of commerce.

It may be useful to start with a definition. Critical thinking is “the systematic evaluation or formulation of beliefs, or statements, by rational standards.”*

In terms of business ethics, this definition has several implications.

The first has to do with the word “systematic.” Thinking critically about ethical standards in business is “systematic” in that it at least sometimes involves the application of distinct procedures and methods. In some cases those procedures and methods might involve very technical tools, such as the tools of formal logic, to assess arguments. In other cases, it will involve looking for certain well-known patterns of reasoning, including the fallacies to which human reason has so often been subject. In other cases still, being systematic will just mean looking carefully at the parts of an argument and at how it is structured, in order better to understand its strengths and weaknesses. The bigger point here is that thinking critically about business ethics means doing something more than looking at an issue and taking a rough stab at an answer. It implies a careful, systematic approach.

The second implication of that definition has to do with the bit about “evaluation” and “formulation” of beliefs. This implies that critical thinking can, and should, be applied in evaluating existing beliefs (your own or others’) as well as to the process of building new beliefs. It also reminds us that beliefs don’t have to just happen to us. We do, of course, inherit many beliefs from our families and churches and cultures more generally. But in other cases, we build new beliefs. And we are responsible for the quality of the beliefs and belief systems we build for ourselves.

The third implication has to do with the words “rational standards.” Those words imply that particular views about business ethics ought to be judged by how well they are supported by good reasons. That is, a commitment to thinking critically about these issues means only believing things that you have good reasons to believe — and not, for example, believing something just because you’re too lazy to examine that belief carefully, or because believing it fits with your worldview, or because “everyone knows it’s true.”

As I tell my students, most people have opinions about ethical issues in the world of business. And having an opinion is a good starting point. But taking business ethics seriously means going beyond merely having an opinion, and thinking critically about whether our opinions are well-supported.

*Lewis Vaughn and Chris MacDonald, The Power of Critical Thinking, 2nd Canadian Edition, Oxford University Press, 2010.

1 comment so far

  1. […] what we really need are the best answers, not the easiest ones. ——– See also Part 1 and Part 2 in this series. « Regulating Wall Street Bonuses LikeBe the first to […]

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