Why Critical Thinking and Ethics?

by Michael Kelly, MA

A frequent question asked by my college students is, "Why the heck am I studying critical thinking and ethics?" As one student put it:

Hey, there's no philosophy here, only getting the job done so I can get paid. Not once did an employer ask me to name the critical thinking steps, or to think about moral issues from a virtue, consequential or duty-based perspective. So, what the heck are you doing to me? Why do I need this @#$%^ course?

Fair enough. The topics covered in my course may not have much to do with a person’s ability to wire an circuit, transpose musical notation, or make an accounting entry. But consider this; while they may not directly connect to the specific actions of the profession, they are intrinsically connected to the profession’s work setting. It’s not about the act of wiring, transposing or accounting. It’s about how an employee approaches their actions within their respective work environments.

What's In It For Me

That said, some may ask, “What’s in it for me?” Answer? A thriving future as a professional. I've worked with hundreds of employers and independent business people in many  professions for the past thirty years, mostly on issues related to human relations. When it comes to defining the better employees, few dwell on the particular tasks of their profession. Most say their better employees not only master their trade, they mentor others, engage in effective problem solving and can be trusted to make informed decisions. These attributes are supported and reinforced in any critical thinking and ethics course.

So let’s deal with critical thinking first, then ethics.

A. Critical Thinking

Critical thinking skills come into play in many areas of work. Here are three obvious and important examples.

1. Hiring Interviews

Reflect back on the student who said an employer never asked for the problem-solving steps. This may not have been quite right. Job interviewers rarely ask candidates for the problem solving steps directly. Indirectly though, behavioural interview questions seek to test a peoples' problem-solving abilities. “Can you tell us about a time,” for example, “when you had to overcome a problem? How did you handle it?” The quality of the answer is usually evaluated based on how it is structured around the candidate’s critical thinking abilities.

2. Performance Reviews

Employers regularly conduct performance reviews. There are usually two components to these reviews. The first and simplest deals with the objective, statistical data related to performance. This includes an account of things like units of production, lost time accidents, days absent, the number of positive customer feedback reports, etc. The second, more complex, concerns itself with an employee’s critical thinking abilities. Here the employer assesses each employee based on examples of personal effectiveness, usually in four domains: 

  1. problem solving (accounting for employee effectiveness at problem solving)
  2. decision-making (accounting for employee effectiveness at deliberative and decisive decision making)1
  3. creative thinking (accounting for the employee’s ability to generate new ideas)
  4. dealing with complexity (accounting for the employees ability to work in complex or unstructured situations, including their willingness to conduct the research necessary solutions). 

In other words, this aspect of the performance review has everything to do with critical thinking skills.

3. Event Analysis

In the end though, it’s the day-to-day routine and non-routine events that test an employee’s critical thinking skills. Let’s take a accident event as an example. While in the process of investigating an accident, it is appropriate to remove the immediate (or proximate) cause to mitigate further harm.2 But is this enough?  What about the root (or distal) causes of the accident?3 What caused the cause? Here we need to identify the reasons why, then devise an action plan to eliminate all causes. In fact, I like to see if I can explore these root causes back five levels.4

B. Ethics

Ethics are trickier. When I talk with employers regarding employee dismissals there are incidents where workplace incompetence come in to play. But most indictments and dismissals deal with moral issues, especially harassment, theft, graft or other moral indiscretions. 

There are two themes requiring attention: the first concerning moral choices, the second ethical dilemmas. 

1. Moral Choices

First, the theme of moral choices. “Even the most ordinary action,” says John Ralston Saul, “contains an ethical question, which must either be respected or denied.”5 Do I steal that company pen, even though it’s cheap? Do I disregard safety practices to get the job done a little quicker? These are moral choices. There is an easy right-or-wrong answer, made even easier in most workplaces by well defined organizational bright line policies. Beyond the bright lines though we are faced with a bigger, quality-of-life litmus test rooted in our levels of anxiety. In the test we ask ourselves if we can sleep soundly at night with the proviso that “everybody, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences.”6

2. Ethical Dilemmas

Ethical dilemmas are far more complex. They refer to those instances when we engage in a mental conflict between two moral imperatives where, when we obey one, we violate another. In most cases it doesn’t matter what choice we make, we will experience stress, tension and even extradition. For example, do I report my friend for a safety infraction or not? If I do, I may be saving his and other peoples lives, but I’ll be off his holiday card list. Even this simple example demonstrates that there will be some emotional pain experienced in the choice. 

Typically there are four workplace ethical dilemmas: the competency of colleagues (as in the example above), confidentiality, conflicts with supervisors, and disputes with the organization.7 There are no easy solutions … but there is some help in the form of an dilemma algorithm


In the end it all boils down to the choices we make. The overriding benefit, as demonstrated by some of the most brilliant professionals I’ve had the privilege of working with, sees people working productively and safely. It also ensures we do not spend anguished lives living in our heads because of poor critical or ethical thinking. Instead we not only live, we thrive.8



  1. Deliberative decision-making refers to how effectively decisions are considered, pondered and discussed. The appropriate amount of time to make the decision aligns with the criticality of the decision itself. Decisive decisions are effectively made with little time. These decisions are often associated with situations requiring quick thinking or automatic responses, usually in routine or crisis situations.
  2. An immediate or proximate cause is an event which is closest to or immediately responsible for causing an observed result. It is often referred to as a legal cause. It is not necessarily the closest cause in time and space but it produces particular, foreseeable consequences. See http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/proximate+cause . Example: Why did the employee injure the left thumb? Because it was struck by a hammer.
  3. A root or distal cause is often thought of as the real cause. It is a high level cause that is not always apparent in an event. It can often be established by seeking out the larger context and, more specifically, by asking why? Example: Why did the employee injure the left thumb? Immediate cause? Because it was struck be a hammer. Root Cause? Why did the hammer hit the thumb? Because the employee was distracted by a noisy and sudden distraction.
  4. The number in this case is arbitrary but a good start. The notion of looking back at causal levels was inspired by our Anishinabek brothers and sisters. When considering the consequences of an action it is common for them to consider effects forward five generations. In the case of root cause analysis I look back five generations of causes.
  5. John Ralston Saul. The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1995.  p. 122.
  6. Widely misquoted on the internet - though likely adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Memories and Portraits (Chapter 3 entitled “Old Morality”) in which he describes the character and import of books. See http://www.online-literature.com/stevenson/memories-and-portraits/3/  The adaptation has application here.
  7. See http://migashco.com/michael/fateful-algorithm.html
  8. Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics uses the term eudaimonia, roughly translated as happiness, well-being, flourishing or thriving.
© 2011  Michael C Kelly