We at the Nursing Ethics Blog are big fans of critical thinking. In fact, we’re working on a new textbook (under contract to Oxford University Press) on critical thinking for nurses.
Critical thinking is “the systematic evaluation or formulation of beliefs, or statements, by rational standards.”* It involves thinking outside of the box, and a willingness to ask hard questions when the need arises. We’ve blogged a bit about the significance of critical thinking in nursing ethics in particular here and here.
But critical thinking is a tricky concept to apply within the context of nursing. After all, nurses simply cannot question every practice and assumption. Sometimes immediate action is needed, and now is not the time to sit back and ask probing questions. Being part of a self-regulating profession means that RNs need to stick closely to established technical and ethical standards. And most nurses work in more-or-less hierarchical teams and institutional settings that involve a huge number of rules, policies, and procedures that simply must be followed.
What is really required, then, is a critical approach to critical thinking: a responsible nurse needs to systematically about when and where to question established rules. The key, of course, is to develop the attitude and skills of a critical thinker, and to be ready to apply them in appropriate circumstances.
This is just one way of illustrating this general point about ethics: while individual judgment and critical thinking are essential to good ethical reasoning, it needs to be balanced against the collective wisdom that is often embodied in laws, rules, and social conventions.
*Lewis Vaughn and Chris MacDonald, The Power of Critical Thinking, 3rd Canadian Edition, Oxford University Press, 2013.