The Uninvited Interlocutor

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The Principle Of Charity

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I thought it might be a good idea to talk about a methodological principle that can be prescribed positively — that is, instead of looking at a fallacy or error in reasoning it might be nice to look at a way to approach an argument that maximizes its rationality.

Many people upon first encountering the principle of charity assume it has something to do with giving to charity, being kind to those less fortunate or other types of charitable efforts.  It really has nothing to do with those activities and I’ll leave one’s involvement in such things up to the individual reader.  The term “charitable,” as used in the principle of charity, refers to being charitable towards an other’s assertions or arguments when first encountering and assessing them.  The simplest way to define this notion is to say that being charitable is actively seeking to maximize the rationality of another’s arguments.  This may seem like an odd idea at first glance since many times we seek to do exactly the opposite.  That is, many times we encounter arguments or assertions we disagree with — sometimes vehemently — and we are actively seeking to argue against them or discredit them.  The principle of charity does not exclude us from critiquing arguments, positions or assertions, but it does require us to critique the strongest possible versions of these entities. Again, this may seem odd since it appears to be counterintuitive to find the strongest possible version of something and then proceed to attempt to find flaws, weaknesses and even show that it is fatally broken. However, in approaching our assessments of other’s arguments by utilizing the principle of charity we actually make our analysis much stronger and less likely to rebuttal.

A common effective and procedurally sound methodology when arguing is to anticipate your interlocutor’s response or objection before he or she can actually articulate said objection.  So, if you can say something like, “it may be tempting to counter that my proposal of ‘X’ is invalid because of ‘Y’ and ‘Z’, but neither is relevant here for the following reasons…” then you can make your case and deal with objections to it in one statement.  In essence, if you can put yourself in the position of your opponent, then you can anticipate his or her next move and counter it even before it is made. This is a very powerful way to argue and shows you have a full understanding of the issues relevant to the argument.

The principle of charity takes this tactic one step further and states that we should seek to find objections to our opponent’s argument and actively seek to find responses to them.  That is, we also work on behalf of our opponent’s argument when we are thinking of objections to it — we find an objection, think what might be a counter to it, then think what might be argued against that counter and so on.  In this way we are able to discover what the strongest possible version of our opponent’s argument will look like —  we seek to resolve contradictions, clarify terms, eliminate fallacies and understand as best as possible the point that is being made. Once we have done this we should have the strongest possible version of our opponent’s argument.

Once we have the strongest possible version of our opponent’s argument we can then move forward with a critique.  One of the advantages of working this way is that we may now find that what we thought was a weak, incorrect or absurd notion is actually very strong, reasonable and rational.  That is, we may find the argument has no substantive weaknesses and therefore it is our position that needs to change.  In short, we may find we are wrong.  It may be that the original version of the argument was simply put in such a poor manner that it appeared weak or absurd, but once we have worked it through to its strongest possible version we find that this is no longer the case.  This is advantageous because we have avoided a likely long drawn out argument that would end with this realization anyway.  Also, we have gone from a position of incorrectness to a position which is more correct — in short, we’ve learned something and altered our view based upon that knowledge.  This can only be seen as a negative if we care about winning more than we care about correctness, rationality, knowledge, understanding, etc.

Assuming we find that the strongest version of our opponent’s argument still has weaknesses, then we can move forward with a critique of that version of the argument.  Again, we save time because we do not need to go through a long drawn out process of argumentation with our interlocutor; instead, we can “cut to the chase” and show how even if we concede the best possible case to our opponent that it is still not good enough to stand up to our objections.  In this way we leave very little room for our opponent to maneuver as we have covered the available rebuttals and positions already ourselves.  Of course, it is conceivable our interlocutor is able to find new ground in something we may not have considered, but we have still greatly simplified and clarified the process of argumentation by covering most of the ground ourselves.

When arguing our aim should be to reach a maximal point of understanding — even if that means we find our position is weaker than first anticipated.  I hold a very strong opinion that if the principle of charity were widely known and regularly utilized we could eliminate the great majority of poor arguments, “flame wars,” enmities and “shouting matches” that tend to be the hallmark of our human interactions when we disagree.  In short, if we cared more about finding the best positions, the “most truth” and maximizing rationality instead of simply being concerned with winning and feeling victorious, then real substantive conflict could be avoided. From the link I posted above:

This attitude, if maintained, frees the conditioned mind and enables it to absorb and understand the new.

It’s difficult at times and everyone is susceptible to putting forward an uncharitable characterization of a view or argument in order to refute it because, well — it’s easy.  The less charitable you are to an opponent the easier it is to appear to undermine, counter, refute or even mock, ridicule and belittle his or her argument — to put it bluntly, because you are being less than fair.  It’s the kind of thing children tend to do because they are generally more concerned with winning than being fair.  But we all fall under the spell of uncharitable interpretations at times — sometimes consciously and sometimes not. In short, we can all do better at adhering to the principle of charity — myself included, of course.  So, next time you hear an argument, position or opinion you disagree with try to first see what the best possible case for it might look like and base your reply upon that best case.  In the vast majority of instances you’ll come away with a better understanding and a better argument in the end.

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Written by Uninvited Interlocutor

December 4, 2012 at 6:06 pm

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