The Principle of Charity (Revisited)

As an adjunct faculty member of Philosophy, one of my soapbox lectures to my students is the importance and application of the Principle of Charity. I mention it in the 1st Day Syllabus, I mention it again about half-way through the semester, and I include it as a short-answer question on the Final Exam.

At its core, the Principle of Charity (PoC) involves thinking well of people; their intentions, their capabilities, and their knowledge level. I take it very seriously because (1) it is the civil, respectful, and necessary thing to do and (2) it actually makes discussions or discourse more efficient by not wasting time on misunderstandings or by committing straw person fallacies. In either case, the PoC has a wide range of important uses and that is why I hammer it into to my students from the get-go. Below, I will explain what it is and give some pertinent examples as well as provide some good resources for further reading.

There are a couple of immediate and long-term advantages to using the Principle of Charity. First, when we utilize the PoC, we understand and acknowledge that those with whom we are debating or discussing something are intelligent. That is, they are unlikely to be advancing stupid or illogical ideas, processes, or events. When a charitable listener hears something that doesn’t make sense to them, they will try to work out what was really meant (or at least the most logical formulation that is possible based on the available evidence). Instead of gloating or immediately thinking of a response, we should use their arguments and our shared interactions as an opportunity to learn from one another. Remember, philosophy is ultimately aimed at discovering or uncovering or generating the truth and that is always a collective activity.

Second, we give ourselves the chance to develop important cognitive and emotional skills. We exercise imagination, creativity, and empathy to understand someone else’s view before going on the philosophical attack. We try to see why they value that trait, event, process, object, or person that they are making the argument about. There has to be a reason that they think and feel the way that they do. Understanding why will help us to see the force of their argument as they do. But we must also be careful to be skeptical in our analysis of its merits.

The opposite of the Principle of Charity is the Straw Person fallacy. This takes place whenever we intentionally misrepresent our opponent’s position in order to argue against something that we can easily and conclusively defeat. Just like it would be easier to defeat a straw person rather than a real person, it’s easier to defeat a bad argument that we’ve created rather than someone’s actual position that they have carefully thought through and provided supporting evidence for. Winning an argument against a Straw Person achieves nothing. It might make us feel clever in the moment, but it doesn’t help anybody’s thinking or understanding. We aren’t any closer to the truth by producing Straw Person analyses.

And, unfortunately, for those who use the Straw Person fallacy, it’s important to remember: it is still a logical fallacy. Committing a Straw Person fallacy or using a Straw Person argument undermines one’s own case (and reputation). Therefore, the Straw Person fallacy should be avoided and denied, but the Principle of Charity should be endorsed and accepted. In contrast, the Principle of Charity reminds us that, in any debate, we are trying to find the truth, not win the argument or show off our quick wit or cleverness.

But recently Philosopher Daniel Dennett, in his work “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking,” lists four additional steps to implementing the Principle of Charity whenever engaging in discourse or a debate with someone.

1st: you should attempt to summarize or repeat your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your opponent replies, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” By doing this, you are making sure that you and your opponent have accurately understood one’s argument or thought process.

2nd: you should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement — the more obscure or controversial, the better).

3rd: you should mention anything you have learned from your opponent. Acknowledge that the main point of discourse or debate is ultimately to get closer to the truth of some topic. While you both are passionate about defending your own views, you can nonetheless show respect for the common ground on which you both stand.

Finally, and only then, you are permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism about their background assumptions, thought process, examples used, argument structure, and the like.

By following these steps closely and carefully, according to Dennett, you are now confronting the best possible version of the argument, something which he refers to as ‘a steel man argument’ (in contrast to the Straw Man/Person arguments that we’ve been discussing). Thus, by following the Principle of Charity, you will eventually reach the ‘steel man argument’ and, from there, your discourse can continue in a more productive and respectful manner. We want to take on the ‘steel man arguments’ of our opponents because, at the very least, it means that if we can defeat or delegitimize their argument(s), it means that we can likely defeat or delegitimize other formulations of that argument (i.e. if you can beat the strongest version or formulation of the argument, you can beat the rest).

Suggestions for Further Reading:

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