The Principle of Charity: on the Importance of Using Constructive Arguments

 

Simply put, the principle of charity is the idea that when criticizing someone’s argument, you should criticize the best possible interpretation of that argument. In the following article you will learn about this principle more in depth, and see some helpful guidelines for implementing it in practice.

 

What is the principle of charity

Though the underlying concept behind the principle of charity has always existed in various forms, it was formally stated and given its current name in a 1959 paper by Neil Wilson.

Essentially, the principle of charity embodies the idea that when you interpret what other people say, you should select the best possible interpretation for their statements. This means that, whenever possible, you should not attribute logical fallacies, falsehoods, or irrationality to other people’s argument, when there is a plausible rational alternative.

You can also extend this principle, so that in cases where it’s clear that there is in fact an issue with the other person’s argument, you should assume that this is unintentional on their part, as long as it’s reasonable to do so. This means that, whenever possible, you should attribute issues in your opponent’s arguments to a misunderstanding on their part, rather than to intentional malice.

 

How to implement the principle of charity

As we saw above, the basic way in which you implement the principle of charity is by assigning the best possible interpretation that you can to your opponent’s argument.

More specifically, philosopher Daniel Dennett lists the following four steps to implementing this principle, which he attributes to rules that were initially outlined by the famous psychologist Anatol Rapoport:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

From “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

By doing this, you are essentially using a steel man argument, which is when you attack the best possible version of your opponent’s argument, even if it involves improving their argument for them. This is the opposite of a straw man argument, which involves distorting your opponent’s views in order to make them easier to attack.

Overall, you implement the principle of charity by interpreting your opponent’s argument as being rational and coherent. How far you take this is up to you: you might prefer to only ignore minor issues with your opponent’s logic while still picking on large issues, or you might go as far as trying to improve their argument for them.

Your choices will likely vary under different circumstances. The crucial thing is to be aware of this principle, and to not immediately try and nit-pick issues with your opponent’s argument at any chance you get, especially if you’re trying to successfully get your point across.

 

The benefits of implementing the principle of charity

While you can choose to abide by the principle of charity because you believe it’s the right thing to do, implementing it also offers some practical benefits.

The first benefit to implementing this principle is that it forces you to improve your ability to construct your own arguments. This is because even though it’s  important to know how to notice and counter logical fallacies and inconsistencies in your opponent’s arguments, focusing only on these things can often become a crutch, which prevents you from looking at the validity of your own arguments. By ensuring that you don’t focus only on these issues, you help yourself learn how to improve and develop your reasoning process.

The second important benefit to implementing this principle is that by attributing the best possible argument to your opponent, you mitigate the risk of the backfire effect. This effect causes people to strengthen their support for their preexisting beliefs in the face of evidence that they are wrong. Since people are most strongly affected by this when they feel defense, abiding by the principle of charity and presenting your arguments in a non-confrontational manner that acknowledges the other person’s stance is one of the best ways to avoid this effect, and to make people more willing to listen to what you have to say.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The principle of charity denotes that when criticizing someone’s argument, you should criticize the best possible interpretation of that argument.
  • This means that whenever possible, you should not attribute logical fallacies, falsehoods, or irrationality to other people’s arguments, when there is a plausible rational alternative.
  • Furthermore, even if there is an issue with the other person’s argument, you should give them the benefit of the doubt when it’s reasonable to do so, and assume that the issue is unintentional on their part.
  • To implement this principle, you can start by re-expressing your opponent’s position as clearly as possible, while listing any points of agreement and things that you’ve learned from them, before stating your own argument.
  • Beyond the moral ideal that this principle represents, implementing it also offers practical benefits. Specifically, ensuring that you don’t always focus on the small issues with your opponent’s arguments can help you improve the way you construct your own arguments, and will make the other person more willing to listen to what you have to say.

 


Lessons in Strategy from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’

Lessons in Strategy from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’

 

Niccolò Machiavelli was an eminent philosopher and diplomat in the Florentine Republic, between the late 1400’s and the early 1500’s. His renowned writing on strategy and politics led to the creation of the term Machiavellianism, which refers to the use of cunning and duplicity in statecraft and in general conduct. Furthermore, because of his notable contributions to these fields, he is sometimes referred to as the founder of modern political science.

Machiavelli’s best-known work is The Prince, which is considered to be one of the premier books about political philosophy. The book is intended as a how-to guide for rulers, but many of the lessons there apply to everyday people too. In the following article, you will see a selection of some of the most valuable lessons from The Prince, which you can apply yourself in various areas of life.

 

The lessons

A prudent man should always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent.

(VI)

 

A prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice.

(XXIII)

 

The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.

(XXII)

 

There is no other way of guarding oneself against flattery than by letting men understand that they will not offend you by speaking the truth; but when everyone can tell you the truth, you lose their respect.

(XXIII)

 

There are three classes of intellects: one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehend; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent, the second is good, and the third is useless.

(XXII)

 

All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.

(III)

 

It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

(VI)

 

He who believes that new benefits will cause great personages to forget old injuries is deceived.

(VII)

 

The Romans never allowed a trouble spot to remain simply to avoid going to war over it, because they knew that wars don’t just go away, they are only postponed to someone else’s advantage.

(III)

 

Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.

(III)

 

A man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good.

(XV)

 

I say that every prince must desire to be considered merciful and not cruel. He must, however, take care not to misuse this mercifulness.

(XVII)

 

It is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.

(XV)

 

You must know, then, that there are two methods of fighting, the one by law, the other by force: the first method is that of men, the second of beasts; but as the first method is often insufficient, one must have recourse to the second. It is therefore necessary to know well how to use both the beast and the man…  A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from snares, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize snares, and a lion to frighten wolves. Those that wish to be only lions do not understand this.

(XVIII)

 

…and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

(XVIII)

 

For a Prince is exposed to two dangers, from within in respect of his subjects, from without in respect of foreign powers. Against the latter he will defend himself with good arms and good allies, and if he have good arms he will always have good allies;

(XIX)

 

The best fortress which a prince can possess is the affection of his people.

(XX)

 

It should be borne in mind that the temper of the multitude is fickle, and that while it is easy to persuade them of a thing, it is hard to fix them in that persuasion.

(VI)

 

Men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities, that he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.

(XVIII)

 

Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are.

(XVIII)

 

Summary and conclusions

  • Niccolò Machiavelli was an eminent philosopher and diplomat in the Florentine Republic, and is sometimes referred to as the founder of modern political science.
  • Machiavelli wrote The Prince, which is considered to be one of the premier books about political philosophy. The book is intended as a how-to guide for rulers, but many of its lessons apply to everyday people too.
  • These lessons encompass a variety of topics, from accounting for the fickleness of a crowd, to understanding how you will be judged by others.
  • One of the main lessons in The Prince is that a person should know how to be strong-handed, and be willing to use a forceful approach when necessary.
  • Of all the lessons however, the most important one is that a wise person should always seek the advice of other knowledgeable people, and listen to them in a way that encourages them to share their advice again in the future.

 


The Overkill Backfire Effect: on the Danger of Having Too Much Evidence

The Overkill Effect

 

The overkill backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to reject arguments that they think are too complex, in favor of arguments that are easy for them to understand. Often, this means that past a certain point, presenting additional evidence in support of your argument can actually make people less likely to accept it.

In the following article, you will learn why people are susceptible to this effect, and how you can reduce the risk of them being influenced by it when you present an argument.

 

What causes the overkill effect

The overkill backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to prefer explanations which are easy for them to understand, over explanations that are difficult for them to process.

Simply put, because it is more cognitively taxing to process a large number of complex arguments, the more information you present in support of your stance past a certain point, the lower the likelihood that the person you are talking to will be able to successfully internalize that information, and the lower the likelihood that they will agree with your overall argument. As such, while you might intuitively want to present as much evidence as possible in order to support your stance, adding a lot of arguments is often counterproductive.

For example, in one study on the topic researchers asked participants to think of reasons that could explain why a certain belief of theirs is wrong. They found that while asking people to generate only a few reasons was often effective in getting them to change their belief, asking them to generate many reasons had an opposite effect, meaning that it often caused participants to reinforce their original stance.

This is especially an issue when trying to refute common myths and misunderstandings, since many of them offer a simple and compelling truth, which contrasts sharply with the large amount of complex scientific evidence needed to debunk them. As one paper on the topic states: “simple myths are more cognitively attractive than lengthy, complicated refutations”.

 

How to avoid the overkill effect

Simplify your argument

To avoid the overkill effect, you want to simplify your arguments as much as possible given the circumstances, while still presenting a cogent stance. This means that when you present your argument, you need to ensure that it is clear and concise, without any unnecessary technical jargon. Furthermore, if you’re presenting any statistical information, try to explain it in simple terms, in order to make it easier for your recipient to understand.

For example, if you are in a situation where you need to use a simple explanation, don’t say:

SLA studies on L1 transfer during L2 acquisition show a crosslinguistic influence from the L1. For example, recent study which examined transfer of definite and indefinite articles showed that 68.3% of the population (based on a representative sample) will experience transfer on statistically-significant level (at p < .05) during L2 acquisition, and that this phenomenon appears throughout the A1-B2 CEFR range of L2 proficiency levels.

Instead, try to avoid the complex jargon and statistics in the above explanation, and say something along the lines of:

Studies show that you native language influences you when you learn a new language. For example, a recent study which looked at the acquisition of articles, which are words like “the” and “a”, showed that two-thirds of the people learning a new language will experience such a “transfer” effect from their native languaguage, and that this occurs primarily for people who have not yet mastered the new language.

If you find that you need to simplify this explanation even further, you can try saying something along the lines of:

Your native language often influences you when you learn the words and grammar of a new language, though this is less likely to happen once you get really good.

Remember that how much you should simplify your arguments depends on the circumstances. As such, you would use a slightly different explanation when talking to a random guy in a bar than you would when giving a talk at an academic conference.

Doing this properly ensures that you present your argument in a way that the other person can easily understand, which makes them more likely to accept your stance. An added advantage is that if you start with a simple explanation, you can always add more details later, if you see that the people you are talking to have questions, or want to know more. However, if you start with an overly complex explanation, people will often lose interest in the topic.

Finally, keep in mind that a simpler explanation will not always be shorter. Sometimes, it takes more words to explain something in a simple, especially if you end up omitting a lot of the terminology. This is okay, and while you do want to be concise, your main focus should be on explaining things in a way that is easy to understand.

 

Focus on your key points and your strongest evidence

In addition, you should make sure to focus on only a few key points when supporting your stance. This ensures that you give your recipient enough information to convince them, without causing them to feel overwhelmed by all the new information.

One advantage of doing this is that you can always add more evidence later on if necessary. Conversely, if you start by providing too much evidence, you will find it relatively difficult to retract the things you said, both because it is perceived as negative by listeners, and because the people that you talk to will have already felt that your argument was too overwhelming.

Focusing on your strongest evidence also has the added advantage of making it harder for your opponent to use strawman arguments against you. This is because using strawman arguments often involve cherry-picking the weaker aspects of your claim, and arguing against them as if they represent your entire stance. When you only include the strongest pieces of evidence in your argument, it makes you less vulnerable to this rhetoric technique.

Based on this, if you have 5 pieces of evidence in support of your stance, 3 of which are “strong” and 2 of which are “weak”, you will generally be better off discussing only the 3 “strong” points, while avoiding the weaker ones. This also helps simplify your argument overall, which, as we saw earlier, should be presented in a clear and concise manner, and if necessary, simplified in order to make it easily intelligible to your target audience.

 

You are also susceptible to the overkill effect

It’s important to remember that we are all human, and are therefore all susceptible to the overkill effect. As such, it’s important to take the potential influence of this cognitive bias into consideration when you’re listening to arguments presented by other people.

Specifically, try to identify cases where you automatically accept the argument which is simpler and appealing, without giving full consideration to the more complex arguments that you heard. Then, make sure to actually consider the complex arguments, and try to simplify them, using the same techniques that you would use if you were presenting them to someone else.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The overkill backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to reject arguments that are complex in favor of arguments that are easy to understand.
  • This occurs because it is cognitively taxing to process a large amount of complex information, and people often reject arguments that are difficult for them to process.
  • This means that for a lot of people, once they reach their cognitive saturation point, seeing more evidence in support of a certain argument might actually reduce the likelihood of them being convinced by that argument.
  • To avoid the overkill effect, simplify your arguments as much as possible given the circumstances, and make sure to use clear language, while avoiding unnecessary technical terminology and overly-complex statistics.
  • In addition, make sure to focus on only the strongest pieces of evidence that you have, rather than mentioning all the available evidence from the start. Doing this will not only reduce the likelihood of an overkill effect, but will also make it more difficult for your opponent to use strawman arguments against you, where they focus on your weakest pieces of evidence in order to attack your overall stance.