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.