Being Charitable

A Lesson in Logic

Before getting into fallacies, we need to have a talk about the principle of charity. This has nothing to do with giving other people money for good reasons, though there’s a principle of charity for that too. No, when we talk about being charitable in reference to an argument, it’s about cutting other other person some slack, and filling in pieces of their argument for them. Interpreting someone’s argument charitably means representing their argument as strongly as possible, even if they haven’t been clear about all of those elements. Scratch that, especially then. 

When using formal logic in discussions, you have to remember that not everyone is familiar with these principles, and not everyone is looking for the same things in an argument. So when you’re picking out people’s premises and conclusions, give them the benefit of the doubt. This is good for everyone involved, because it lets you apply your logic skills in a helpful way, and makes sure that you’re examining the strongest version of their argument. I find that being charitable also reminds me that discussions aren’t about winning or being right, but about getting closer to the truth or creating better arguments.

The two key ways of interpreting things charitably. First, always assume that the other person is being rational. They’re saying something interesting and meaningful, and making valid arguments. Second, assume that what they’re saying is true, for the purpose of argument. Even if it’s not. Remember that counterexamples are one of the most powerful ways of refuting an argument, and it relies on proving that while every premise might be true, the conclusion can still be false. If the premises are true then the argument is stronger as well, and you want to be examining the strongest possible version of what they’re saying.

This isn’t easy. In conversation and even in essays, it’s easy to get carried away with emotions and to look at arguments uncharitably, making arguments look worse than they are. And like critical thinking, it’s the kind of thing that no one is best at, but it’s also the kind of thing that gets easier with practice, and it’s worth practicing. It’s true that other people aren’t going to be as charitable, or even charitable at all, inventing versions of your argument that you would never endorse and addressing those. But that just emphasizes the importance of charity in discussion. Remind yourself that they’re people who have as much investment in their argument as you do in yours, and treat them with courtesy.

One way of understanding why being charitable is important hearkens back to Wednesday’s post on the categorical imperative. Kant says that you should only do something if you could will that it were a universal law. Well, imagine the consequences if everyone were uncharitable in argument. If we didn’t listen, and interpreted people’s arguments the way we wanted to hear them rather than granting their premises and engaging with the argument they’re actually making. It would be impossible to have a genuine discussion, and the very practice of making arguments would become meaningless. Being charitable on the other hand, is perfectly universalizable. Even if not everyone does it, we can recognize that they ought to because it raises the quality of the discussion and helps us get things done.

Charity starts with listening. Listen actively, as if you were translating their words into premises and conclusions, and make sure you’re getting the full picture of their argument. Think about how it would work if all the premises were true. Remind yourself that they’re a person too, and remember that not everyone speaks in full, valid arguments, so cut them some slack. If they’re charitable, they’ll cut you some too. The principle of charity should help make sure that arguments are something you make, and not something you have.

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