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The Principle of Charity

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7/12/2014 3:08:27 PM
Posted: 3 years ago
Whenever I see a hot conflict brewing in the forums, it's usually the case that such a conflict began out of miscommunication. To be fair, some people are better communicators than others, which is the reason that precise reconstruction of an argument's logic is tough to do... but that does not mean that we shouldn't try to understand exactly what someone said before responding to it -either with agreement or disagreement.

When reading stuff that people have said, what often happens (and what I've seen happen with several members who called Bladeruner a liar) is that they took an aspect of something he said, ignored other salient details and created a lot of problems for themselves and the forum as a result. Most of this has to do with those members lack of personal maturity, but they're not always the only ones.

This dude from Cal State said it pretty well:

A good rational reconstruction almost always end up being a compromise between what the reasoner actually said and what would make the most sense from a logical point of view. A good rational reconstruction will not compromise the original reasoning, but it will often reformulate what a person said in clearer, more logically satisfying way. When we proceed in this manner we are following the Principle of Charity in Interpretation. You can think of this as a kind of logical Golden Rule: Interpret unto others as you would have them interpret unto you. Of course this formulation works only for people who always want to be interpreted from a logical point of view, and few do. So our Principle of Charity is better stated: Always interpret the reasoning of others so that it makes the most sense from a logical point of view.

There are a couple of ways to totally fail at this too:

The nice thing about the process of rational reconstruction is that the principle of charity is built right into it. Everything you have learned so far: the discernment of rationales, the distinction between argument and explanation, the judicious interpretation of reasons and conclusions, and the careful articulation and attribution of principles is what the principle of charity is all about. By contrast, people who don't know how to do rational reconstruction, or who don't have the patience for it, will often base their assessments of reasoning on uncharitable interpretations. This is a common interpretive error, and is traditionally characterized metaphorically as "creating a straw man."

A non metaphorical straw man is otherwise known as a scarecrow. A scarecrow scares crows because most crows are dumb enough to think that it is a real man. Similarly, a logical straw man is a dumbed down interpretation of what someone has said. But, like a scarecrow, it is similar enough to the real thing that uneducated, uninformed, and inattentive people won't notice. So, just like one of the brighter crows might win the admiration of his comrades by pecking the eyes off of a scarecrow, someone who traffics in straw man interpretations can appear to be refuting someone's reasoning, when he is really just misrepresenting it.


Ad Hominem (Attempting to credit or discredit reasoning by calling attention to the character, actions or personal circumstances of those who accept it rather than examining the reasoning itself.)

One of the most important things you learn as a result of training in rational reconstruction is the distinction between what someone says and what someone is. For example, if Conrad were to reason as follows:

Oh my God, I really think Mr. Simpkins is planning to kill me. I just saw him in the pawn shop looking at a pistol, and he gave me this really creepy look. Do you think he found out that I'm the one who called the Neighborhood Action Committee about not cleaning up after his dog?

You would recognize this as an argument for the conclusion that Simpkins is planning to kill Conrad together with an explanation of why Simpkins is planning to kill Conrad. Of course, upon hearing Conrad reason in this way you might conclude that Conrad is paranoid, but that would be your conclusion, not Conrad's. In other words, the statement that Conrad is paranoid would not show up in the rationales that attribute to him. The inability to separate a reasoner from her reasoning is responsible for a lot of uncharitable interpretation, as well as a lot of misguided criticism.

Said another way, "The Principle of Charity is a methodological presumption made in seeking to understand a point of view whereby we seek to understand that view in its strongest, most persuasive form before subjecting the view to evaluation...The principle of charity is a methodological principle"ideas can be critiqued after an adequate understanding is achieved. The original presumption of setting aside our own beliefs and assuming the new ideas are true is only a provisional presumption....Refinements of the principle of charity in philosophy include the principle of rational accommodation whereby we attempt to maximize truth and the principle of humanity where we attempt to maximize intelligibility."