The Principle of Charity (2)

by Charles Miller on October 20, 2009

The Principle of Charity is a rule of debate that states you should always address the strongest possible form of your opponent's argument.

I've touched on this before.

Say you're arguing with someone and there is a flaw in their reasoning, but you also know that their argument could be reformulated to avoid that flaw. If you attack their argument as is, you'll either win a hollow victory with an argument that you know is faulty or you'll just prolong the debate as your opponent makes the obvious adjustment. It's the kind of thing you do when you're more interested in scoring cheap debating points than actually advancing the sum total of human understanding.

Not that there isn't a time and place for scoring cheap debating points.

Beyond straight argument, the principle of charity can provide a nice set of assumptions that help streamline interactions with other human beings.

  1. Assume intelligence. The person you are talking to has a brain, and knows how to use it.
  2. Assume honesty. The person you are talking to honestly believes what they are saying.
  3. Assume diligence. The person you are talking to, when given a task, will approach it with rigour and attempt to complete it to the best of their ability.

You could be wrong on any of these, that's why they're called assumptions. Ultimately, however, you're better off assuming the best and then adjusting your behaviour if you are proven wrong than you are starting off believing people are stupid, dishonest and lazy.

A very simple example. Someone else is working on a problem, and I think of a very simple solution. Do I walk over and ask “Did you think of X?”

If I do, I've just violated assumptions 1 and 3. If I could think of a simple solution, then someone else who is both intelligent and already diligently working on the problem is likely to have already thought of that answer and discarded it for some reason. Chances are I'm not even the first outsider to have suggested it.

If I rephrase the question as “So why didn’t you go with X?”, I’ve gone from assuming ignorance on their part to assuming I'm the one missing something. If X turns out to be something they didn’t think of after all, it’s a surprise for us both, and I sound a lot less condescending.

Now all I have to do is remember this sort of thing in practice.

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