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The principle of charity

Simply put, the principle of charity tells you to treat other people as intelligent
people. If you treat people as being intelligent, you will do a better job at
evaluating their arguments.

To illustrate the principle of charity, suppose youre given this argument:

Alex: The human race has managed to land somebody on Mars and split the atom,
therefore, we should be able to do something simpler, like redistributing the
worlds substantial food supplies so that the poor get plenty.

Here is an uncharitable way to evaluate the argument: the first premise is false. We
havent managed to land somebody on Mars. Since it has a false premise, the
argument couldnt be either sound nor cogent. So its a bad argument. Game over.

Thats uncharitable to Alex, because everybody knows that the human race has
managed to land somebody, not on Mars, but on the Moon. Surely Alex also knows
that, and must have made a mistake. Instead of dealing with the argument as if it
was about Mars, do a charitable interpretation in which you make the simple
correction.

And then with this charitable reading, the argument may be a cogent one:

The human race has managed to land somebody on the Moon and split the atom,
therefore, we should be able to do something simpler, like redistributing the
worlds substantial food supplies so that the poor get plenty.

The principle of charity is important when you have suppressed information in


arguments.

Suppose we give you this argument and ask you to evaluate it:

Quinn eats regularly at McDonalds, so Quinn doesnt care about the environment.

Theres obviously a suppressed premise here. And that premise would be linking
Quinn eating at McDonalds and not caring about the environment.
In cases like this in which you have a choice, how do you decide what premise to
add?

You should:

1. Use whatever evidence you can get about the arguers intentions from the
stated premises, conclusion and context.
2. Apply the Principle of Charity:

When faced with an argument which has missing parts, you should reconstruct it in
as charitable a way as possible. If you can avoid it, you shouldnt add premises that
are obviously false - you should add the most plausible premise that will do the job.
And you should add premises which help to link the stated premises to the
conclusion in a logical manner.

Coming back to Quinn, heres a candidate for a suppressed premise:

P1 Quinn eats regularly at McDonald's.


P2 [Anybody who eats regularly at McDonald'sdoesn't care about the
environment.]
Therefore,
C Quinn doesn't care about the environment.

With this premise, the argument is valid, but it is unsound, because the suppressed
premise as formulated here is false. It may very well be that some people care a lot
about the environment, yet have a weakness for McDonalds. Maybe they own an
electric car, and go out of their way to recycle as much as they can, and so on. It
may be that some people care a lot about the environment, but indulge in some
McDonalds once in a while.

Following the instruction above, we should avoid adding a false premise, if we can.

Heres a more charitable option:

P1 Quinn eats regularly at McDonald's.


P2 [Most people who eat regularly at McDonald's don't care about the
environment.]
Therefore, probably
C Quinn doesn't care about the environment.

First, I made the choice to treat the argument as non-deductive. Although there isnt
all that much information as to whether the argument is meant to be deductive or
non-deductive, it seems more charitable to take it as the kind of argument that tries
to provide strong reasons for believing the conclusion, but is not conclusive.

It would be quite hard, if possible at all, to give a valid argument with the
conclusion that Quinn doesnt care about the environment based on the fact that
Quinn eats regularly at McDonalds. Hence, the argument stands a better chance if
we treat it as a non-deductive argument.

To treat the argument as being non-deductive also allows us to use a less ambitious
suppressed premise. Instead of talking about all people, we talk about most people,
making it explicit that we know some people may care about the environment even
though they eat at McDonalds, as per our considerations above.

Furthermore, this suppressed premise stands a better chance of being true, attesting
to our attempt at choosing a suppressed premise which does support the conclusion
without being obviously false.

Now that we have a charitable reconstruction of the argument, what do you think?
Do you think that this is a good argument? Is it cogent? Ill leave this for you to
decide.

The point is that with this suppressed premise, youll have to come up with better
justifications for your judgment. If you succeed, then youll have done a good job
at showing that this is a bad argument, because weve applied the principle of
charity in trying to figure out what its missing part was.

Heres another example, this time with a suppressed conclusion:

There are lots of known cases of discrimination against gay academics that are out
in their work environment. Do you really think that its safe to be out?
What is the conclusion? Here, it is formulated as a rhetorical question. So we need
to reformulate it when writing the standard form of the argument.

We have options again. Heres one:

P1 There are lots of known cases of discrimination against gay academics that
are out in their work environment.
Therefore,
C Its unsafe for all gay academics to be out in their work environment.

But this reformulation of the argument, treating it as being deductive, makes it


invalid. It is actually true that there are known cases of discrimination against gay
academics. A simple Google search will give you some examples.

But this doesnt guarantee that its unsafe for all gay academics to be out in their
work environment. In New Zealand, Canada, most of Europe, and a whole lot of
countries, its actually just fine for gay academics to be out in their work
environment. So that option would make the argument bad.

Can we be more charitable? Try this one:

P1 There are lots of known cases of discrimination against gay academics that
are out in their work environment.
Therefore, probably
C Its unsafe for most gay academics to be out in their work environment.

Now, we treated the argument as being non-deductive, and we gave a conclusion


that is less ambitious, but yet seems to reflect what was intended in the original
argument. The argument might still be a bad argument, and again I leave this for
you to make up your mind about it, but by being charitable, we have formulated the
conclusion in a way that gives it a better chance, and thats our job as critical
thinkers.

Notice that the principle of charity has implications on whether we treat arguments
as being deductive or non-deductive. As a rule of thumb, the principle of charity
tells you to treat arguments as being non-deductive, unless the intention of the
argument is clearly deductive.

In fact, most people do not know the distinction between deductive and non-
deductive arguments, and you will give them a better chance of succeeding in
giving good arguments if you treat them as non-deductive.

Maybe they cant prove to you their claims beyond doubt, however, they may have
reasons that provide strong support. Now that you know the distinction, be
charitable and take arguments to be non-deductive when it benefits the arguer.
Youll have to work harder to show that their argument is bad, but youll do better
work!

Why be so nice?
Theres got to be a limit to this, of course. You dont want to turn some drongo into
Einstein. So theres a limit to what youre prepared to put into their arguments.
Youre trying to work out what their argument is, not what the best possible
argument for the position theyre running is.

Still, there are several reasons to be charitable. For one, if you actually believe the
conclusion of the argument, you want the argument to make a good case for it. If
you like the argument, then youll benefit from giving it a strong interpretation.

But more importantly especially if you dont believe the conclusion you are
better off attacking a stronger version of the argument. If youre in a debate with
someone and you attack a version of their argument which isnt as strong as it
could be, the person will just say: That wasnt what I meant. Youre not attacking
my actual argument, youre caricaturing my argument. So you wont have got
anywhere.

This, by the way, is related to what we call the Strawman fallacy, which consists of
distorting or misinterpreting someones view so that it can easily be attacked.

Now, there is a positive message from the Strawman fallacy. And that is just a note
that whats wrong with the strawman strategy from our point of view is that it isnt
truth conducive. It doesnt move us toward truth, because you just rebut an
argument that probably no one took very seriously.
If you can show that even the best version of your opponents argument is false,
then youve made some progress. Quite often, what you see in a good argument is
an opponent actually improving the position he or she is going to attack.

So you see things which say: so and so gives the following arguments for their
position. There are some pretty obvious problems with it. But I can see how they
would fix them if theyve noticed. And so Im going to fix the arguments for them.
I am also assuming that they would have gone along with these fixes, as they are
intelligent people. Sometimes, they dont, of course.

Then once youve got the argument as good as it can be, bearing in mind, youre
trying to evaluate their argument, not yours, you then say that even when repaired
charitably, the argument is flawed in the following ways.

Then youve really shown something, namely that the best version of the argument
wont work. Showing that a hopeless version is bad, let alone a version thats not
even as good as the one theyve advanced, doesnt help.

Since our interest is in arriving at truth rather than simply winning arguments, then
you should be charitable.