Useful Concepts – #15 – The Principle of Charity

There’s a useful concept which I know from literature about philosophy that could be put to greater use in a lot of current political debate and in most discussions that are taking place on social media. It’s called the principle of charity. It has nothing to do with giving to worthy causes and everything to do with the way we argue or communicate.

Philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse defines it in the following way:

“The principle of charity, roughly, requires that we try to find the best – the most reasonable or plausible – (rather than the worst) possible interpretation of what we read and hear, i. e. of what other people say.”

She argues that this is in fact a common feature of everyday language use. She gives an example of an 85 year old aunt who tends to muddle up names. So she talks about how her grandson Jack came to visit her, when in fact her grandson’s name is Jason. Jack is the aunt’s late husband. In talking to her we don’t interpret her as making crazy claims about a dead person. We fairly easily understand that she is in fact talking about Jason.

This sort of example, according to Hursthouse, “is important because our capacity to communicate with each other – the very possibility of language – rests on our willingness to aim to interpret what others say as, if not true, at leat reasonable rather than barmy.”

In philosophy, the principle demands, e. g.:

  • that when a writer seems to be contradicting himself or herself, we look out for whether he or she didn’t in fact just advance the strongest possible counter-argument to what he or she was arguing, playing devil’s advocate against his or her own argument, in order to prepare the ground for showing that he or she can meet the objection.
  • that, if a writer seems, at first glance, to be relying on a false premise, rather than pounce on it and accuse him or her of a logical mistake, we look for the interpretation of the premise that makes the argument at least plausible, one that might plausibly hold and support the conclusion of the writer.
  • that, if a writer seems to be drawing recklessly broad conclusions for which there are easy counter-examples, we try to find an interpretation of the conclusion that makes it at least plausible.

And so on. You get the gist.

That doesn’t mean we can’t argue with anything that anyone has ever written on the grounds that somehow they must be right. It just means that we should do the mental work that is required to read the writing of others in the best possible light before critiquing it.

Of course we need to read critically, keeping an eye on mistakes, but the search for the truth advances best, if we don’t just criticise things that are obviously wrong at the surface, but instead aim to uncover the real problems in an argument at a deeper level.

Weak criticism, as Hursthouse says, is roughly speaking, “one that the writer could have easily escaped by modest changes to what she said – changes which, in being modest, do not affect the main thrust of her argument.”

So the point is not necessarily that we always let the other person be right. But that our critique of someone else’s point of view is much more effective when we first help them make the strongest case they have.

And if in the process of applying the principle of charity we realise that there was more that is right in the argument we’re critiquing that we thought, and maybe more wrong with our previously held views, we can always go with Socrates’ thought that in an argument, the person who turns out to be wrong really wins because he learns something new.