Charity



A powerful critical-thinking technique, one that plays a vital role in translating real-world language into statements that can play a role in the logic-checking process, is called the Principle of Charity.


Whenever I introduce people to the Principle of Charity, I draw on this succinct explanation from philosopher Nigel Warburton:


In a debate about animal welfare, a speaker might state that all animals should be given equal rights. One response to this would be that that would be absurd, because it would be nonsensical, for example, to give giraffes the right to vote and own property since they would not understand either concept. A more charitable approach would be to interpret the claim “All animals should have equal rights” as being a shorthand for “All animals should have equal rights of protection from harm” and then to address that.

At first glance, this might just seem to be a restatement of principles regarding accurate translation mentioned last time. But the Principle of Charity is more than just a call for honest translation. Rather, it asks you to engage in the strongest version of someone else’s argument, rather than debate a weaker version created through uncharitable translation.


A controversy that hit in time for the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses provides an excellent example of how the Charity Principle can keep us from letting our thinking go astray.


Right before the debate, CNN (which also moderated the event) ran a story about a 2018 conversation between Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, before they became rivals for the Democratic nomination, in which Sanders was alleged to have told Warren he did not believe a woman could win the presidency. This claim generated considerable heat before, during and after the debate with each candidate given the opportunity to air their interpretation of the conversation.


Here I should point out that, in their exchanges, the candidates differed on whether Senator Sanders had even made such a statement in the first place. There have also been assertions that the entire controversy was a set up by the Warren campaign to make their candidate’s primary rival for the progressive vote look bad by implying sexism on his part.


While it is certainly worth investigating the truth behind each candidate’s claims, the Principle of Charity allows us to obtain perspective by asking whether Sanders’ alleged statement - even if true - is the least bit controversial.


A statement questioning whether a woman can win the presidency can be interpreted in any number of ways. For example, it could imply:


  • Women have more difficulty than men when they run for the presidency due to different expectations of what men and woman are allowed to do and say.

  • The American people might not be ready to vote for a woman, regardless of her superior qualifications.

  • Woman are inherently incapable of winning the presidency due to flaws inherent in being female.


People are free to interpret a statement on whether or not a woman can win the presidency in any of these ways (and several others). Sticking with just these three however, the first two translations are not only more charitable than the third, they are also more in line with what someone with Sanders’ background would likely mean if he was handicapping a woman’s chance of winning the Oval Office.


Now it may turn out that he never said those words in the first place. But if he did, there are any number of ways we could interpret them that do not imply the candidate is sexist or denigrating women in any way.


By asking us to not just pick but prefer a more charitable (and, in this case, more likely) interpretation, the Charity Principles saves us from having to take seriously a “controversy” no more controversial than any number of conversations many of us have had since women began competing for high office.


We’ll be returning to the subject of charitable translation throughout the year. But before leaving the topic, keep in mind that the Principle of Charity does not require you to be open minded to all ideas all the time. One need not apply it to claims regarding perpetual motion machines, crank race or conspiracy theories, for example.


That said, many problems we see in our political discourse arise from treating any opinion we don’t like as the equivalent of those outlandish and false ideas. Taking a more charitable approach would allow us to better understand what people are saying and strengthen our reasoning skills by arguing against the actual arguments people make, rather than uncharitable parodies of them.

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