Whatever Happened to the Principle of Charity? It’s an essential part of your mental toolbox

A quick look at the comments section of some of today’s most popular websites and plat­forms is enough to have you believe that human civi­liza­tion has descended into a cesspool of vulgarity, disre­spect, self-right­eous­ness, callous super­fi­ciality and unapolo­getic igno­rance. Another quick look at what’s being said and done in some of the halls of power around the world won’t boost your spirits either. These are trou­bling times.

One of the key tenets that seems to have fallen by the wayside in many quar­ters is what philoso­phers call the prin­ciple of charity. This is a note­worthy and useful concept that deserves to be democ­ra­tized beyond the realm of acad­emia and that should be in everyone’s mental toolbox.

What Is Charity?

In this context, the word charity does not refer to good causes or phil­an­thropy. Instead, the philo­soph­ical prin­ciple of charity applies when you engaged in a debate with someone. It dictates that you should always be “char­i­table” and assume that your oppo­nent is rational and well-inten­tioned, and that you should consider the best and strongest possible inter­pre­ta­tion of their argu­ments and posi­tion.

Let’s put that in prac­tice. Assume that there’s a box on the table. Mr. Moose ables by and asks what’s in the box.

I think there’s a bird in the box,” says Mr. Cat, “because I can hear chirping.”

Mr. Dog replies, “I think there is a paper airplane in the box. It is very light and I can feel an object sliding inside.”

In this situ­a­tion, according to the prin­ciple of charity, Mr. Cat and Mr. Dog are not allowed to defend their posi­tion by telling Mr. Moose things like “Don’t listen to him, he’s an idiot” or “I don’t believe he even lifted up the box” or “He hates paper airplanes” or “He’s a liar; the box is prob­ably heavy”.

Instead, Mr. Dog should assume that Mr. Cat did indeed hear a chirping sound; and Mr. Cat should assume that Mr. Dog did test the weight of the box and find it to be light. In general, both of them would do well to consider the other’s posi­tion seri­ously and assess it on its actual merits.

As it turns out, all of this piqued Mr. Moose’s curiosity and he decided to open the box. These was a white rose inside, and they soon discov­ered a robin singing on the floor under the table. A paper airplane was nowhere to be found.

As an aside: this also illus­trates an all-too-common pitfall among people and factions that fiercely oppose each other over some contentious issue. The temp­ta­tion is always there to think that as they are irrec­on­cil­ably divided over this topic, only one or the other can be right. But there is always a third option, which more often than not turns out to be the truth: both sides are wrong.

Hence the prin­ciple of charity. If both sides of a debate adhere to it, that levels the playing field for a true exchange of ideas, instead of a battle of opin­ions.

Facts Matter

Unfortunately, an avalanche of opin­ions is exactly what seems to be fueling those vitri­olic online blogs and “discus­sions”. But opin­ions are not facts—although that distinc­tion seems to have become all but irrel­e­vant in this age of so-called alter­na­tive facts, alleged fake news and self-professed skep­tics who are actu­ally true believers and who can’t wait to tell you all about the supposed hidden truths “they” don’t want you to know about.

Let’s not kid ourselves. This is nothing new, to some extent. Opinions have been bandied about ever since our brains evolved the ability to produce them. And opin­ions have always had an edge over facts in that they are free, can be formed (and even reversed) instantly, and are easy to load with an emotional charge, which makes them very persua­sive. Facts by contrast are harder to uncover, take time to estab­lish, and have the annoying habit of sticking around even if they turn out to be incon­ve­nient to you.

No wonder then that opin­ions are mind candy. The problem is that the mental sugar rush they deliver only lasts so long. The healthy mind vegeta­bles provided by facts will sustain you much longer, but they don’t taste as nice. Or rather, they’re an acquired taste. And it’s all too easy to mistake one’s own opin­ions for facts. If you eat a box of choco­lates, your tummy feels like you’ve had a meal—but you haven’t.

Us v Them

To some extent, the prin­ciple of charity is a brainy, souped-up version of the basic school­yard play rules of child­hood. Be nice. Don’t get into fights. Help others when you can. Say please and thank you. Be respectful.

But as we know from those very same school­yards, such rules are put in place because they are not what comes natu­rally. Left to our own devices, we grav­i­tate towards behav­iors that serve mostly to look out for number one, or at best to strengthen our posi­tion in the safety of a clan. Anyone who does not belong to that clan is not Us, but Them. The boys and the girls, the nerds and the jocks, the rebels and the bour­geois, the believers and the pagans—never the twain shall meet.

Such distinc­tions of “usness” and “other­ness” are based on prin­ci­ples of member­ship or enti­tle­ment, and are there­fore arti­fi­cial. But just like opin­ions, they are mind candy.

Dismissing someone’s ideas simply because she doesn’t say what “we” always say is a quick ride down a water slide into a fun-filled pool of confir­ma­tion bias. On the other hand, acknowl­edging that some­thing “they” say might in fact be right and exploring that idea without precon­cep­tions is a long climb up an uncom­fort­able ladder. The point is, of course, that the view from up there can be absolutely spec­tac­ular.

Charity Tripled

The prin­ciple of charity, then, may well apply on multiple levels at once.

First, when responding to someone’s ideas, don’t dismiss them out of hand because that person is not part of your version of Us. The fact you don’t recog­nize someone as a member of your clan doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Remember that in the end, we all play for Team Sapiens.

Second, respond to the facts in their argu­ment as facts, and with facts. Don’t dismiss them as “just an opinion” because they are outside your intel­lec­tual comfort zone, and don’t offer up your own opin­ions as coun­terev­i­dence. We can agree to disagree on our respec­tive points of view, but facts should be supported by objec­tive evidence.

Third, engage with their ideas ratio­nally and address the strongest points in their argu­ment, not the weakest. Which brings us back to the orig­inal philo­soph­ical prin­ciple of charity we started out with. It’s the differ­ence between a teacher saying, “You’ve applied the correct method­ology and your calcu­la­tions are almost flaw­less, so you pass the test,” or instead saying, “You’ve made two small errors of subtrac­tion, here and there, so you fail the test.”

Being intel­lec­tu­ally char­i­table is not just about the rules of engage­ment; it’s also about being a decent human being. Just ask Mr. Dog and Mr. Cat.

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Image credit: Krista Mangulsone (adapted from source)

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