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.
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.
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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