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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 you’re 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 world’s substantial food supplies so that the poor get plenty.”

Here is an uncharitable way to evaluate the argument: the first premise is false. We haven’t managed to land somebody on Mars. Since it has a false premise, the argument couldn’t be either sound nor cogent. So it’s a bad argument. Game over.

That’s 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 world’s 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 McDonald’s, so Quinn doesn’t care about the environment.

There’s obviously a suppressed premise here. And that premise would be linking Quinn eating at McDonald’s 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 arguer’s 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 shouldn’t 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, here’s a candidate for a suppressed premise:


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 McDonald’s. 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 McDonald’s once in a while.

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

Here’s a more charitable option:


First, I made the choice to treat the argument as non-deductive. Although there isn’t 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 doesn’t care about he environment based on the fact that Quinn eats regularly at McDonald’s. 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 McDonald’s, 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? I’ll leave this for you to decide.

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

Here’s 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 it’s 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. Here’s one:


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 doesn’t guarantee that it’s 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, it’s 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:


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 that’s 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 can’t 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. You’ll have to work harder to show that their argument is bad, but you’ll do better work!

Why be so nice?

There’s got to be a limit to this, of course. You don’t want to turn some drongo into Einstein. So there’s a limit to what you’re prepared to put into their arguments. You’re trying to work out what their argument is, not what the best possible argument for the position they’re 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 you’ll benefit from giving it a strong interpretation.

But more importantly – especially if you don’t believe the conclusion – you are better off attacking a stronger version of the argument. If you’re in a debate with someone and you attack a version of their argument which isn’t as strong as it could be, the person will just say: “That wasn’t what I meant. You’re not attacking my actual argument, you’re caricaturing my argument.” So you won’t have got anywhere.

This, by the way, is related to what we call the Strawman fallacy, which consists of distorting or misinterpreting someone’s 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 what’s wrong with the strawman strategy from our point of view is that it isn’t truth conducive. It doesn’t 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 opponent’s argument is false, then you’ve 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 they’ve noticed. And so I’m 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 don’t, of course.

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

Then you’ve really shown something, namely that the best version of the argument won’t work. Showing that a hopeless version is bad, let alone a version that’s not even as good as the one they’ve advanced, doesn’t help.

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

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