The Principle of Charity: On the Importance of Using Constructive Arguments

 

The principle of charity is a philosophical principle which denotes that, when interpreting someone’s statement, you should assume that the best possible interpretation of that statement is the one that the speaker meant to convey. Accordingly, when implementing the principle of charity, you should not attribute falsehoods, logical fallacies, or irrationality to people’s argument, when there is a plausible, rational alternative available.

For example, based on the principle of charity, if someone presents you with an argument that can be interpreted in two possible ways, one of which is logically sound and the other of which is fallacious, you should assume that the logically sound interpretation is the one that they meant to convey, as long as it’s reasonable to do so.

Implementing the principle of charity can be beneficial in a wide range of scenarios, since it can help encourage proper dialogue and productive discussions, while also improving your ability to form strong arguments. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the principle of charity, and see how you can implement it in practice, as effectively as possible.

 

Examples of the principle of charity

The following is the classic example used to illustrate the concept of the principle of charity, which is taken from the original paper in which this principle was first proposed:

Let us suppose that somebody (whom I am calling “Charles”) makes just the following five assertions containing the name “Caesar.” Let us suppose in addition that we know the significance which Charles attaches to expressions other than “Caesar” and that, in the beginning at least, we are ignorant of Roman history.

(1) Caesar conquered Gaul.

(2) Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

(3) Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March.

(4) Caesar was addicted to the use of the ablative absolute.

(5) Caesar was married to Boadicea.

… our problem is to determine the significance of the name “Caesar” as used in Charles’ language… We have Charles’ five assertions. We now conduct an empirical investigation, examining all the individuals in the universe.

We might suppose that Charles intends the word “Caesar” to signify or designate Prasutagus (who, as every schoolboy knows, is the husband of Boadicea). On this supposition (5) could be called true and all the rest would have to be called false. Or we might suppose that “Caesar” signifies the historical Julius Caesar, in which case (1)-(4) could be called true and (5) would have to be called false…

And so we act on what might be called the Principle of Charity. We select as designatum that individual which will make the largest possible number of Charles’ statements true. In this case it is the individual, Julius Caesar. We might say the designatum is that individual which satisfies more of the asserted matrices containing the word “Caesar” than does any other individual.

— From ‘Substances without Substrata‘, by Neil L. Wilson, in The Review of Metaphysics (1959). [The quote has been slightly trimmed for brevity.]

This example demonstrates a simple use of the principle of charity: when someone’s statement includes a name that could potentially refer to multiple different people, we should assume that it’s referring to the person who makes the most sense within the context of the statement.

This also demonstrates how we intuitively use the principle of charity when interpreting natural language. Another example of how we do this has to do with how we interpret statements that are figurative versus those that are literal, as in the case of the following statement:

“I have butterflies in my stomach.”

Because the literal interpretation of this statement is highly implausible, this statement is clearly supposed to be interpreted figuratively, as a metaphor which is meant to convey that the speaker feels excited. In this case, because the uncharitable interpretation is so unlikely, it’s relatively intuitive to implement the principle of charity and pick the charitable interpretation, and we usually do this repeatedly throughout our day when we need to interpret similar statements.

Finally, when it comes to how the principle of charity can be applied when it comes to general argumentation and rhetoric, consider the following example:

“If we managed to get people to fly all across the world, then we should easily be able to find a solution to this problem.”

An uncharitable interpretation of this statement might revolve around the fact that we technically didn’t get people to fly across the world; rather, we built flying machines such as airplanes, which people use in order to travel.

Conversely, the charitable interpretation in this case would acknowledge the fact that this statement likely refers to the fact that we, as a society, managed to find ways for people to fly across the world, using tools that we built. Furthermore, such a charitable interpretation might go even further, and focus on the underlying meaning behind this statement, by acknowledging that it’s simply meant to exemplify how much progress we’ve managed to make when it comes to solving complex technical problems.

Note that even if the original statement is fallacious or problematic overall, it can still be more productive to implement the principle of charity. For example, consider the following version of the earlier statement:

“If we managed to get people to fly all across the world, then we should easily be able to find a cure for cancer.”

Despite the fact that there are many issues involved with this statement, there is still a notable difference between its uncharitable interpretation, which nit-picks on a minor issue with what is meant by “managed to get people to fly all across the world”, and its charitable interpretation, which focuses on the main point that this argument is trying to make (i.e. that we’ve solved complex technical problems in the past, so we should be able to solve this complex technical problem in the present).

Note: an argument that is formed after taking the principle of charity into account is sometimes referred to as an argument from charitable interpretation or an argument from interpretive charity.

 

The benefits of implementing the principle of charity

While you can choose to abide by the principle of charity simply because you believe it’s the right thing to do from a moral perspective, which is valuable in and of itself, implementing this principle also offers some notable practical benefits.

First, implementing the principle of charity can make you better at understanding others. Specifically, by considering the different possible interpretations of what other people are saying, and learning to identify the best possible interpretation, you will become better at figuring out what people are trying to say.

Second, implementing the principle of charity improves your ability to construct your own arguments. This is because even though it’s important to know how to notice and counter logical fallacies and other issues in people’s statements, focusing only on these issues can often become a crutch, which prevents you from working to improve your own arguments. Accordingly, by ensuring that you don’t focus only on these issues, you help yourself learn how to improve and develop your reasoning and argumentation abilities.

Third, implementing the principle of charity encourages others to talk to you. People will generally prefer to talk to someone who is making a genuine effort to truly understand what they are trying to say, rather to someone who is only trying to identify issues in their statements in order to “beat” their arguments and “win” the discussion.

Finally, implementing the principle of charity makes people more willing to listen to what you have to say. People are generally more willing to listen to you when you try to address the best possible interpretation of their argument, compared to when you address worse interpretations of it while focusing unnecessarily on minor issues.

 

How to implement the principle of charity

As we saw so far, in order to implement the principle of charity, you should assume the best possible interpretation of other people’s arguments. This means that if it’s possible to interpret a statement in more than one way, you should generally assume that the speaker’s intended interpretation was the most rational and cogent interpretation out of the available options.

Below, you will see some further tips and guidelines on the topic, which will show you how to implement the principle of charity as effectively as possible.

 

Extend the principle of charity to minor issues in people’s statements

One of the best and simplest ways in which the principle of charity can be implemented is by choosing to ignore minor issues with your opponent’s argument, when those issues are not crucial to the main point that they are trying to make.

For example, if someone that you’re talking to has just presented an in-depth and well-thought argument, which contains a minor fallacy that has no bearing on the core of their argument, it will generally be preferable to ignore that issue, and focus primarily on the main point that they are trying to make instead.

Note that, in this context, whether an issue is minor or major is determined primarily based on how important it is to the care of the argument, rather than how much “space” it takes in the argument.

For example, a long argument might contain a single fallacious sentence that is crucial to its core message, and should therefore be addressed, and at the same time also contain several paragraphs that aren’t important to its core message, and could therefore be ignored.

Overall, the value of implementing the principle of charity in this manner is illustrated well in the following quote:

“All great historical and philosophical arguments have probably been fallacious in some respect. But it is unlikely that any extended argument has ever actually been fallacious in all respects. Complex theses are great chains of reasoning. The fact that one link in the chain is imperfect does not mean that other links are necessarily faulty, too. If the argument is a single chain, and one link fails, then the chain itself fails with it. But most historians’ arguments are not single chains. They are rather like a kind of chain mail which can fail in some part and still retain its shape and function. If the chain mail fails at a vital point, woe unto the man who is inside it. But not all points are vital points.”

— Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought

 

Extend the principle of charity to people’s intentions

A concept that is related to the principle of charity is Hanlon’s razor, which suggests that you should not attribute to malice to actions which can be explained by other causes, such as a misunderstanding of the topic at hand.

You can integrate Hanlon’s razor into the principle of charity, so that in cases where it’s clear that there is in fact an issue with the another person’s argument, you should assume that this is unintentional on their part, as long as it’s reasonable to do so. This means that, whenever possible, you should give people the benefit of the doubt, and attribute issues in their arguments to a misunderstanding on their part or to a similar issues, rather than to a malicious intent to deceive.

 

Consider using a structured approach in your argument

When it comes to implementing the principle of charity in debates and rhetoric, consider using the following approach for composing a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

From “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking” by philosopher Daniel Dennett, who attributes this approach to rules that were initially outlined by psychologist Anatol Rapoport

By doing this, you are essentially creating a steelman argument, which is an improved version of your opponent’s argument. This is the opposite of a strawman argument, which involves distorting your opponent’s views in order to make it easier to attack.

 

Remember that your charitable interpretation might be wrong

When implementing the principle of charity, it’s important to remember that what you perceive as the best possible interpretation of someone’s statement might not be what the other person believes is the best interpretation of their statement. Specifically, there are several issues that might arise, and cause you to pick the incorrect interpretation for someone’s statement:

  • The other person might be irrational in some way, which could cause them to prefer an interpretation other than the best possible interpretation of their statement.
  • Your own assessment might be flawed in some way, which could cause you to prefer an interpretation other than the best possible interpretation of the original statement. This can happen, for example, because you yourself are irrational, or because you aren’t aware of important information that the speaker has.
  • You and the other person might hold different but valid viewpoints or values, which could cause you to view different interpretations of the original statement as being the best possible interpretation.

As such, when implementing the principle of charity, you should make sure that you’re not misinterpreting the speaker and making up something that they didn’t mean at all, because it’s important to address their actual stance, even if it’s flawed in some way.

 

Apply the principle of charity with common sense

As with other philosophical principles, the principles of charity must be applied with common sense, in order to avoid most potential issues which can occur as a result of its application.

Specifically, this means that should always assess the situation before deciding how to interpret someone else’s statement, and that you should assume the best possible interpretation of other people’s argument only as long as it’s reasonable and productive to do so. For example, if you’re debating someone, and they present an argument that they clearly know is fallacious, it might be preferable to simply address the issues with their argument, rather than trying to identify a rational interpretation for it.

This is especially important when it’s clear that someone is arguing in bad faith, meaning that they’re intentionally using arguments that are flawed in some major way. However, this is also important in cases where someone is unintentionally using flawed arguments, since failing to acknowledge their actual stance in such cases could hinder the dialogue.

 

How to react when your opponent isn’t being charitable

In many cases, your opponent in a debate might be uncharitable when interpreting your statements, either intentionally or unintentionally. When this happens, the main thing you should do is clarify your original stance, and drive the discussion back to the point that you were trying to make.

Furthermore, in some cases, and especially if you feel that the other person has seriously misinterpreted your statements, it can be beneficial to also point out the difference between your intended interpretation and your opponent’s chosen interpretation, and possibly to also ask the other person about it.

If there was a genuine issue with the way in which you phrased your original argument, this could help you identify and understand it. Conversely, if the difference in interpretation occurred as a result of an issue with the other person’s reasoning or argumentation process, this can help draw their attention to it, if they acted unintentionally, or it could help call them out on it, if they acted intentionally.

Finally, note that in some cases, when someone identifies a valid issue with an argument that you made, it can be tempting to invoke the principle of charity, and claim that what you said was meant to be interpreted in a different, better way. However, there are two issues with applying the principle of charity to your own statements in this manner:

  • It can prevent you from recognizing areas where your argument could have been phrased better.
  • It can prevent you from internalizing the existence of meaningful issues with your argument.

As such, if someone interprets your statements in a way that you believe is uncharitable, you should try to honestly assess the situation and your original arguments before calling them out on it, and make sure that you’re not invoking the principle of charity simply to avoid acknowledging issues with your argument.

In many cases, owning up to your mistake and modifying your stance and arguments accordingly can be the most productive way to react in the discussion, and the best way for you to learn from your mistakes and move forward.

 

Related concepts

Alternative formulations of the principle of charity

Though the principle of charity in its current formulation was proposed in a 1959 philosophy paper as we saw above, alternative formulations of similar concepts have been proposed throughout history. For example, one ancient formulation of the principle of charity is the following:

“A person does not say things for naught.” [“אין אדם מוציא דבריו בבטלה”]

— Attributed to Rabbi Meir (a Jewish sage), in Arakhin 5a (published in the early 3rd century CE)

This statement suggests that if a person says something, then there must be a rational reason for it, which should be taken into account when interpreting people’s statements.

Furthermore, similar sentiments have also been proposed and discussed in various forms by a number of modern philosophers, such as Donald Davidson, Willard Van Orman Quine, and Colin McGinn.

 

The principle of charity in language

As we saw earlier, we intuitively implement the principle of charity when it comes to understanding the language used by others. For example, if someone were to say “this weighs a ton” while lifting something, the principle of charity denotes that we should interpret their statement as figurative, meaning that they want to signify that whatever they are lifting is heavy, since interpreting it in a literal sense would likely mean that when they’re saying is false.

Interpreting statements in this manner has to do with the cooperative principle, which was proposed by philosopher and linguist Paul Grice. This principle revolves around maxims of conversation, which suggest that, in most cases, when people make a statement, they are trying to be as relevant, truthful, informative, and clear as possible, if they want to be properly understood.

A similar principle (generally called the principle of rational accommodationhas been proposed by philosopher Donald Davidson, who stated that in order to optimize agreement between people, individuals proceed by:

“… assigning truth conditions to alien sentences that make native speakers right as often as plausibly possible, according, of course, to our own view of what is right.”

— From ”Radical Interpretation“, by Donald Davidson (1973).

In this regard, Davidson also discusses two related concepts:

  • The principle of coherence, which “prompts the interpreter to discover a degree of logical consistency in the thought of the speaker”.
  • The principle of correspondence, which “prompts the interpreter to take the speaker to be responding to the same features of the world that he (the interpreter) would be responding to under similar circumstances”.

 

Alternative use of the term ‘principle of charity’

In some cases, the term ‘principle of charity’ is used to refer to the idea that people in a society should practice charity toward others in general, meaning that they should help those who need help, often by donating money or other resources to the poor. For example, when it comes to religion, the term ‘principle of charity’ is sometimes used in order to refer to religious principles which prompt followers of that religion to donate money to charity.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The principle of charity is a philosophical principle which denotes that, when interpreting someone’s statement, you should assume that the best possible interpretation of that statement is the one that the speaker meant to convey.
  • Accordingly, when implementing the principle of charity, you should not attribute falsehoods, logical fallacies, or irrationality to people’s argument, when there is a plausible, rational alternative available.
  • You can extend the principle of charity and use it comes to people’s intentions, so that if there is an issue with someone’s argument, you should give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that the issue is unintentional on their part.
  • Beyond the moral ideal that this principle represents, implementing it also offers practical benefits, since focusing on the best possible interpretation of people’s statements can make you better at understanding them and at constructing your own arguments, while also encouraging other people to talk to you and listen to what you have to say.
  • It’s important to implement the principle of charity with common sense, meaning that you should only assume that someone meant to convey the best possible interpretation of their statement as long as it’s reasonable and productive to do so.