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Ethics Explainer: The Principle of Charity

by The Ethics Centre
10 March 2017
EXPLAINER
The principle of charity suggests we should try to understand ideas before criticising them. Arguments should aim at finding the truth, not winning the fight. This means we should be charitable to people we’re in conversation with by trying to find as much sense in their thinking as we can.

The basic idea behind the principle of charity is we assume the people we're debating are intelligent and unlikely to be advancing stupid or illogical ideas. When a charitable listener hears something that doesn’t make sense to them, they will try and work out what is really meant.

Almost everyone takes shortcuts when making arguments. Sometimes we assume people understand us better than they actually do. Maybe we don’t include all of the premises of our argument and make it hard for others to know why we believe what we believe. These and other shortcuts can be an obstacle to productive debate.

For instance, someone might say they support same-sex marriage because "all kinds of love should be treated the same". Taken literally, this is obviously false. We shouldn't treat the love a stalker shows to their victim the same way we treat the love a close romantic couple share. They’ve taken a shortcut that affects how their argument could be interpreted.

For a discussion to be successful, we need to do our best to understand what a person means rather than what they explicitly say. Returning to our example, using the principle of charity, we would interpret this argument as saying "all kinds of love between consenting adults should be treated the same".

There are a few advantages to using the principle of charity. First, we show respect to our opponents as thinkers and as people. We don't assume we're smarter than them at the outset. Instead, we use arguments as an opportunity to learn.

Second, we give ourselves the chance to hone important ethical skills. We exercise imagination and empathy to understand someone else's view before going on the attack.

Some people might think the principle of charity is another argument for allowing intolerable views to survive unchallenged. This isn't the case. Charity is only the first step in an argument. First we listen and only then do we respond. Our response is more likely to be convincing because we've taken the opposing argument seriously.

The opposite of the principle of charity is the straw man. This happens when we intentionally misrepresent our opponent’s position to argue against something we can easily defeat. Just like it would be easier to defeat a straw man than a real person, it's easier to defeat a bad argument we've created than someone’s actual position. Unfortunately for those who use it, it’s also a logical fallacy.

Winning an argument against a straw man achieves nothing. It might make us feel clever but it doesn't help anybody's thinking or understanding. By contrast, charity reminds us in any debate we're trying to find the truth, not win the argument.


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