The principle of charity

This is a pretty cliché thing for blogs to say when they’re new. I’m going to say it anyway.

If you watched the Julia Galef TED talk I linked in post #1, you’d know that I think it’s really important to be willing to constantly reevaluate positions on issues, and to maintain epistemic humility about your current position on said issues.

An important area, in real life, to apply that, in my view, is in real life arguments.

In debating, we’re often told to be charitable to our opponents. To say, “the best version of our opponents’ case is X; now I’m going to explain why X is wrong,” often followed by a snide “keep in mind, though, that our opponents didn’t actually make the point this well.” But in debating, it’s really hard to be charitable for a long enough period of time. Debaters tend only to be charitable to the other side to the extent that the judge is likely to be charitable to the other side. It’s very rare to see debaters actually construct the complete, fantastic argument that their opponents should have made and then rebut it.

This is for two reasons.

First, it’s difficult to come up with an argument for the other side that easily. This is a problem I often had in prep time. It’s a common mistake to start off prep time looking at the debate exclusively from the lens of your team, such that, when you’re thinking of arguments from the other side, you’re still subconsciously doing it from the lens of “which arguments should I think of which would help us win the debate” – which means you end up thinking of weak versions of the other side’s case.

Second, even when you do come up with the argument, it’s hard to rebut it. It obviously takes more effort to rebut a well-made version of the argument. It’s much easier to rebut the version made by the other side, even when the other side’s version is weaker, and to mock them about how their version isn’t a good one.

I’m not going to talk about whether it’s good strategy in a debate to be 100% charitable or where that line should be.

However, in a real life argument, we should always be open to changing our own opinions. Winning an argument is a good thing because it reaffirms a previously held position; losing an argument is also a fantastic thing because it forces you to scrutinize your current worldview. Both of these situations help you come closer to the truth.

My position is that you should make the strongest version of your argument and also the strongest version of the argument of the other side, and compare the two. Arguments in real life aren’t about winning. They’re about getting closer to the truth. Therefore, placing a high level of scrutiny on your own arguments and being as charitable as possible to the person you’re arguing against is good.

Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex explains:

“Absurdity is the natural human tendency to dismiss anything you disagree with as so stupid it doesn’t even deserve consideration. In fact, you are virtuous for not considering it, maybe even heroic! You’re refusing to dignify the evil peddlers of bunkum by acknowledging them as legitimate debate partners. Charity is the ability to override that response. To assume that if you don’t understand how someone could possibly believe something as stupid as they do, that this is more likely a failure of understanding on your part than a failure of reason on theirs.”

And that’s all on charity, for now. I hope you have a good day, a day filled with learning new things, even if they contradict things you thought you knew before.

2 Replies to “The principle of charity”

    1. I’m open to being convinced about my opinion on sexual assault. I also acknowledge that I’ve got some bias on the issue, due to my own experience with sexual assault, but I’ll try my best to not let that cloud my judgment.

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