Of all the habits I developed in five years studying philosophy, internalising the principle of charity is among the most important. Few other ideas are as valuable and relevant outside the seminar room. The principle is simple: when considering an argument, we should try to construct it in its strongest and most persuasive form. Indeed, if we can see a way to improve upon an ‘opponent’s’ argument, we have a duty to do so. On the other hand, even if we suspect bad faith or motivated reasoning, we should assume this is not the case and act as though the other person is arguing sincerely.
The core basis of the principle of charity is that philosophical argument is not debating – it is not about winning at all costs. Rather (on the most idealistic view), in some sense we are all on the same team, in a shared effort to get at the truth. Therefore, it makes no sense to waste time with anything but the best version of an argument, so you can give it its fairest possible hearing before you decide whether to accept it or not. Other people’s motives are irrelevant – all that matters is the strength of their arguments.
Meanwhile, outside in the real world, ‘post-truth’ was widely held to be 2016’s ‘word of the year’, with ‘fake news’ not far behind it. I worry about the ubiquity of these concepts, not just because of the worrying trends they describe, but also because of the cynicism they express and help to spread. Dismissing someone’s view as ‘post-truth’ is a cop out that means you don’t have to engage with it – they are fundamentally irrational. ‘Fake news’ is an easy scapegoat for people disagreeing with you – they are just misinformed.
These are just the latest in a series of ideas that make it easier for us to discredit arguments we don’t like. Jonathan Haidt’s notion of ‘moral dumfounding’ allows us to assume that other people’s moral and political positions are based on gut instincts without reasoning behind them. The growing popularity of behavioural economics provides us a long list of cognitive biases to diagnose in people we disagree with.
When we become aware of the limitations of thought, reasoning, argument and motivation that surround us, it becomes tempting to use them as shields to defend our positions and to see them everywhere. Doubtless it is true that we all argue with people who are misinformed, irrational, biased and impervious to facts all the time. The key insight of the principle of charity is that we can nonetheless learn from each other, however flawed we all are. Feeling superior can be great, but it doesn’t improve us as individuals or as a society. The ructions of modern politics mean that there are arguments everywhere. Many of them are stupid and pointless. But we should not be blind to the opportunity they present. Insight can come from unexpected places.