5 The Science of Argument

[Field]If I had to settle for only one philosophical concept to be learned and practiced, it would be the

logical idea of “The Principle of Charity,” by which I mean;


“Interpreting the ideas and statements of others in their strongest form.”


Basically it comes down to how much credit you are willing to give to ideas and positions that

differ from your own. The ‘credit’ here has nothing to do with agreement or disagreement or

tolerance. It is about how you interpret thoughts. For anything that you make meaning of, you

are making an interpretation. There are two possible directions in interpreting:


1) You can interpret their ideas and positions as irrational, logically flawed, and lacking



2) You can interpret their ideas and positions as rational, logically coherent, and based on



Direction 2 is hard to do. Everyday life is full of contrasting and competing ideas. We live in a

world where emotion and volume are often substituted for reason. Interestingly, some people will

also loudly proclaim that they are the voice of reason and truth. There is a simple test for whether

someone is really as reasonable and factual as they claim to be: pay attention to how they

represent the views of their opponents. If they represent opposing positions as plausible, having

logical structure, and connecting to reality in important ways, then they are indeed preceding

rationally. They are employing the Principle of charity.


If they represent opposing positions as unintelligible, illogical, having no factual base or evidence

whatever, then you have a speaker who is promoting their own views by misrepresenting the ideas of others. I’ll bet that you will also observe them attacking the intelligence and character of

people who hold opposing views (this later technique is called Ad Hominem).


Look, it is easy to defeat any statement, argument, or position. All you need do is to interpret it in a weak and counter-factual form. Deliberately doing so is called in Logic “Strawman” because

you set up a false effigy of your opponent, which is easy to knock down. That may go over in

debates and quarrels, though one point remains clear: by defeating a Strawman you are guaranteed to have not refuted the other person’s actual position. Moreover, you have not clarified your own position in relation to the alternatives. When we select only the weakest versions of the positions opposing our own, we also lower our standards for our own thinking.

On the contrary, when we work to form strong interpretation of the thoughts of others, we raise

the standard of our own thinking thereby making our own positions stronger.



Here is a point that I want to be super clear about: The Principle of Charity is not the same as

“Relativism.” There are many types of Relativists and there are some who maintain that

‘everything that everyone believe is true (in some sense); no one is ever wrong or mistaken.’

That is not the position being promoted by The Principle of Charity.


Here is the difference:


Relativism involves conclusive evaluations. That an ‘idea is true’ and a ‘position is correct’ are both conclusive evaluations.


The Principle of Charity does not include conclusive evaluations. It is a matter of analysis. By

employing the Principle of charity I am working to represent all of the positions on an issue in

their strongest forms; their best light. I am looking for what is reasonable and plausible in a

position and idea. That is not the same as declaring it to be true, false, correct, or incorrect. On

the other hand, there are some plausible accounts of Relativism of different kinds and I cannot

rule them out (the sophisticated ones, anyway)!


What I personally think about differences in beliefs and points of view is this; The universe is

immensely complex, humans are incredibly complex. It would in fact be amazing to find a

position or belief held by anyone that is entirely devoid of truth. I do think that there are plenty of

false beliefs and incorrect positions. But I think they are not so because they are entirely and

wholly false or incorrect. There is always some truth (correspondence to reality) in any human

thought, statement, belief, position.


This is just me, but I have a hard time imagining what a 100% false thought would be like.

Falseness, Error, Deception, Untruth, etc. are all dependent in a way on truth. The logically

negative does not have a reality independent from the positive. So (if I am right) we can find

threads of truth in just about any idea or statement. That does not make their major meaning true,

it just makes them a mixture of truth and falsity.


If I am right about this, then political and sophistical efforts to make one’s opponents out to be

100% wrong, false, evil, stupid, etc. are shown up to be unrealistic (uncharitable) versions of the

actual thoughts. Most of not only have beliefs and positions but perceive our own beliefs from

particular points of view. We seldom perceive the whole of our thought, but picture it selectively,

just as we do with the world around us.


This is one reason why it is so valuable to concentrate on the analysis of thoughts before we get

into the business of evaluating. After all, once we have evaluated a thought as false, we have

limited the analysis to only that which confirms our evaluation.


A Philosophical Skill:

Active listening – a communication technique which requires the listener to feed-back what they

understand the speaker to mean by restating key parts in their own words. Active listening has the

following stages:


1) Ask a question to get them started in tell you what they think (in this case on the issue).


2) Listen calmly and carefully, putting your inner critic to the side.


3) At a pause in their telling, tell them; “OK. Here is what I think you are saying, tell me if I have it right.”


4) Re-state their key ideas in paraphrase or different words but conveying the same



5) If they respond that your feedback is not what they meant, then ask them to tell you

again and repeat steps 2, 3, & 4.


6) If they respond that your feedback is in fact what they meant, then ask them to go on.

Repeat the process until they agree that you have a fair and accurate account of their



Please note that successful Active Listening leads to understanding. It does not lead to agreement!


You can understand another person’s thoughts without agreeing with them. This is an important

practical point because some common uses of the word “understanding” also imply some sort of

agreement or tolerance – as if to understand is to allow and accept or at least empathize with. In

logic and philosophy that is not the meaning of “understand.”


Consider the following uses of “understand”:

Do you understand the wave function of quantum physics?

I do not understand the Federal Tax Code which is why I consult an accountant.

Sometimes I do not understand why I feel the way that I do.

I do not understand what George Orwell meant when he wrote “Freedom is Slavery.”

After our conversation I have a better understanding of what your concept of God.

None of these, I think, imply empathy of agreement. What they do imply is that an understanding

of the sort indicated is likely to avoid conflicts that are based solely on misunderstanding. That

happens a lot.


Understanding is a function of analysis. Agreement is a function of evaluation. Put analysis

before evaluation. Doing this is what is meant by “The Principle of Charity” in philosophy.


Perhaps this point will be clearer if the claim is amended to state: Please note that successful

Active Listening leads to comprehension. To “comprehend” is to grasp the meaning of an idea

and to be able to explain that meaning through words and examples.


Try substituting comprehend for understand in the example sentences above (don;t just think about or imagine doing this, actually do it as written or out loud). The way in which

these two words are synonymous is what I an pointing to as the objective of The Principle of



This will come naturally to you as you practice active listening because that practice is all about

hearing and interpreting accurately. The accuracy is measured by whether or not the version that

you end up with is consistent with what the other person meant. If your version of what they

mean and their version of what they mean are in conflict, then you are not comprehending what

they mean. Active listening and The Principle of Charity can put our meanings in synch such that

disagreements that we have are about the actual ideas and not merely the symptom of

misunderstanding (mis-comprehension).


I think that I have already made one point clear, but I want to make sure to reinforce it. The Principle of Charity is not about being nice, or polite, or civil, or politically correct. It is about valuing truth over preference. Interpreting the claims and arguments of others in their strongest possible ways is driven by the effort to find the truth in what they say. Even more powerful is the stance of taking your own thoughts and beliefs in their strongest possible interpretations. That can be a challenge because careful self-analysis of this sort can lead to you to find that some of what you take to be Truth is in fact partly true. That realization leads to self-revision.


Try using active listening every day while keeping the Principle of Charity in mind and I believe

that you will experience a transformation in some of your interpersonal communications.


Share This Book