Saturday, February 24, 2007

Distilled Wisdom #4: The Principle of Charity

Welcome back to Distilled Wisdom, where I boil out all the impurities and useless information I've taken from the sea of knowledge and serve you up a nice tall glass of distilled wisdom (hence the name).

The topic today is what's known as the Principle of Charity. Unlike other entries in this series, this particular subject has actually been covered elsewhere on the 'net, but I thought I should at the least bring it to the attention of my regulars. In essence, you can thing of Charity as being the opposite of a strawman argument. Instead of erring on the side of a worse argument for your opponent, Charity demands that you err on the side of the best argument they could have.

What is Charity?

Let's go back to the metaphor from which we got the "strawman" term. A couple of guys get into a fight in a bar. One of them constructs a man out of straw, beats it up, and then declares victory. Obviously, his victory is undeserved. Now, let's say that instead of constructing a man out of straw, he builds a golem out of solid steel, being sure to make it at least as strong as his opponent. Then, the man beats up the golem and declares victory. In this case, even though he didn't beat up his opponent directly, he did prove that he was stronger and thus his claim to victory has some merit to it. (Of course, the metaphor breaks down when the best argument is in fact the opponent's intended argument. Here he just beats the other guy up.)

So, let's go to an example. Say you're debating a Creationist and they make the following argument:

So, do you think all of this just came into existence by chance? Look at how complicated the universe is! You think this could have just occured by some random fluke?

This isn't a very refined or specific argument, so you'll have to take a guess at what the speaker meant. One possibility is that they're talking about the universe as it is now coming into existence by chance. This is obviously ridiculous, but it's a possibility from what they've said. Alternatively, they could be talking about the universe coming into existence in some recognizable form at some point in the near past. If they sincerely believe that the universe is only 6000 years old, it's actually possible they might think to attack the stance that it was created randomly 6000 years ago. It's still a pretty bad argument, however.

Then we come to the best argument they could be making: That the universe was randomly created at the point of the Big Bang. What they're saying then approximates a rudimentary form of the Argument from Fine-Tuning, which states that so many different variable at the creation of the universe had to be set just the right ways for life like ours to be possible. It's a big extrapolation from what was actually said to think that the speaker implied this argument, but it's possible, and since it is possible, Charity demands we defend against this argument.

Why Charity?

To see why Charity is important, let's examine all the possible outcomes when you guess at what your opponent's argument is (first, assuming your opponent will later be honest about what they intended to convey):

1. You guess correctly. In this case, nothing much happens, and the debate carries on.

2. You guess at a weaker argument than they intended. In this case, you're essentially committing the Strawman Fallacy. Not good if you want the audience on your side, especially if you get called on it.

3. You guess at a stronger argument than they intended. In this case, you get a gleeful moment of saying, "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you were making a somewhat good argument, while instead, you were making a bad argument. Well, I can address that, too."

Now, this is assuming your opponent is being honest. If they aren't, then you could see them change their argument after the fact just to accuse you of committing a Strawman. Or, if you've already guessed the best argument, they'll change it to that and won't admit they had intended a worse argument. If they also don't understand the subject enough, they might even accuse you of a Strawman if you choose a better argument than theirs. In this case, calmly explain the Principle of Charity to them.

So, how does charity help? First of all, it rules out case #2, as if you choose the best argument, there's nothing better they could have intended. You're left with the following possibilities:

1. They'd intended something worse, and admit it. Result: Positive

2. They'd intended something worse, but don't admit it. Result: Neutral

3. They'd intended something worse, and accuse you of a Strawman. Result: Depends on how you handle it.

4. They'd intended what you guessed at. Result: Neutral.

By accepting the Principle of Charity, you essentially rule out any negative result. The benefit here is obvious.

Possible Problems

But what about situation 3 that I mentioned above? This case does look like it's a possible problem. Even if you explain exactly what you're doing in response, some people in the cyber-audience may think you're just covering and making excuses. Fortunately, there is a way to avoid this. Basically, when you're first making the guess as to their argument, make a little note along the lines of:

(Not sure exactly what argument you're trying to make here, but I'm taking my best guess at it. Let me know if I get it wrong.)

This makes it clear that you weren't clear on what they intended, and any misrepresentation is due to them not being clear enough. The argument that follows is just your charitable guess.

There's another problem you may encounter: What if the best argument they could be making is something you don't know how to argue against? In this case, the first thing you should do is search around the 'net and see if someone else has answered it somewhere, and if so, quote them. If the question is really out of your league, you might want to refer them to someone else who's better equipped to answer an argument on this subject.

But what if no one's answered it, you're as well-equipped to handle it as could be reasonably expected, and yet you can't think of anything wrong with it? In this case, I recommend you seriously consider that you just might be on the wrong side of this debate. Internet debates aren't like high school debates where you're assigned to a side arbitrarily and have to defend it. Here, you should be defending the side you believe in. If you can't defend it, maybe you shouldn't believe in it. If you refuse to consider this possibility, then you're truly being close-minded.

Closing Remarks

Well, that's it for this edition of Distilled Wisdom, but I will give you a little teaser of a planned installment. Basically, it advocates what seems to be the complete opposite of what I've said here (not really, though). Confused? Would it help if I said that I plan to give it the same name as a Terry Pratchett novel? Probably not.

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