Seven tools for thinking #2: The principle of charity

Ah! What a divine religion might be found if charity were really made the principle of it instead of faith! – Percy Bysshe Shelley

A few weeks ago I wrote about the philosopher, Daniel Dennett’s recommendation that we value our mistakes, learn from them, and never make the same mistake again. The second of Dennett’s seven tools for thinking from Intuition Pumps is to respect your opponent. This is something I really struggle with.

Debate in education is as ideologically riven as any other field where there are few certainties and no absolutes; evidence is nearly always contingent. But you’d never know. The pendulum of educational fashion swings endlessly along the prog-trad continuum and we all cheer or boo as it whooshes past. Put simply, the principle of charity is to assume, until proved otherwise, anyone who disagrees with us is as intelligent, informed and ethical as we are and that we should strive to interpret their claims and evidence in the most positive way possible. This is easier said than done.

Of course, not everyone is as intelligent, informed and ethical as we are, so alongside the principle of charity, it’s useful to apply Hanlon’s Razor, a rather neat set of aphorisms to help us from misattributing others’ behaviour:

  1. Never assume bad intentions when assuming stupidity is enough.
  2. Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice.
  3. Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

However tempting it may seem to wield this razor, we should beware. All too often we assume stupidity or malice when actually the problem is one of interpretation. Often we’re all looking at the same thing but seeing something different:


Meaning is often ambiguous and uncertainty is the only respectable intellectual position to hold. We all filter new information through our accumulated prejudices, and we all susceptible to confirmation bias and the fundamental attribution error. We could all do with be a little more tentative in the way we express our opinions on what others ought to do.

But just how charitable should we be? Some claims are obviously wrong, some are based on no or weak evidence, some illogical or unfounded. If we always interpreted ambiguous claims in the most positive possible way, we would be living in a sort of positive-thinking, everyone-should-do-whatever-the-hell-they-please-and damn-anyone-who-tries-to-debate-the-rightness-of-it-all happy land in which unicorns and hippogryphs roam free and unmolested by any nay-saying or contradiction. We should never be tempted to just let silliness slide.

Dennett offers the following advice:

If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent’s case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view – and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harbouring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack.

I’ve waded in against such targets, wielding well-thumbed research evidence and burning with a pure a righteous zeal, on far too many occasions. It never ends well. We may score some points, but the best we can hope for is to amuse our supporters and antagonise our opponents. No one learns.

Dennett’s antidote to this unhappy eventuality is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport:

  1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

In this way, those with whom we argue might just find themselves that little bit receptive to our point of view. By demonstrating that we understand their position as well as they do, and conceding the points on which there is agreement we might persuade instead just squabbling. Added to this, I think there should be an equal pressure on everyone interested in participating in any kind of debate to work very hard not to get offended. Any fool can be a snow flake!

So, I’d like to issue a blanket apology for everyone with whom I’ve failed to follow these rules. I will strive to do better. And, with super-human magnanimity, I’m going to forgive all your breaches too.

Next time we’ll address #3: The ‘surely’ klaxon.

14 Responses to Seven tools for thinking #2: The principle of charity

  1. Rachel says:

    I often find debate is more fruitful and open if I frame my points as questions.

  2. x9english says:

    This is good! I do get tired of people assuming because I vote X I’m a [insert baby killing thug with Doc Martin Boots who hates immigrants stereotypes] or voting Y means I am a [Marxist who spends other peoples’ money and pretends to love the working classes that I actually despise..] Similarly in education. Just because I had a career before teaching assumptions are made that I’m not capable of engaging in reasonable discussion unless I’m a “progressive” even though I might disagree with a lot of what a ‘progressive’ or even a ‘traditionalist’ might say! I shall have to be more charitable to my colleagues 😎 I shall pass this around at work and see what happens…

  3. […] on how to spot and avoid bullshit: it’s a fine line between calling bullshit and applying the principle of charity. A good rule of thumb for anyone setting out an argument is to be as clear, precise and economical […]

  4. Thanks for this. Great piece. Very thought provoking.

  5. Kay says:

    I think a big part of debating (for constructive purposes, not competitively) is the ability to frame the opposing view in an intelligent way. I think most people don’t debate each other because they’re too busy debating straw men.

    This was a fun read.

  6. […] of the field, the prize-winning entries, not the dregs. Notice that this is closely related to Rapoport’s rules: unless you are a comedian whose main purpose is to make people laugh at ludicrous buffoonery, […]

  7. Tough stuff, but essential if the truth is really what we are after. When one (or both) parties are convinced that their view point is correct, then usually debate/communication is not about seeking the truth; and civil behaviour rapidly becomes a casuality. It might be useful if protagonists honesty stated their position with respect to seeking the truth, and less time could be wasted.

  8. […] instruction he does know about all these things and is being disingenuous, but that would be an uncharitable reading of his position, so let’s assume he really wants an […]

  9. […] judgments in the comment thread, educationalist, Sue Cowley then wrote this blog. Exercising the principle of charity, I should make clear that there’s quite a lot we agree on. She points out – as I have […]

  10. […] to persuade those who haven’t yet made up their mind. Perhaps if we were all to apply the principle of charity there’d be a lot less bad […]

  11. […] there a more charitable explanation? Applying the principle of charity is  a clear sign that you are taking the most sensible, courteous and reasoned way to interact […]

  12. CJM says:

    Enjoyed reading this- thank you. In my first year of teaching the HT was a particularly imposing, possibly shady, character- I had the best advice from my excellent HoD: ‘when you think he’s being Machiavellian, just remember he’s too vainglorious to get that far.’ More Trump than Iago. Still- I always employ the principle of charity at first, but will admit to a bit of snarking when I get home.

  13. […] debating ideas, I try to hold myself to the principle of charity, which exhorts us to assume, until proved otherwise, that anyone who disagrees with us is as […]

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