Below is a revised version of the entry on the Principle of Charity for the third edition of my book Thinking from A to Z.
Charity, Principle Of
Interpreting arguments or positions adopted by others in the best possible light. Rather than setting an opponent’s pronouncements up as an easy target, those who adopt the principle of charity look for the best case that this person could consistently be making rather than the worst. Adopting the principle of charity is the opposite of setting up a straw man. Rather than caricaturing an opponent’s position, charitable thinkers give everything about it the benefit of the doubt. The appropriateness of this depends entirely on the context.
Most everyday discussions are incomplete in many ways. Speakers omit key moves, or don’t make their underlying assumptions clear, for example. Consequently, many contributions to a discussion are open to interpretation. Those who adopt the principle of charity interpret, or at times reconstruct, another’s comments or ideas. There can be value in thinking about others’ challenges and arguments in their most plausible form. The process can be intellectually stimulating because it typically requires an act of creative imagination to recreate a strong argument from a series of assertions.
For example, in a debate about animal welfare, a speaker might state that all animals should be given equal rights. One response to this would be that that would be absurd, because it would be nonsensical, for example, to give giraffes the right to vote and own property since they would not understand either concept. A more charitable approach would be to interpret the claim ‘All animals should have equal rights’ as being a shorthand for ‘All animals should have equal rights of protection from harm’ and then to address that. Someone who adopted the principle of charity here would be forced to think through the strongest form of this argument rather than be satisfied with an easily refuted (see refutation) straw man. The process may result in a more stimulating discussion than if the speaker had simply refuted his or her opponent with a knock-down argument.
One problem with this approach, however is that it might simply be an intellectual exercise. There is no guarantee that your opponent would really want to defend the reconstructed argument, so the charitably interpreted argument may be the wrong argument to consider altogether if you are trying to engage with another person’s actual thought rather than an idealised version of it. And even when put in their strongest form, arguments may still be open to counterargument, or refutation.
There is no obligation to adopt a principle of charity, and in many cases it would be entirely inappropriate, labour-intensive, and unrewarding. But it can provide an occasional antidote to knocking down straw men, and the kind of relentless negativity that clear thinkers are sometimes accused of.