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.
I recently came across a rather odd critical thinking book, Madsen Pirie's How To Win Every Argument. I was initially drawn to it because, like my own Thinking from A to Z, it is arranged alphabetically (from A to Y in his case - it turns out that his is based on an earlier book of his, The Book of the Fallacy, which pre-dates mine). Although superficially similar to Thinking from A to Z in some respects, How To Win Every Argument is very different in orientation. It reminded me of a line from David Hume's Enquiries:
'Nothing so like as eggs; yet no one, on account of this apparent similarity, expects the same taste and relish in all of them'
Pirie's book is offensive in at least two senses. First, it advocates critical thinking as a quasi-martial art - so it is offensive rather than defensive. Equipped with knowledge of bad moves in argument, he believes the reader can become less defensive and go out on the attack, winning every argument. This would be fine if the way of winning arguments recommended was by using the tools of critical thinking appropriately. But, perhaps as a marketing ploy, Pirie goes further and suggests in his Introduction that his book will give you the power 'to deceive with maximum effect' (p.x). He declares that in the hands of the wrong person 'this is more of a weapon than a book' and that he has written it with that sort of person in mind.
In other words, Pirie is all for using the language of critical thinking as a kind of rhetoric. The point is to win the argument by any means. This is completely against the spirit of critical thinking as I understand it. Pirie's offensive take is exemplified by his suggestion that readers should learn obfuscatory Latin names of fallacies because
'When an opponent is accused of perpretrating something with a Latin name it sounds as if he is suffering from a rare tropical disease. It has the added effect of making the accuser seem both erudite and authorative'
Pirie's advocacy of such smokescreens leaves a nasty taste. I find it offensive,though perhaps it is simply a defensive move designed to draw attention away from the archaic labels he gives to many of the moves. Of course Pirie might just be ironic in his suggestions throughout about how to be devious. But most readers of the book won't spot this. Despite this, there are some good entries in this curate's egg. It might make good raw material for an exercise in separating rhetoric from reasoning.
Possible new entry for my book Thinking from A to Z
A particular kind of getting personal (or ad hominem move). Those who use this phrase typically do so to undermine the credibility of a speaker by pointing out the vested interest or highly motivated nature of their comments. During the Profumo trial Mandy Rice-Davies famously said of Lord Astor's denial of an affair with her 'He would say that wouldn't he', drawing attention to his motivation for denial. In that case it was certainly relevant and appropriate to make the remark, and it was devastatingly effective. However, in some other cases drawing attention to the speaker's motives may deflect attention away from any arguments or evidence that the speaker is actually using. These should be assessed independently of speakers' motives.
So, for example, someone who is both health-conscious and loves wine might cite scientific evidence to support the idea that drinking moderate amounts of red wine has beneficial effects. This might elicit the response 'you would say that wouldn't you', which would draw attention to the speaker's vested interest in discovering that wine drinking is compatible with a healthy lifestyle. Yet the speaker's motivation cannot affect the evidence: that stands or falls whether or not the speaker is motivated to cite it. As long as the speaker isn't misrepresenting the evidence (and possible counter-evidence or alternative explanations of this apparent health-giving effect), then the charge 'you would say that wouldnt you' does not touch the facts; it only reveals something about why the speaker might be so keen to cite those facts.
The phrase is best used against a speaker who, like Lord Astor, merely asserts a position which they are highly motivated to defend, rather than against those who use argument and evidence to support a position (which is also highly motivated). In the latter sort of case, whilst understanding motivations gives us a fuller picture, it should not cloud the issue and prevent us judging the arguments and evidence as presented.
Poisoning The Well: indirectly denigrating a position by pre-emptively ridiculing, discrediting or insulting its source. This is a very common form of rhetoric. One way of poisoning the well is to begin a sentence with ‘No one could possibly believe that…’, or ‘Only a fool would argue that…’ or ‘Naïve people believe…’ or a similar phrase.
Here’s a specific example. Imagine a speaker who declares:
‘Only a racist would be opposed to large scale immigration to Britain’
By pre-emptively labelling anyone opposed to large scale immigration a racist, the speaker here leaves very little room for his or her opponent to manoeuvre without appearing to be a racist.
Poisoning the well makes it very difficult for anyone to come back and endorse the view that has been put down in this way. It also insults anyone who holds a different opinion. Add to this that most people prefacing their statements with such phrases know very well that the people they are addressing are inclined to endorse the discredited view, and you can see that this is a devious move in argument. Once you have recognised and named this kind of rhetoric it is fairly easy to identify. The best way to confront it is with a straightforward contradiction of the statement, followed by an explanation of why your position is a reasonable one to hold. You might also consider challenging the speaker to explain why they believe that ‘only a fool’ would argue for this position.
Another possible entry for proposed 3rd edition of Thinking from A to Z.
Least Worst Option: A choice that may not be attractive, but is the best of those available. Representative democracy has famously been labelled the least worst option amongst forms of political organisation (Winston Churchill declared that democracy is the worst system of government - 'apart from all the others'). It has a number of points in its favour, such as that it allows political leaders to be deposed by a majority of voters; but it also has features that count against it, such as that those voting may be swayed by factor which are not relevant to a candidate’s ability to be a good political leader. But there is no better way available of organising society.
There are man situations in which we have to make a choice between alternatives, but none stands out as a good choice. In such situations, assuming that we really do have to make the choice, it is rational to choose the best of the alternatives, while recognising that the choice we make falls short of being ideal. As a parent, we may have a choice of only three schools our children can attend locally, none of which fits with our ideal of what a school should be like. We must make a choice, then and take the least worst option, while recognising that our choice does not vindicated the local council for giving us such a poor choice of schools, or endorse the particular school as excellent (it may be mediocre or worse).
The novel Sophie’s Choice by William Styron centres on a terrible choice a mother must make between saving one of her two children, a boy and a girl, or letting them both be killed by Nazis. She takes what she sees in that instant to be the least worst option, that of saving her son who, she tells herself, will have a better chance of survival. But this agonizing choice inevitably haunts her.
Recognising that what we have done in a situation is choose the least worst option rather than endorsed a good option is important. We should be clear about the limitations of alternatives available to us, and the degree to which our decisions are governed by pragmatic considerations in most real life situations.
Weasel words: words that seem to promise more than they deliver. Weasels can allegedly suck the contents out of an egg without breaking its shell; analogously those who use weasel words suck the meaning out of a sentence while apparently leaving it intact. This term is not particularly precise. The range of cases it covers is best illustrated with examples. There are at least two main uses of the term.
First there are some weasel words, so-called, which are simply imprecise. So, an advertiser who declares that the food they are selling is a ‘healthier alternative’ needs to specify precisely what the food is healthier than and why for this to mean anything at all. Otherwise ‘healthier alternative’ is a kind of rhetoric, a weasel phrase.
A distinct use of the term ‘weasel words’ refers to equivocation, such as in the ‘No True Scotsman Move’. So within an argument, someone might say ‘All truly intelligent people have a sense of humour’ and the when confronted with someone with an extraordinarily high IQ but no sense of humour, declare that this person is not a counterexample but rather ‘not a truly intelligent person’. Here ‘intelligent’ is the weasel word, the one that is re-defined in the course of the discussion. (This second sense is the one given by Anthony Weston in his excellent short book A Rulebook for Arguments, 3rd edition, p.78).
Sentimentality: inappropriate emotion, an excess of sentiment. The person who is absolutely overwhelmed with emotion at the cuteness of a kitten, or who idealises a lover to the point of nausea is guilty of sentimentality, emotion that is inappropriate or completely disproportionate to the situation. A sentimental person is one who is prone to such inappropriate and often gushing responses to the world, and typically uses this as a strategy of avoidance, a way of refusing to confront unpleasant truths (such as that the kitten has worms, or the lover bad breath).
Sentimentality is a fault, not a virtue since it involves avoiding unpleasant truths. It is a common psychological block to clarity of thought that often involves wishful thinking in that the sentimental person is unwilling to confront facts, but rather is much happier in a soft cuddly world of their own imagination. Sentimentality can even involve blindness to the way things really are. It can be a kind of magical thinking that involves reacting to the way the individual would like the world to be rather than to the way that it is. Oscar Wilde famously declared a sentimental person one ‘who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.’[great list of Oscar Wilde quotations]
For example, the mother of a child who has been caught bullying another child may simply refuse to believe that her son could be a bully. In her eyes he remains this sweet innocent child who could never harm anyone else, and she experiences nothing but warm and comforting feelings in his presence. How could he possibly be the culprit? There must be some mistake. This is a sentimental reaction, a way of avoiding the unpalatable truth that her son is a bully.
Spotting other people's sentimentality is relatively easy; recognising your own is harder.