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Charitability, Rationality, and Arrogance

To me, the Principle of Charity (aka principle of rational accommodation) is a very natural one to adopt. A version of it is quoted below:

Simon Blackburn wrote:
It (the principle of charity) constrains the interpreter to maximize the truth or rationality in the subject's sayings.
(more about this principle)

i.e. Whenever you are conversing with someone and they posit a claim in which you are not entirely sure of its meaning, it is charitable to first assume that he is in his right mind and that a rational interpretation of the claim is intended.
It is, on the other hand, uncharitable if we assumes an interpretation of the claim that doesn't make much sense when there are alternative interpretations of the same unfamiliar claim that might otherwise be perfectly comprehensible.
I see nothing seriously wrong with not adopting it, but it is the adoption of the opposite principle that is often frowned upon although one may not cite this principle for it.

This principle has been my default stance even before I was made aware of its existence. It is a nice and constructive methodology to have. However, it is to some a constraint that is very inconceivable in the sense that their day-to-day argumentation consists almost exclusively in employing as many instance of the "principle of uncharity" as they can, albeit mostly out of habit.

But that makes it all the more dangerous, methinks, and here's why:
You see people who, out of habit, ..
- 'switch off' during the lecture when the content is announced to be about something that he claims he "did this before in A level".
- attribute irrationality to behaviours that differ from his own.
- makes all the excuses to himself for his own decisions, and accept none from others.
- assumes a complete lack of selflessness and even claims that this position is rightly held.
These are extreme examples that includes not only the invocation of the principle of uncharity but also their implications in most cases. I think that it is arrogant to ascribe the boundary of rationality to the capacity of our understanding. And it is the adoption of the principle of charity that avoids this, at the very least.

I agree that it is hard to see our own qualities. It is hard to find the assumptions we unconsciously assume, and it is hard to see when a habit that we have is being displayed in others. But this doesn't make the problem any less significant, although it does make it more elusive. And that's the point, I think that one of the most dangerous things is the one where we are not even aware of its danger. A poison left undetected is a poison left uncured.

It's been boiling inside me for a while now so a bit of a rant here, but it's a hard problem when one is habitually uncharitable, and I think it is sad.

4 blog comments below

This I found as excellent reading and it introduced me to Quasi-realism, which seems really interesting. Certainly, this is an important consideration when looking at real life debates. Good thinking went on here.

I can see how this can arise in political and religious type discussions very easily. It might occur for example with a should abortion be legal type of debate and certainly in those really hard to define questions such as is there a God in existence type of discussion.
Bluedoll on Mon Oct 21, 2013 4:47 am
It works both ways of course.
But I usually find it a good practice to be uncharitable to yourself, and charitable to others.

Anyone who does this (or the exact opposite; charitable to oneself, and uncharitable to others) is particularly noticeable when it comes to education.
Most students would frown upon a teacher who kept making a remark about why his students don't understand a simple concept, say. Whereas a teacher who never said any of that and kept trying different approaches/explanations when the student don't understand not only demonstrates patience and, more importantly, the willing to teach, but also that it wasn't the students that are irrational.

I don't mean to imply, however, that we should always expect some degree of charitability for any arbitrary arguments we may have.
On the contrary, I am suggesting that I should be (or at least want to be) critical of any of my own arguments first, in the sense that it is incorrect (and see if I really am just believing in it, or do I have a good reason to do so?), before proceeding to present them within a discussion.
Likewise, I should also be (again, at least I want to be) charitable to other's arguments in the sense that it is at least comprehensible (and see if I can come up with a good reason to support it, because they are supporting it), before proceeding to discuss about the argument. It also reduces the likelihood of misinterpretation.

I've never thought of the application of the principle to a question of realism/anti-realism in particular, but now that you pointed out, it does seems interesting.
Sylin on Mon Oct 21, 2013 8:21 am
Hmm, seems a bit simplistic to me. The danger is that adopting it would render other teacher/manager/supervisory functions either less effective or actually seriously damage them.
Some for instances. If someone continually posts the same misconception, despite you having explained in detail why it IS a misconception and despite others doing the same, then one COULD assume that it is a comprehension problem and try again, or one might assume deliberate miscommunication - ie an uncharitable assumption, but evidence based. The former would, in some circumstances, lead to the other correspondents becoming detached, as the same explanation was repeated over and over, sidetracking threads and disrupting exchanged. The latter runs the risk of unfairly treating one or more individuals if the judgement is mistaken.

Bear in mind that many of us have been using this sort of forum for decades and have come to recognise certain behaviours and attitudes pretty accurately. I hiave lost count of the hours I have spent preparing materials and references for a poster questioning something, only to find later that their question was not intended to elicit information about the subject, simply a mining expedition aimed at picking up some useful phrases to use when arguing ag against the thing being queried.

I spent hours, for example, preparing a primer on evolution for nick because he said he would give it a genuine try. I compiled a brilliant (id I say so, and I am a teacher, so that can be taken as a professional opinion) set of materials which would require a few hours and would give a reasonable overview. Nick spent about 5 minutes trawling through the first tutorials just looking for things to attack and completely ignoring the content. This is all documented in the forum via the exchange of postings, so I break no confidence in revealing this.
With students I can normally assume that although they may not be very interested in my subject, they are not there to sabotage the lectures and launch a plethora of attacks from ignorance, on the material. This is, unfortunately, extremely common in internet 'debates' featuring religious fundamentalists who are quite open, often, in saying they have no desire to learn, cannot be
persuaded, and are not open to any change of mind or even alteration of position. I submit that the charitable principle here would actually be more harm than good.

So, let me put it to you, do you think that it it is still something that should be a default? Or do you think it needs to be applied in light of experience and circumstance, even at the risk of some injustice to some individuals?
Bikerman on Tue Oct 22, 2013 1:13 am
Ahh, I see what you mean. The charitable stance could potentially backfire. I am reminded of another example where a student would keep on asking 'why' just because his father told him that it would trip his teacher up at some point or another. It is highly unlikely then (and I see that I am speaking from experience here) that he would be taking anything in at all after each of the explanation being presented. An uncharitable stance. That's a very clear point you've made.

I was perhaps working under the naive assumption that everyone is genuinely interested in the understanding of another's position/argument.
But that of course implies that we have to do our own research and learning from time to time. I see that this is not something some people want to do (or perhaps inclined to do), especially if we are not in a traditional learning environment like a school or university.

Those are very sound points.
Yes, I agree that the principle need not (and in some cases, should not) be held at all times.
This is, I think, unfortunate. It makes me question whether a collection of naive assumptions can result in a non-consistent set, something that I haven't thought about before. To which my initial answer would be yes.
The risk of inequality is also not a very pleasant consequence. But I don't frown upon inequality with the intent to reach an equal goal in general. That is to say, if to get everyone on a plateau of equality, some needs help more than others, then I see nothing inherently wrong with that (unequal) treatment. Although I am not sure if I am being naive again here, but it's supposed to be just an aside remark thing.
Sylin on Tue Oct 22, 2013 9:54 am

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