The Importance of Thinking Charitably

There’s something paradoxical about the power of reasoning. The more you disagree with someone – or the more different their worldview is to yours – the more valuable it often is to be as thorough as possible when considering their perspective. To understand why, consider the alternative. Imagine that someone presents me with this observation:

Based on the feedback I’ve seen, if you don’t update your course to better reflect students’ lives and experiences, you may end up with very few wanting to take it.

How should I react? Here’s one possible response:
So you’re claiming that the only way to keep students interested in my course is to make it all about them? I’m not prepared to pander to their self-absorption. The whole point is to teach students things they don’t know!

Is this fair? Now consider this response instead:
So you’re suggesting that the current course materials aren’t easy for students to relate to – and that there are ways I could draw upon their lives and experiences to make it more accessible and engaging? If what you say about them losing interest in taking the course is correct, it does sound like I should look into this.

Which response do you think is more reasonable?
It can be difficult to handle criticism well. But there are also some problems with the first way of reacting. Rather than treating the speaker’s position as a line of reasoning to be engaged with, this first response instead treats it as an assault that needs to be defended against. This defence takes the form of building a straw man, which means constructing an over-simplified version of someone else’s point of view just so that you can dismiss it (as if you were building a straw figure to be symbolically destroyed). It’s an approach that shouldn’t survive honest scrutiny – but that, like many strategies for evading reasoned debate, can be effective at preventing this scrutiny from happening.

By contrast, the second response takes on board what is being said, based on the assumption that there may be reasonable issues underpinning students’ feedback. Is this the same as admitting that their criticisms must be valid? No. It may turn out that, upon further investigation, plenty of students do love the course and consider it highly relevant; or that it’s some entirely different factor that’s putting people off.

The point is that, precisely because we can’t know things like this in advance, they are worthy of investigation. Moreover – if I’m actually interested in designing a course that is as good as possible – discovering potential problems is far more valuable than receiving feedback that says ‘it’s all fine’. In much the same way as learning requires us to admit ignorance, improvement requires us to take an interest in what could work better.

One technique for applying this principle in practice is to turn other people’s ideas into what’s sometimes called a steel man: that is, to construct the strongest possible version of their argument. This sounds counter-intuitive, but has several advantages:

  • If you hope to persuade or find common cause with those who disagree with you (rather than dismiss them), you need to learn as much about their position as possible.
  • By ensuring you encounter the strongest possible version of someone else’s perspective, a steel man ensures you maximize your ability to learn from it.
  • Engaging with the strongest form of a perspective you disagree with (or haven’t previously considered) means that your own ideas must pass a meaningful test.
  • To idealize, one of the most productive ways you can engage with others is to re-state their ideas in a way that they agree is fair – and only then, once you’ve done this, to explain where you do and don’t agree with them, and why.

Taken as a whole, this approach is sometimes called the principle of charity. It doesn’t mean charity in the sense of making a gift, but rather embodies the philosophical principle that:

So far as possible, you should try to extract the maximum possible truthful and reasonable content from what others say. This means that, unless you have decisive evidence to the contrary, you should start off by assuming that their position is reasonable and sincerely held, rather than that they are malicious, ignorant or mistaken.

Why? Once again, the answer isn’t because this is a nice thing to do, but because it’s only by beginning with charitable assumptions that you can hope to get to grips with the underpinnings of someone else’s perspective. This should also ensure that any condemnation you may eventually make of their motives is based on a careful, fair-minded assessment – and is thus more rather than less forceful than those based on prejudice or burning straw men.

Does all of the above sound hopelessly naïve or self-deceived in contexts such as social media? Perhaps. I’d argue, though, that charitable engagement with others’ ideas is a valuable form of emotional and intellectual self-discipline – and one that can be surprisingly effective when it comes to all but the most malicious or abusive of online actors. If in doubt, don’t assume yourself to be right or righteous. Ask open questions of others, and attend carefully to their responses. You may be surprised by what they say.

Published by Dr Tom Chatfield

Dr Tom Chatfield is a British author, tech philosopher and educator. He’s interested in improving our experiences and understanding of technology. Tom’s non-fiction books exploring digital culture, including "How To Thrive in the Digital Age" (Pan Macmillan) and "Live This Book!" (Penguin), have appeared in over thirty languages. His bestselling critical thinking textbooks and online courses, developed in partnership with SAGE Publishing, are used in schools and universities across the world. Tom’s debut novel, "This is Gomorrah" (Hodder), was published in July 2019. It was a Sunday Times thriller of the month, shortlisted for the CWA Steel Dagger for thriller of the year, and won France’s 2020 Prix Douglas Kennedy for the year’s best foreign thriller.

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