Principle of Charity

The principle of charity is a philosophical principle which denotes that, when interpreting someone’s statement, you should assume that the best possible interpretation of that statement is the one that the speaker meant to convey. Accordingly, when implementing the principle of charity, you should not attribute falsehoods, logical fallacies, or irrationality to people’s argument, when there is a plausible, rational alternative available.

For example, based on the principle of charity, if someone presents you with an argument that can be interpreted in two possible ways, one of which is logically sound and the other of which is fallacious, you should assume that the logically sound interpretation is the one that they meant to convey, as long as it’s reasonable to do so.

Implementing the principle of charity can be beneficial in a wide range of scenarios, since it can help encourage proper dialogue and productive discussions, while also improving your ability to form strong arguments. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the principle of charity, and see how you can implement it in practice, as effectively as possible.

“I have butterflies in my stomach.”

Because the literal interpretation of this statement is highly implausible, this statement is clearly supposed to be interpreted figuratively, as a metaphor which is meant to convey that the speaker feels excited. In this case, because the uncharitable interpretation is so unlikely, it’s relatively intuitive to implement the principle of charity and pick the charitable interpretation, and we usually do this repeatedly throughout our day when we need to interpret similar statements.

Finally, when it comes to how the principle of charity can be applied when it comes to general argumentation and rhetoric, consider the following example:

“If we managed to get people to fly all across the world, then we should easily be able to find a solution to this problem.”

An uncharitable interpretation of this statement might revolve around the fact that we technically didn’t get people to fly across the world; rather, we built flying machines such as airplanes, which people use in order to travel.

Conversely, the charitable interpretation in this case would acknowledge the fact that this statement likely refers to the fact that we, as a society, managed to find ways for people to fly across the world, using tools that we built. Furthermore, such a charitable interpretation might go even further, and focus on the underlying meaning behind this statement, by acknowledging that it’s simply meant to exemplify how much progress we’ve managed to make when it comes to solving complex technical problems.

Note that even if the original statement is fallacious or problematic overall, it can still be more productive to implement the principle of charity. For example, consider the following version of the earlier statement:

“If we managed to get people to fly all across the world, then we should easily be able to find a cure for cancer.”

Despite the fact that there are many issues involved with this statement, there is still a notable difference between its uncharitable interpretation, which nit-picks on a minor issue with what is meant by “managed to get people to fly all across the world”, and its charitable interpretation, which focuses on the main point that this argument is trying to make (i.e. that we’ve solved complex technical problems in the past, so we should be able to solve this complex technical problem in the present).

Note: an argument that is formed after taking the principle of charity into account is sometimes referred to as an argument from charitable interpretation or an argument from interpretive charity.

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