, , , , , ,

This may seem ironic, but among the topics generally falling under the purview of logic and/or critical thinking is a little gem called the “principle of charity.” Simply put, this entails an obligation to interpret any given argument in the strongest sense possible, consistent with its actual wording. In other words, when you come to one of those moments where you could think of more than one way to take what someone else is saying, pick the one that gives them the strongest case possible. You don’t have to rewrite an argument for someone, or pretend you don’t see obvious flaws, but when there are genuine questions about the intent of an author, opt for the interpretation that gives him a fighting chance.

Then give him a hug.

This isn’t really about being nice. One of the most important reasons for applying the principle of charity is that it helps to ensure your own analysis will not be wasted. If you take advantage of some ambiguity in the text of an argument and spin it into something utterly foolish, then your own evaluation of that argument becomes all that much more trivial. If you are in actual dialogue with someone, then it’s easy enough for the other guy to simply restate his argument, filling in the gaps so as to avoid whatever silliness you have read into his claims. By sticking with the strongest version of an argument, you an help to ensue that you really are evaluating a case worth considering.

And then it’s open season!

I’ve often had occasion to reconsider this approach to critical thinking, not the least of reasons being that there seem to exist a rather large number of occasions when folks don’t want to use it. And by ‘folks’ in this instance, I mean “me too!” Whether reading or listening to an argument, sometimes I just don’t feel all that charitable. More to the point, sometimes, I think there are substantial reasons to set the principle aside.

I first noticed this, sitting in an anthropology class, listening to a critical theorist shred some text I have long since forgotten. Simply put, the principle of charity was quite lacking in that analysis, as it was with many similar texts I had been reading in that program. This was no accident. Where my critical thinking teachers had been preparing me for open dialogue with people with whom I might disagree, the critical theorists I had begun to read were far more interested in exploring the role of a given text in promoting power relations within a larger social context. Where the one approach talked about what a text might mean, the other talked about what it did in fact mean, at least under the prevailing circumstances.

And it occurs to me that I did this sort of thing myself in my post on the California law for the protection of the Indian, …i.e. the Law that enslaved Indians in California even as that very state entered the union as a “Free state.” The text is not an argument, but it raises many of the questions I am talking about here.  The text sets up a range of legal mechanisms which include indentured servitude as a possible alternative to incarceration. Bearing, in mind the principle of charity, one could ask if it is really fair to think of this law as a means of establishing slavery? You have to read between the lines, or you have to know some facts about the politics which produced it and guided its implementation. Once, you do know these things, the answer very quickly becomes ‘yes’.

And herein lies the crux of the problem. Application of the principle of charity means setting aside important questions about the actual impact of an argument in order to engage in dialogue with its proponents. This begs the question of whether or not you want such a dialogue in the first place (or whether or not it is even possible). And sometimes, the answer to that question is just ‘no’.

Case in point? Let’s look at this moment of Mitt Romney fame.

Now I know you think I’m going to attack him, and the truth is that I probably am, but not until after I am done defending him.

…I know; it confuses me too.

The common take on this topic is that Romney was echoing the sentiments of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), namely the principle that corporations possess many if not all of the same rights as people. The notion that corporations are fictional people is hardly new to the political landscape. My Constitutional History Teacher was quite clear about that matter back in 1992, long before the current outrage, but for various reasons which needn’t concern us here, Citizens United brought about a frightful new firestorm of controversy over the notion, and that was fresh in a lot of people’s minds when Romney made this speech. Add to this a general sense that the Republican party is responsible for the relevant composition of the Supreme Court and for backing its rationale, and you have a ready-made battle just waiting for someone to drop in with the perfect phrasing

But is that what Romney was actually trying to tell his audience? If you look at the video, he was in the midst of making a very different point at the time, namely the fact that someone will have to bear the cost of raising taxes. Urged to levy the tax on corporations, Romney adds quickly that corporations are people. So, the question is this; was he affirming the legal rights of corporations, as per Citizens United, or was Romney trying to suggest that any costs applied to corporations will be paid by people somewhere in the marketplace (investors, employees, or even customers)? Although the categorical language suggests the former, Romney’s subsequent comments suggest the latter. The video itself doesn’t really yield a clear answer, and it is entirely possible that both lines of thought came together in one big mutant two-headed reason with no clear notion of the relationship between its sources.

At some point you have to make a choice as to the meaning of his comment.

If it’s the former choice, then well, go get him Lizzy Warren! And I must admit to a certain soft-spot for this inquiry as to the kind of person that a modern corporation would be, if indeed it were a person. But if Romney really was trying to tell us that costs accrued to corporations are ultimately borne out by people, then he is right.

Broken clocks, and all that!

Hell, there really isn’t much to gainsay that proposition that people will ultimately pay for costs imposed on corporations. There is a lot room for debate about how that works (or doesn’t) and whether or not it adds up to the kind of policies Romney wants to advocate. But that is a debate in which those of us on the left have as much responsibility to chase the devil through the details as Romney and the conservatives.

It’s a lot easier to tell Romney that corporations aren’t really people.

And here is where questions about the willingness to grant someone the Principle of Charity shade into larger questions about whether or not one wishes meaningful dialogue with them to begin with. If you really are exploring an issue with someone, and if they are approaching it in the same spirit, then the effort to assess their views in the strongest light possible facilitates that discussion. If no such goodwill exists, then extending the benefit of the doubt can cost more than its worth.

If the target audience for a debate is more responsive to cheap shots and sound bites, then failure to respond on that level begins to look a lot less like the responsible (grown-up) approach to a discussion and a lot more like failure on the horizon, all the more so if the point of the debate is really is to win something (a legal case or an election for example). If the other guy is just being a jerk, then you can always walk away. But if that jerk is trying to take something of value, then it may well be time to roll up your sleeves and pull out that roll of dimes hidden in your pocket.

Metaphorically speaking, of course.

So, do you really want to have a thoughtful discussion, or do you just want to kick the other guy’s ass? I know the Dudley Dialogue-Right in me wants to say “let’s have that thoughtful discussion,” but years of figurative blunt head trauma combine with political realism to say that sometimes the answer is just ‘no’.

Sometimes the answer is ‘no’, because the larger social context removes all doubt as to intent (the California example); sometimes it’s ‘no’ because the expectations of dialogue are essentially “no quarter given” (Romney?); and sometimes the answer is ‘no’, because you just don’t want to grant any legitimacy to the other side. This is why responsible scholars rarely debate holocaust revisionists, flat-earthers, or creation science hacks. It’s why feminists often give Men’s Rights Activists the face-palm instead of an argument, and its one of the reasons that both sides of the recent debate over Atheism-Plus have done a wonderful job of talking right past one another (just to name a couple netroversies currently bubbling over in sundry parts of the blogosphere). It’s also why you should never read the comments on any article posted anywhere (except here). And of course it’s why only a fool would debate anyone with a 160 character limit on each tweet.

…okay guilty as charged on that last one, but the point stands.

There are of course many ways in which one can shut off meaningful dialogue with others, but at least one of them occurs when you are no longer willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt. One takes their statements at face value and fills in the ambiguities according to a standard script; the possibility that the other guy may have something more interesting in mind is simply not worth the effort to give him a chance. This isn’t the kind of approach folks normally recommend, but it is the kind many of us engage in at one time or another. Combine this with the increasing role of discursive minimalism in public discourse and we have an ever increasing premium on short snide answers to arguments that never really came into their own to begin with.

There is no clear formula here; no objective test to distinguish those who have earned the benefit of the doubt from those who haven’t. While it can be particularly satisfying to see someone you think unworthy of debate forced to talk to the hand, it is equally frustrating when you are looking at that palm yourself. When neither side of a given debate seems capable of engaging the other in meaningful discussion, the results range from entertaining to downright tragic, often within the space of a single paragraph.

I certainly don’t have any great notions about how to make the call, but I do find it a interesting feature of public debate.