How to Practice Intellectual Charity

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A philosophical principle to help you avoid bigotry and dogmatism.

The Principle of Charity is a fancy way of saying we should be open minded and reasonable. It’s a method used in philosophy to avoid bigotry and dogmatism. If we’re mindful of this principle, it helps us assess every viewpoint — including our own — in the most rational and impartial way possible.

To practice the principle of charity when we assess an idea, we suspend our own opinion and try to understand the most charitable interpretation of the idea. We consider the idea in its logically strongest version.

We start by assuming the idea is true, even though our first reaction is to disagree. Our focus is on understanding, not finding faults or contradictions. This frees our mind to absorb the new viewpoint and understand it on its own terms.

This method is something we use all the time and is often common sense. If someone tells you they have butterflies in their stomach, you don’t interpret their statement literally. That interpretation would make their statement nonsensical. The literal interpretation is so unlikely to be true, it’s obvious we should understand butterflies as a metaphor for nervousness.

We happily use this principle of charity all the time in our day to day lives. But when it comes to views which have complex reasoning, or views which we have strong opinions about, we often forget to apply charity to what people say.

How can we practice the principle of charity?

The philosopher Daniel Dennett gives a concise explanation of the steps we should follow:

  • You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  • You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  • You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  • Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

What are the benefits of practicing the principle of charity?

  • The most obvious benefit is to avoid our natural tendency to dogmatism. No one is immune from confirmation bias — the tendency to interpret information in a way that favors our point of view. Remembering the principle of charity helps us overcome those natural tendencies.
  • Practicing intellectual charity will improve your ability to understand other people. As you practice this method it will become more natural and require less conscious effort. You’ll find yourself listening more carefully and your focus will be on understanding rather than looking for faults.
  • It will enhance your ability to know the strengths and weaknesses of your own beliefs. If you practice the skill of gaining an objective unbiased view of any idea, you’ll be able to turn that spotlight on your own beliefs. It will also help you formulate more reasoned beliefs on new ideas you encounter.
  • Once you know how to find the strengths and weakness of any view, it will improve your ability to express arguments for any view, including your own.
  • Because it makes us aware of the weaknesses of our own beliefs, we’re less confident we’re right. But we also know the weaknesses in every view, so it doesn’t cause a skeptical paralysis so we think we can’t hold an opinion which might be wrong.
  • Because you’re a better listener and have a sympathetic ear, other people are much more likely to talk to you and share their opinions. You’ll gain the opportunity to explore many new intellectual landscapes that will broaden your mind.
  • It will make other people more willing to listen to what you have to say. People prefer to talk to someone who makes a sincere effort to understand them rather than someone who is trying to score points or win an argument.

Things to keep in mind when practicing charity

  • Apply the principle to minor problems in people’s views. If something is obviously wrong, but it doesn’t have any impact on the main point of their argument, disregard it and focus on the essential issues.
  • Apply the principle to people’s intentions. Hanlon’s razor advises “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. Assume people are acting in good faith and are reasonable. You should proceed on this assumption until you have good reason to think otherwise.
  • Keep in mind that even when your interpretation is charitable, it could be wrong. The other person may not agree your interpretation is the strongest one available.
  • Use common sense. If you’re discussing with someone and their view is obviously incorrect, it’s best to directly address the contradictions rather than attempt to charitably re-frame their view.

The principle of charity is used in philosophy but it’s useful anytime you’re trying to achieve mutual understanding. Often when people are discussing their different views the disagreements are based on easily avoidable misunderstandings. This is especially true of controversial topics like ethics, politics and religion.

If you practice intellectual charity toward other people, you’ll find it becomes easier to discuss these sort of topics without the conversation becoming heated. Your charity rubs off and changes the mood. They see you showing them the respect of assuming they’re intelligent. They see that you think a view you disagree with can still be reasonable. It often motivates them to respond accordingly.

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