The Principle of Charity


On the eve of the presidential election, I am reminded of something I learned in philosophy class; the principle of charity. Essentially, the principle states that you should be charitable in your reading of an opponent’s ideas, that is, you should assume that they are intelligent, truthful, and have good intentions. This way, you can respond to the argument and not to the person making the argument. You respond to the best possible interpretation of the argument another person is making, so that you come up with the strongest counter-argument.

The principle of charity is one of the more powerful ideas I learned during my time as a college student. It enabled me to think deeply about ideas that I may not have otherwise considered. It opened my mind to new ideas and new perspectives. It even allowed me to change my mind at certain points.

I say all this because it seems that in politics (and increasingly in every sphere of human knowledge) we are neglecting the principle of charity at our own peril. By assuming that our opponents are all idiots, we do ourselves a disservice. We merely increase the noise within our echo chamber when we only listen to people who agree with us and believe that everybody else is just so dumb for believing what they do.

Social media seems to make this worse. When we don’t like something on facebook, those comments increasingly disappear from view. You can actively disengage from people who disagree with you by ensuring their posts never show in your feed, by defriending them, and by only liking or commenting on posts that you actively agree with. The algorithm learns what you like and gives you more of the same.

Whether Trump or Clinton gets elected tomorrow, we should all learn to practice the principle of charity. Let’s assume that Republicans are not merely concerned with obstructing any progress and are not all racists and sexists. Let’s assume that Democrats are not merely concerned with micro-aggressions and want to slaughter babies by keeping abortion legal. Let’s assume that we all want the same thing, a better country tomorrow than we have today. A good way to start is by practicing the principle of charity.

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