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Thinking charitably


Why hadn’t I heard of the concept of "charity" in critical thinking?.... maybe because it’s a lost art.


Have you come across the idea in critical thinking called charity? Charity is the principle that when other people are explaining their views, we should try and find the strongest and most well-reasoned interpretation of their arguments.


The idea almost seemed alien to me. As a keen listener to Oxford Union debates, political debates and debates on moral issues I only saw people trying to frustrate and nitpick the form of other people’s arguments. 


What happens in debates today?


The debates I see around me are a contest of people not ideas. These debates have emotional language, theatrics, and rhetoric. We also view the result as a person, not idea, winning. The topic at hand becomes secondary to two egos doing battle.

Doing battle includes tricks that takes us away from really tackling the issue at hand:

  • Choosing the worst possible interpretation of the opponent’s arguments (misrepresenting if needed) and then defeating that weakened argument.

  • Using indignant, emotive language and absurd facial expressions to take it for granted that people will agree with you.

  • Use half-truths and untruths to paint a misleading picture of your or your opponent's arguments.


We are all too used to these tricks. They are bad faith close-minded techniques and get us further from the truth.


Dos and Don’ts for charitable thinking


Do assume people arguing another view are:

  • sensible people coming to a sensible conclusion.

  • not malicious in intent.

  • well-reasoned and logical.

This requires asking questions and working with rather than against views, so more a collaborative engagement than an adversarial debate. Identifying where you agree is important, as it helps narrow the scope of the disagreement and can highlight creative solutions.

It gets harder but more important as the topics become more emotive. Mapping the arguments on the other side, does not lose you anything. It takes humility and an open mind - difficult for people with entrenched views. The prize is a way forward - often progress follows understanding.


Don’t assume:

  • the person making the argument is evil, stupid, or lazy.

  • they are lying.

  • That you can get away with merely picking holes in the way they present the argument


Why do people shy away from charitable thinking?

I think there are three main types of reasons people don’t think charitably:

  1. They think the opposition is lesser, malicious, or “other”, not capable of the nice, logical thoughts that “we” are.

  2. They see it as weak to try and understand the other people’s side particular where they are doing it publicly. It may be seen to concede legitimacy to the opposition views and for some who are polarised that is not something they are willing to do or been seen to do.

  3. They don’t see it done and therefore don’t know it’s a choice. I think this third point is a crucial building block of the public square.


Why we need it so badly?


Close-minded debates are getting us nowhere, yet we have real decisions to make. Whether it is on tax policy, immigration, housing, infrastructure, population dynamics, pensions, conflicts or many other questions, we need to do it in a way that leads to good decisions being taken.

As a passionate believer in free speech (with the right guardrails) a competition of ideas helps us and our institutions make better decisions. To have a competition of ideas, we need to understand each other’s ideas and compare them to our own.

Rather than being lauded for conviction we should be lauded for our convicted pursuit of improving our understanding. That, I believe, must be a central plank of the new public square.

So what?

  1. Charity in critical thinking is understanding and interpreting others' arguments in the most reasonable and strong way. This practice is overlooked in modern debates.

  2. Charitable thinking is an alternative to contemporary debates with emotional language, theatrics, and personal attacks rather than focusing on the merits of the ideas.

  3. If we assume those with differing views are sensible, well-intentioned, and logical we will promote collaborative engagement over adversarial confrontation.

  4. Charitable thinking is brave. Barriers include viewing the opposition as inferior, malicious, or worried about being seen as weak. There are too few charitably thinking role models.

Join me next week to discuss “Principles to rebuild our public square”. Sign up to the subscription list on Blog | Deciders ( Follow me on twitter: @Decidersblog.


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