(Opinion) An Extension of Charity

In my philosophy section at school, we had this rule, handed down from classes past, that said you couldn’t critique someone’s position until you first described it to their satisfaction.

It was presented as an extension of the Principle of Charity, which says that in any philosophical discussion, the interlocutors should interpret each other’s arguments in the most rational way possible using the strongest version of the argument presented. The only way to make sure you got it right is to ask.

First, the rule seemed tedious, like showing your work on a math test when you already knew the answer — or thought you did. But it saved so much backtracking, clarification, and acrimony that group discussions were not only shorter but more productive than if left free form, as on the internet.

It turns out that the simple effort of speaking your opponent’s argument aloud (and in your own words) triggers reflection. It reveals assumptions and gaps in understanding. Discussants who use this rule are far more likely to ask clarifying questions than those who simply listen and wait for their turn to speak.

Those who weren’t willing to put in that effort, we gradually learned, weren’t really interested in exchange as much as impressing people with their wit and/or beating them up with their intellect. Some folks feel they’re genuinely doing you a favor by pointing out how wrong you are.

I was one of those guys, by the way. Nor was I cured by philosophy class. I was a working professional in my 30s, where other people’s opinions of me mattered to my long-term success (as they do in any community), before things finally clicked: the only person competent to judge whether I had understood them was the person I was speaking to.

In practice, I’m human and don’t always act on this ideal, but it remains the standard by which I judge my behavior.

I was reminded recently that not everyone has had my experiences, which include that old philosophy section and its rule for productive discussion. Sadly, there’s no way to enforce it on the internet. All you can do is opt out.