Critical Thinking 14: The Principle of Charity

The Critical Thinking series has taken a bit of a break recently, but it will continue, perhaps a bit less frequently than before. This time I’m going to deal with a principle of interpretation that’s very helpful for Critical Thinking, though it’s not ‘critical’ in the narrower sense of making a negative point. Instead it suggests a charitable (i.e. loving) response to ambiguity.

Everything we hear, see or read is ambiguous or vague to some degree, and it is an implication of embodied meaning that there will be no precise fit between our words and what we assume is represented by them. Instead we have a physical experience of the meaning of a word that we may associate with a much more definite representation. So, for example if  my partner says “the washing up hasn’t been done*” , I will experience that as a whole physical experience, not just as a disembodied neutral statement of the situation. Any emotions I may have, for example of guilt, will form part of the interpretation. She may not intend to be accusatory at all, but I may nevertheless respond “But I’ve been too busy today!” on the assumption that she meant to accuse me of not doing something I feel I should have done.

The following video gives some good examples of ambiguous situations that could be interpreted in this kind of way. It also mentions the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is the cognitive bias labelling our tendency to assume that other people’s negative actions are their responsibility rather than the effect of circumstances.

The Principle of Charity is that we should interpret ambiguous claims or ambiguous evidence in the most positive way possible in the way they refer to the people concerned. I take this to include oneself, so it involves not only avoiding ‘jumping to conclusions’ about others, but also about what they are saying about me.

This practice is made more complicated by the usual issue that there is a balance of judgement involved (the Middle Way, of course). For the Principle of Charity cannot be practised absolutely. All statements are ambiguous to some degree, and  if we always interpreted them in the most positive possible way, even when they were clearly negative in their implication, we would be living in a sort of positive-thinking cloud-cuckoo land. Some situations clearly demand that we make or face up to criticisms or allegations, which have to be made even though they may possibly be wrong.

Nevertheless, the Principle of Charity may help us to locate the Middle Way, as being some way off from speculative accusations of any kind. This is a very demanding practice, and one I have a long way to go with myself – so I’m happy to have lapses pointed out to me. For example, I must confess that if someone doesn’t answer an email I still sometimes jump to the conclusion that their silence is deliberate, despite years of experience of the whole host of other reasons why people don’t answer emails. There’s nothing quite so ambiguous as non-communication, and it’s incredibly easy to read all sorts of speculative stuff into it.

A prior dislike of someone or something (especially in the sphere of politics) may also prime us to jump to the conclusion that an ambiguous, multiply-caused event is their fault. Here’s an example from the Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore:

Those people who are surprised that David Cameron wants to take away housing benefit from the under-25s have not been paying attention at the back. From tuition fees to workfare to benefit cuts to young parents, to careers stitched up by free internships and temporary contracts, a clear ideological and electoral decision has been made. These young people don’t vote, they don’t pay much tax, and they are superfluous to a Tory win. It is older people who vote.

Moore here observes that many recent policy changes are especially disadvantageous to younger people. She also notices that younger people on average vote less. She then jumps to the conclusion, without sufficient justification, that government policies must be motivated by a deliberate policy of favouring older people because it is electorally advantageous to the Conservatives.

Yes, that’s right – even politicians in government need the Principle of Charity! In fact, I’d suggest that politicians in government especially need it. You may be in power, but if everyone assumes the worst of you regardless of the evidence, you’re likely to end up no longer caring about the justification of your actions, as they’ll be met by public cynicism whatever you do. That’s a bad position to be in when your actions really do matter for a lot of other people.

Exercise: The Principle of Charity and Humour

Here is a video about a controversy over jokey remarks about Mexicans made on the BBC’s Top Gear programme. How do you think the Principle of Charity should be applied to this episode?

Link to other Critical Thinking blog posts


*For American readers, this means that the dishes haven’t been washed!

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

2 thoughts on “Critical Thinking 14: The Principle of Charity

  1. This for me is a really good example as Top Gear and its presenters have on occasion tended to generate let’s say certain dismissive feelings in me. But yes, I think the principle of charity should be applied to quite a degree in this situation as to my mind they were being mainly mischievous . I think the BBC on the whole handles the thorny issue of humour about right. I don’t think it would be healthy if we returned to a culture of deference that was around in the 50’s which people like Peter Cooke and the Monty Python team started a process of rightfully challenging that continues to this day. Neither do I think the BBC of today would tolerate the openly racist views of someone like the comedian Bernard Manning – although he was often on TV in the 70’s and 80’s.

    However, I think the “Alf Garnett” effect should also be taken into account here. Apparently, the idea behind the situation comedy of the 60’s and 70’s ‘Till death do us part’ (Am. ‘All in the Family’) was to lampoon the bigoted and racist behaviour of its main character Alf Garnett, but much to the dismay of the writer Johnny Speight many people seemed to identify with him and saw a justification for their beliefs in that character. Someone made a similar point in the Top Gear report- you are supposed to laugh at David Brent but you are encouraged to laugh with the Top Gear team. I think perhaps the majority of viewers would have taken the comments about Mexicans as simple blokey banter and felt that indeed the Mexican ambassador was maybe taking himself too seriously by complaining. Nevertheless, I feel it will have encouraged some to entrench their racist/superiority views further. I think what I’m trying to say is that although I don’t think they meant harm, I’m not sure that didn’t cause a certain degree of harm.

    1. On the whole I think I’d agree here, Barry. I don’t think we should assume that they meant harm, but on the other hand they are still responsible for what they said and its effects. The issues are not about harm so much as about thoughtlessness and tone.

      The principle of charity might lead us to leave humour in the world of play, but I don’t think that means anything goes as long as it’s labelled ‘humour’. We need to consider whether the audience will treat a piece of banter humorously or take it seriously. Humour that is directed against a person or a group is also much more risky from that point of view than targetless humour like puns, slapstick or absurd incongruity – which on the whole I tend to prefer.

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