Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Note on Charity

I said yesterday that charity, while necessary for reasonable conversations, is a quality sorely lacking in human interactions - especially the interactions which take place in this artificial social environment, the blogosphere. Brian Cubbage has written two excellent posts which deal in great depth on the subject of appropriate and inappropriate interactions in the blogosphere: Blogiquette and its sequel, Blogiquette: A Skeptical View. In the second post Brian briefly mentions that conversations devolve into comment wars when a party in that conversation refuses to argue charitably and in good faith. While that was not the main point of either of Brian's posts, it very easily could be the main point of a post which seeks to understand why blog-based discussions so often fail to go anywhere.

Simply put, for multiple parties (two or more) to engage in a conversation which seeks to bridge the distance between apparently opposing viewpoints, a certain degree of charity is needed from each party. But what exactly do we mean by charity?

First and foremost, charity is a simple assumption: That, absent incontrovertible evidence, the person with whom you are conversing is not a flaming idiot. That is the bare minimum of charity.

Or, to put it another way, when someone makes a comment which appears to you to be idiotic, it is charitable to temporarily suspend judgment on that comment until you can gather more information. This is especially important in cases where the person who has made an apparently idiotic comment has in the past demonstrated the ability to distinguish between good arguments and bad arguments, and has further demonstrated a preference for good arguments.

In other words, if someone has in the past proved to be a reasonable person, capable of building well-reasoned and well-informed arguments, then if at some point in the future they leave a comment which appears to be unreasonable, it is quite possible that such an appearance is due more to your own inability to understand their argument than in some defect in the argument they are presenting. It is less likely that an intelligent person has suddenly become a flaming idiot than that conflicting world-views and philosophic and epistemic commitments have created some confusion which needs to be cleared up.

So, how does charity proceed in the face of such confusion, especially if it is not easy to immediately gather more information about the position which appears to be idiotic? It constructs the most charitable version of the position possible - that is, the best possible construction of the arguments involved, along with the best possible assumptions about the axioms which underlie said arguments.

There are at least three important selfish reasons for doing this, along with one much more important epistemic reason:

1. It avoids the embarrassing possibility of totally misrepresenting in some catastrophic way the perfectly reasonable views of another, and as such looking like a total idiot yourself. This is quite common is comment wars. To assume that the person(s) with whom you are discussing is an idiot leads you to look down, and - more importantly in a public sphere - to talk down to them. While this might score some points with your friends, it does nothing to advance your position, either intellectually or socially. Simply put, no one likes to be talked down to, and as such our informal social structures are designed to discourage such behavior. There may be some immediate positive (selfish, anyway) outcomes, but such outcomes are eventually outweighed by the negative outcomes which come with being identified as an asshole.

In other words, when your more morally sensitive friends have to go behind your back and apologize for you, that's never a good thing. When those who share you ideological concerns are embarrassed for being associated with you, and seek to distance themselves from your methods when advancing their own position - a position which they share with you - that's also never a good thing. A little charity avoids being placed in that uncomfortable position - a position from which it is difficult to escape.

2. Acting uncharitably towards others leads them to act less charitably towards you. Dropping a comment bomb may make you feel great right after you do it (I know that it does for me!), but ultimately it leads to the worst sort of digression in the conversation. As the comments escalate, you find yourself receiving the sort of snide remarks you started offering, which can lead to some subtle but very bad outcomes.

Anger can be a very useful emotion. The adrenaline rush which accompanies it can give you the strength to escape from a physically dangerous situation. But you are rarely in immediate physical danger sitting in front of your computer screen typing comments at a blog. However, your body fails to distinguish between anger which arises as the product of the sort of physical confrontation which may require additional strength and energy to escape bodily harm, and anger arising from some sort of linguistic barb. As such, physiological mechanisms which balance a short-term, immediate need against long-term health risks are triggered in both situations. But, in the case of the comment-war induced anger, there is no immediate gain to be balanced against the long-term risk. As such, you take on an increased risk of pulmonary and cardio-vascular problems, along with a whole host of other problems associated with high stress levels, for no reason at all, save for a lack of charity and a condescending point of view, along with limited impulse control.

3. Finally, for those who treat conversation as competition, there is a very good, yet still selfish reason to construct the most charitable possible version of another person's position: It makes you much more likely to "win" the discussion. Let me preface this by saying that I do not hold that conversations should be competitive, a point which I will make in some detail later. But, many people either explicitly or implicitly do, and this is the source of a great deal of uncharitable comments. Those who wish to "win" a conversation find it expedient to construct, consciously or unconsciously, a "strawman" of their "opponent"'s position, and then tear down that construct rather than the position itself. This leads to a quick apparent victory, which is in fact not a victory at all, as you can fool only the most foolish of fools with it.

If you really wish to be seen as an intellectual giant, construct for your "opponent" the best possible version of their argument - better, perhaps, than they would even have made themselves - and then knock that one down. A greater challenge, sure, but also a much mightier deed, and more impressive in the eyes of whoever it is that you are trying to impress by engaging in such academic pissing contests, I'm sure.

But as important as each of these concerns is, for those of us who engage in discussions with the Socratic goal of arriving at some place closer to the truth, there is a much more important reason to act charitably in a conversation: it is much more likely to lead to the closest you can come to the truth of the matter. Arguing without charity is ultimately like arguing without honestly, for it deals in a fundamentally dishonest way with the views of other persons. And dishonesty leads not toward truth but away from it. If, then, you claim to value truth - or at least the pursuit of truth, as truth can be nebulous indeed - you must also value charity, and use it in your dealings with others.


Brian Cubbage said...

I don't have much to add, other than supergracias for the rockin' hat tip (and at the very beginning of the post, no less!). Your paean to interpretive charity is as good as I have ever read, and I've actually read quite a few-- Critical Thinking textbooks always have a perfunctory one. (Maybe you should write a CT textbook!)

P.S. To prove that I'm not yet dead, I just added my first new post to my blog in almost two months. Enjoy!

Troy said...

This is excellent, Chris. Socrates didn't treat his opponents this way. I can think of few in history who have.

A great standard to reach for.


Liam said...

Very good, Chris. I think also it just good to be civilized.

crystal said...

when someone makes a comment which appears to you to be idiotic, it is charitable to temporarily suspend judgment on that comment until you can gather more information.

I'm a good case in point ... I can't see well and often make mistakes reading what others have written. In one discussion, I saw the other person's name, which was PreacherBoy, as PeachBoy ... when I addressed him thusly, he was quite ticked off. I was so embarrassed and it was hard to convince him that I hadn't meant to insult him.

Sandalstraps said...

Thank you all for the wonderful comments!