Monday, April 27, 2009

The Principle of Charity and Some Other Brief Technical Points

I want to breifly discuss here two "technical" points, that is, points about philosophical terminology and the philosophical methodology to which it is related. My reason it to give readers of my blog a better understanding of some of the things I say, and a better sense of the argumentational etiquette that I strive (not always successfully) to adhere to and that I value in others.

First, and most significantly, in philosophy there is something called "The Principle of Charity." This principle is not, mainly, about being nice or kind to those one is debating with. It's not about sugar-coating what you say, and it is entirely consistent with being blunt about the perceived failures of their reasoning (although there are other reasons why, in philosophy, we should avoid being nasty--name-calling and put-downs often take the place of sound reasoning, and so interfere with the progress of an argument).

So what is the principle of charity about? It is about how we should strive to interpret and explicate the often ambiguous, usually incomplete, arguments and ideas expressed by others. The principle can be roughly stated in the following terms: "If an argument (objection to an argument, theory, etc.) can be interpreted in more than one way, pick the most favorable interpretation, that is, the interpretation which makes the argument (etc.) the most convincing or plausible that it can be."

If and when in this blog I talk about interpreting what someone says charitably or uncharitably, this is what I have in mind. The rationale for making use of this principle in philosophical discourse is that it does the most to advance the discussion. That a weak version of an argument fails is less interesting than that a stronger version fails, and that a weak interpretation of someone's argument is a failure does not tell us whether a stronger version fails as well.

Using the principle of charity does not entail that you will always figure out what another person meant to say. Your interpretation might still be wrong. Human beings are, after all, inevitably fallible. Interpreting correctly what others mean to say is hard work. Even the clearest and most careful writers are misunderstood routinely, and sometimes by the most careful thinkers. But when one really sits down and tries hard to fully understand what another person is attempting to say, the rate of misunderstanding decreases. It is part of the principle of charity that one engage in this interpretive work--preferably BEFORE commenting on their thinking. And it also means that if there is an obviously silly interpretation of what they are saying and one that is obviously less silly, you choose the less silly one.

Of course, people sometimes differ in their judgment about what is silly, so someone can be seriously trying to follow the principle of charity and be perceived as ignoring it. But the more participants in a discussion who make a sincere effort to follow it, the more likely it is that the discussion will go more smoothly, with fewer parties talking past one another, fewer parties needing to say, "That's not what I meant at all," etc. Such misunderstanding is inevitable, but the principle of charity helps to minimize it.

In a context like a blog, one way in which the principle of charity has to be invoked is in the following way: Since not every argument can be fully developed and defended in a brief comment, those who post on a blog site will often gesture towards some arguments that they don't develop, as well as developing other arguments more fully. Readers need to be sensitive to when a person is merely gesturing, and when they mean to be developing something more fully.
And, of course, there are degrees between a full development of an argument and a mere gesture. One might offer the main premises of ones argument without defending these premises, or one might defend one of them, or one might defend all of them but only against the most obvious objections one might anticipate. How in depth one goes depends on context and available time and space.

It is rarely helpful to accuse someone of offering an inadequate argument simply because it is less fully developed than another discussant wishes it would be. It is far more fruitful to ask for a fuller development of an argument of interest (or for a source where the argument is developed more fully), or to ask for a defense of a premise that wasn't defended in the original treatment of the argument, or to offer a specific objection to a particular premise of the argument and ask the author what they think of the merits of the objection. Authors often have thought about a variety of objections that they don't have the space to adequately address. It is far more charitable (that is, far more likely to promote fruitful dialogue) to say, "What about this counter-argument?" than to say, "You FOOL! You didn't think of THIS! Gotcha!"

Second, briefer technical point: There is an enormous difference between a pragmatic argument for or against a view and the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy is the fallacy of rejecting what someone thinks by virtue of what caused them to think it. A pragmatic argument against a view is, roughly, one that operates from the premise that an important measure by which a belief can be evaluated is in terms of its "fruits," that is, its pragmatic implications for how adherents to that belief live their lives. One asks, in effect, how useful the belief is in living one's life more successfully.

There is a school of philosophy that takes this pragmatic approach very seriously, and it is a school of thought that has influenced me. I am particularly influenced by William James. This is not to say that I identify as a pragmatist. I have yet to find one with whom I agree completely even methodologically. One of the key difficulties with applying the pragmatic method has to do with the criteria whereby the behavioral implications of a belief are to be assessed--it is a species of "the problem of the criterion" with which philosophers are continually wrestling.

In any event, I sometimes use quasi-technical philosophical language in this blog ("charitable interpretation," "pragmatic assessment") out of habit, forgetting that non-philosophers don't necessarily know what I mean. I hope this little post is of some help, and can maybe offer some guidance for understanding the argumentational etiquette with which I operate.

My promised post on biblical authority without inerrancy will come later in the week, depending on how much time I have between grading papers.


  1. Eric Reitan: "My promised post on biblical authority without inerrancy will come later in the week"

    The Principle of Charity will be helpful when counter-arguments are offered demonstrating that Biblical Authority is compromised by those dogmatically holding to errancy.

  2. It surely will. Of course, the interesting question is whether holding to errancy on the basis of reasons (rather than dogmatically) compromises Biblical authority. In that case, much will depend on what the reasons are and what impact they have on one's understanding of Scripture. I hope to see arguments of that sort, and not merely arguments pertaining to the impact that dogmatic allegiance to errancy has.

  3. Eric Reitan: "I hope to see arguments of that sort, and not merely arguments pertaining to the impact that dogmatic allegiance to errancy has."A rather interesting remark. Because a reasonable case can be made that *you* yourself have made arguments pertaining to the impact that dogmatic allegiance to inerrancy as your argument against inerrancy in a previous post of yours.

    To wit: "And since compassionate listening is one of the most essential acts of neighbor love, it follows that a doctrine of biblical inerrancy is an impediment to such love.

    Therefore, I conclude (contrary to what Craig argues here) that a God of love would not create an inerrant text."

    "Physician, heal thyself" --> "Professor, rebuke thyself"

  4. One qualifier I would add to your fine explication here Dr. Reitan (I've bookmarked it for future reference as I've often had to make the same clarification myself) is that the Principle of Charity assumes both parties to a debate are honestly engaging in dialectic discourse as opposed to simply trying to "win" or "win over." While there is certainly nothing wrong with agreeing with oneself, I have quit many blog conversations in which I became convinced that the other party was no longer (or had never been) interested in my argument or learning anything from me.

  5. cheek--A useful addition. The principle of charity is most helpful when it is used by all parties to a discussion/debate--that is, when all parties try to follow it, as opposed to when all parties use it as a bludgeon to accuse one another of failing to follow it. I am often tempted to do the latter (OH, HOW I'M TEMPTED...) but it is better, usually, to simply reiterate the principle on occasion as a reminder to oneself and an invitation to others, which is what I was trying to do here. Such a reiteration is helpful to me in my effort to keep the principle more fully in view as I engage with various interlocutors. Whether it inspires others to do the same has yet to be seen.

    I should note, however, that following the principle of charity in one's own case can have some value EVEN IF one's interlocutors have no interest in or aptitude for following themselves.

    First, there is the benefit of developing one's own insight and understanding. If I charitably interpret the ideas of hostile critics and engage with those charitably reconstructed ideas, I can learn more than if I take the hostile criticism in its least charitable (and sometimes most obvious) sense. Of course you need to make judgment calls about when it's worth the trouble to try to pull something useful out of an uncharitable and aggressive attack, and when it isn't.

    The second thing that a one-sided use of the principle of charity can be good for is when there is an audience that may actually learn something from the exchange...but only if somebody is doing the work of trying to reconstruct the exchange in the most charitable terms. Here again, one needs to make judgment calls. If you think the audience is more responsive to name-calling and rhetorical flourishes than to careful exposition and assessment of arguments and counter-arguments, it may be that the audience won't learn anything.

    Truth Unites...and Divides--I try to "rebuke myself" (that is, acknowledge where I have gone wrong) when appropriate, and it is sometimes helpful when others point out a place where I have gone wrong--although, as is the case with most of us, I'm usually better able to listen when it comes from a caring friend, rather than from a stranger I know nothing about.

    And it's awfully tempting in the kind of adversarial debate that has emerged here to dismiss "rebukes" as nothing more than rhetorical maneuvers in an effort to win the debate at any cost. It's also awfully tempting to invoke the playground retort, "I know you are but what am I?", which can go back and forth indefinitely.

    Neither response is very helpful. It is much more helpful to look at the substance of the rebuke to see if it has any substance, and then either accept it if it does or set it aside if it does not.

    But in this case, I'm really not sure what you're saying I'm supposed to rebuke myself FOR. I certainly think that arguments against dogmatism should be made, and I think this includes both dogmatic inerrantism and dogmatic errantism.

    I certainly did not intend to say there is no value in "demonstrating that Biblical Authority is compromised by those who DOGMATICALLY hold to errancy." In fact, I think it is quite clear that holding to errancy dogmatically is likely to compromise any view of the Bible that regards it as an important authority. I would be happy to make that point myself...and if I don't work it into my next post, I hope someone will do it for me.

    My point is that there are a range of more interesting arguments that also need to be considered. The really interesting question is whether someone who has good reasons for thinking that the Bible is errant must therefore also conclude that there are good reasons for thinking that the Bible has no significant authority. In other words, is biblical authority linked to inerrancy in such a way that anyone who has reasons for rejecting the latter also has reasons for rejecting the former. Since this is the question that I find most interesting philosophically, I hope that commentators on this blog will offer arguments on both sides of the issue.

    As to the particular argument of mine that you reference, it was part of an argument pertaining to the pragmatic effects of inerrantism qua inerrantism, rather than qua being dogmatic. That is, I wasn't critiquing inerrantists for being dogmatic in this argument (not all inerrantists are dogmatic, even though many are). I was trying to uncover a problem with inerrantism as such.

    In briefest terms, I was arguing that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has pragmatic effects that appear to me to be at odds with the implications of a biblically derived love ethic--that, in other words, allegiance to a central teaching of the Bible dictates against treating the Bible as inerrant.

    Now, there is much to be said about this argument (and recall that what I have just offered here is nothing but a sketch of it). First of all, the fact that a doctrine has certain negative pragmatic implications is not a decisive reason to reject it, but only a reason for rejecting it all else being equal. If there are truly compelling reasons to believe that the doctrine is true, then one might have to believe it even if doing so has negative pragmatic repercussions. And you may well think that there are such compelling reasons, in which case I am interested in hearing them.

    And it may be that there are pragmatic benefits associated with adherence to a doctrine that more than offset the pragmatic costs. If you think this is the case, I'm interested in considering those arguments.

    Or you may think that the pragmatic effects I discuss are not negative after all. Arguments to that effect are worth making and assessing.

    Or you may think that the pragmatic effects I discuss, while negative, are not actually effects of inerrancy. Again, such arguments need to be considered and assessed.

    And in all of this considering and assessing, I hope that the principle of charity will prevail. What will help it to prevail is if I commit to striving to charitably assess what others write, and if those who comment on this blog commit to the same.

    Of course, as always, we all have to make decisions about what is worth our time and energy. Charitable interpretation and exegesis of arguments is hard work, and so we have to make judgment calls about when and where we will pursue that effort. But if one judges that it's not worth the effort, then the appropriate thing to do is say, "Sorry. I'm not going to engage with that right now, because I have other priorities." It is not appropriate to jettison the principle of charity and go after someone's argument anyway.

    Finally, it will NOT help if I spend all my time focusing on places where others have failed to interpret me charitably, and they spend all their time focusing on places where I have failed to interpret them charitably.

    When that happens, the principle of charity is being used primarily to judge others, and no one ends up focusing on actually FOLLOWING the principle. As in all such cases, we can invite one another to follow a principle and occasionally call each other on violations of it...but our primary focus needs to be on following it in our own case. There is a reason, I think, why Jesus enjoined us to focus on taking the mote out of our own eye before trying to take the splinter out of the neighbor's eye.

  6. Eric,

    Thank you for your response.

    Do you dogmatically hold to errancy in Scripture?

    P.S. Protestant Canon, 66 Books.

  7. Dr Reitan,

    You said: So I trust that neither of you will ever defend the doctrine of biblical inerrancy in these terms.

    When you said this, I thought that you meant to preclude me from further participation your blog. Therefore I defended myself vociferously. I did not mean to play gotcha (well maybe a little bit, but only because I thought you had been curt and dismissive with me).
    Incidentally, I know Mike Thompson. We are products of the same ministry, although several years apart. I e-mailed him after our first interaction to find out if debating you would be worth my time and effort, and he replied that you were friends.
    One other thing. I had surgery on my foot/toes on the 15th and have been confined to my house since then with only brief respites at the local cafe/bookstore this weekend. So Ive been sitting at the keyboard anxiously waiting for each new comment.
    I hope we can continue our discussions in an atmosphere of comity and congeniality.

  8. Eric,

    When you have a moment to spare, can you address this previous question:

    Do you dogmatically hold to errancy in Scripture?

  9. Inerrancy, as a claim, requires the constant intervention of a supernatural being changing the circumstances of physical law that we see is reliable all around us today. I would put forth that the claims of inerrancy have the burden of proof.

    Dogmatically holding to "errancy" is like saying one is dogmatically holding to "possible".

    The truth and beauty of scripture is that the writings are the reactions of people to their circumstances. How do a people process Babylonian captivity, the destruction of their temple, the crucifixion of their beloved leader, etc.?

    Is the source of the divine they saw in Jesus still with us today? If so, can their words be signposts pointing to Jesus? Need we adopt their outdated views of the physical world? If we do, won't this ultimately render the underlying truth of their experience irrelevant over time?

  10. Craig,

    With respect to the following: "You said: 'So I trust that neither of you will ever defend the doctrine of biblical inerrancy in these terms.' When you said this, I thought that you meant to preclude me from further participation your blog."

    I'm very sorry if I gave that impression. I meant to refer to a particular way of arguing for the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, one which I thought you were implicitly appealing to. I responded as I did because you said some things that were at odds with this argument.

    I suspect, based on subsequent comments, that this was NOT, in fact, an argument that you were endorsing. And that probably explains why, when I developed this argument and criticized it, your response struck me as a kind of nonsequitur (your response raised a different kind of challenge to the very same argument that I was objecting to on different grounds). If that was never your argument to begin with, then the misunderstanding makes some sense.

    In any event, the hostility and aggressiveness of some comments (as well as certain attacks on misunderstandings of my arguments put forward as if they were brilliant refutations of my views), made me a bit prickly. And so I was far more curt than I should have been.

    The result is that what should have said, "So I guess we're all in agreement that THIS particular argument doesn't work and we can move past it to something else," came out sounding like, "Stop posting on my site." For that, I'm sorry.

    Truth Unites...and Divides,

    Do I dogmatically hold to errancy in Scripture? I certainly don't think so. There was a time in my life when I took the doctrine of inerrancy as a very serious possibility, and struggled with the question of whether the Bible should be understood as THE inerrant revelation of God. Part of what led me to reject this doctrine was that I spent a few years attempting to live AS IF the doctrine were true--that is, approaching the Bible as an inerrant source of wisdom in community with others who did the same. This attempt stirred up so much cognitive dissonance in my life, that is, it felt so throughly WRONG, that I began to explore alternative ways of thinking about the nature of the Bible and its relationship to divine revelation.

    While I was engaged in that struggle, you can imagine that the community of inerrantists that I'd joined were pushing for me not to abandon the doctrine of inerrancy. They'd tell me that what I was calling cognitive dissonance was really the clash between my sinful nature and the Word of God, and that the solution was to let go of my sinful nature. But this interpretation didn't fit well onto the precise struggle I was feeling. I could force that interpretation onto what was happening and muscle my way forward...and had I done so I would probably be an inerrantist today. But as I contemplated THAT decision, it didn't seem like I would be abandoning elements of myself that impeded my relationship with God. It seemed, instead, as if I would be abandoning my integrity, and in the process my relationship with God. Perhaps this way that things looked to me was delusional.

    Perhaps it was, as some friends at the time said, one of the devil's lies. But it didn't seem that way to me. And so I felt I couldn't just blindly go on believing that the Bible was inerrant, and I couldn't just blindly abandon belief, either. Instead, I needed to explore the alternatives, and engage them both intellectually (philosophically, historically) and experientially, especially in terms of the effect that they had on my spiritual life, my sense of connected to a God of love.

    In the end, the abandonment of a doctrine of inerrancy in favor (eventually) of the view I now have came down to this: If I continued trying to live as if this doctrine is true, I would end up feeling LESS connected to God rather than more.

    This is not to say that there weren't also philosophical and theological reasons for the change, as well as reasons based on study of the history of the Bible and its interpretation. What it means is that these reasons come second to a more intimate religious experience. I just felt closer to God--God was more real and powerful in my life--when I stopped trying to make God fit with an inerrant view of the Bible.

  11. Eric Reitan: "This attempt stirred up so much cognitive dissonance in my life, that is, it felt so throughly WRONG, that I began to explore alternative ways of thinking about the nature of the Bible and its relationship to divine revelation.

    But this interpretation didn't fit well onto the precise struggle I was feeling.What it means is that these reasons come second to a more intimate religious experience."

    Thanks for your in-depth explanation Eric. If it's not too intrusive, could you share what the precise struggle was that you were feeling at the time that led you to jettison Biblical Authority and Biblical Inerrancy?

  12. Truth Unites...and Divides,

    I can't do that story full justice in a comment here, and if I do it at all I want to do it justice. I've thought a number of times that I should try to write up a kind of spiritual autobiography for this blog, and this issue may be an important element of that story.

    But it'll probably be awhile before I get to that. The fact is that I DIDN'T jettison biblical authority along with biblical inerrancy during this struggle, even if my understanding of the nature of biblical authority changed in important ways.

    The post that I've been promising to write is specifically directed towards the question of how that's possible. I have a number of readers (yourself included, I think) who cannot imagine how someone can continue to view the bible as an important authority in one's life if one has given up on inerrancy.

    As it turns out, doing this issue justice may likely require more than one post. I've developed my discussion in terms of three main arguments for the view that the Bible can be an authority only if it is inerrant, and I believe that my first post is developing in such a way that, by the time I've explained all three arguments, offered some context, and critically assessed the first argument, I will have a lengthy post in its own right.

    And so I will need a second post to adequately consider the remaining arguments. Given that I now have a chest-high stack of term papers to grade and final exams coming in next week (and a conference over the weekend), these two forthcoming posts will probably carry me well into May--whereupon I'll be teaching an intensive three week summer course and so will have little time to focus on this blog.

    In any event, a "spiritual autobiography" may be something I'll work on sometime this summer.

  13. Dr Reitan,

    You are quite forgiven.

    I was looking forward to continuing our discussion after finals and was fully prepared to wait until that time. But now I learn that you are teaching an intercession class. Patience being a virtue, I guess by the time summer arrives, Im going to be a very virtuous person. I hope that you survive the next few weeks and emerge unscathed by the ordeal.

  14. Eric Reitan: "I can't do that story full justice in a comment here, and if I do it at all I want to do it justice."Completely understand.