So, in our last podcast, Brandon and I talked about the gap between Catholics and other Christians. It was a great conversation, and a topic that we could go back to many, many times. What I really want to focus on, though, was towards the end of our conversation, when we were discussing the lack of civil, rational discussions about this and other important topics in our normal experiences. Brandon mentioned giving each other the benefit of the doubt, and it reminded me of a lesson learned early in my philosophy classes at seminary. It was called the principal of charity.
The principal of charity means, essentially, that in any discussion, debate, or argument, you have an obligation to view the opposing opinion or argument in the best possible light. In other words, if there are multiple possible interpretations, and one of them is blatantly nonsensical, while another seems to have a solid base, you ought to always assume they intended the second meaning. Obviously, this is, in part, a matter of fairness to them. I would argue, however, that it’s also the right way to approach the conversation even from a selfish perspective.
One way that it helps us is that it avoids us falling victim to the straw man fallacy. The straw man fallacy is when you misinterpret, either on accident or on purpose, the opposing view and, instead of arguing against their actual point, you instead argue against a completely separate argument of your own invention. As a result, you end up wasting your time having an argument with yourself, never actually addressing the actual point of contention.
While avoiding straw men is certainly helpful, I think the major advantage for our application of the principal of charity is much more basic. If we actually engage the opposing view at its strongest possible level, we will gain an understanding on a similar level. As iron sharpens iron, so mind sharpens mind. If I were going to train for a marathon(not gonna happen), it wouldn’t do much good to practice my 40 yard dash. Similarly, if I want to know ultimate, universal truths, answers to the big questions, I’m unlikely to prepare myself to find them if I train my mind to minimize and dismiss all viewpoints different from my own.
Bringing it all back to that most basic principal of human interaction, the Golden Rule, we’ve all had the frustrating experience of a discussion hitting a dead end because the person we were talking with was too busy feeling pleased with themselves for “winning” an argument we never had. Why would we want to do that to someone else?
In the comments, let us know about a conversation you wish had involved a little more charity. Or, call us out for a time when we were lacking. After all, we’re still a work in progress too.