The Principle of Charity

Have you had a disagreement with anyone recently? Did you feel that all participants were understood by one another? Here’s a test: Could your opponent(s) state your position in a way that you would be satisfied with how they describe it? Could you do the same for your opponent(s)? If the answer to either of those is a flat “no,” you are like most normal people having these conversations. I’ve had conversations over social media lasting weeks where I never once felt that my interlocutor wanted to understand where I was coming from. I’ve heard this referred to as “talking past one another” and it’s impeding conversations at every turn.

There are two basic facts that were very, very hard for me to recognize (and I still need to remind myself of them today). Here they are:

1. People have different positions than you do.

2. People think they have good reasons for holding those positions.

Note the word “think” in number 2. I’m talking about everyone. I could not claim that everyone has good reasons for thinking what they think. I can only go so far as to say that they think they have good reasons. They can be wrong about those reasons, whether it’s from poor facts or poor reasoning.

I was browsing /r/philosophy earlier, and I found something that I really think needs sharing. In their Guide to Arguments on the sidebar, they talk about the principle of charity. I’ve highlighted the important bits in red:



That says it better than I’m able to, so I think this is about it. If we can apply this principle as we have conversations, we might be able to gain a greater understanding of each other.


5 thoughts on “The Principle of Charity

  1. This is absolutely crucial. Fantastic post. I think this sort of charity is a skill that has to develop over time. Not only is there an advantage to understanding your opponent in terms of being able to persuade them, I think it allows for a deeper understanding of one’s own position (or possibly even a change of opinion). I’d go so far as to say that “talking past one another” is tangentially responsible for many large-scale ongoing conflicts in the world. I wrote a post on a related topic – Steelmanning, and if you haven’t heard the term it might be of interest to you!

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