The Principle of Charity; or: bad reasoning in the real world Part 10

In having a debate aimed to get at the truth, some important truth, such as a morally and economically sound taxation policy for example, one of the worst mistakes you can make is to misrepresent others views. Aside from not being very nice it takes us further from our goal of discovering (or convincing others) of the truth. Why? Because it means that perfectly sensible views get lumped in with, and disregarded alongside, absurd views. Sometimes this happens by accident. In philosophy, for example, Daniel Dennett’s theory of consciousness is really hard to understand and so sometimes perfectly reasonable and smart people misrepresent his view. Saying things like he denies the existence of consciousness and what not. This is a shame but it happens. And if it happens in academia (with some exceptions, health research for example) there generally isn’t much lost in taking a few years to clear things up. At other times, however, it seems to be done on purpose, in attempt to, presumably, not find the truth, but “win” the argument for the sake of winning.

I honestly don’t know which of these possibilities, or some combination of the two, is at play in Amanda Vanstone’s recent opinion piece for the SMH. Nonetheless it seems Vanstone has not met her burden under “the principle of charity”. Simply put this principle asks us to go to as much effort as possible to accurately represent the views of those we disagree with and to not irresponsibly attribute to them false claims or bad arguments without very good reason. In other words we should assume, failing evidence to the contrary, that those we disagree with are also engaged in the activity of attempting to determine the truth.

This doesn’t seem to have been done by Vanstone in her claim that those who are critical of the amount of tax payed by the largest companies and income inequality are over-generalizing from the existence of tax cheats. If we consider the actual positions of those who do advocate higher tax rates on the largest companies and who push for income equality we find arguments that income inequality and low tax on large companies is bad for the economy. Robert Reich famously makes the argument that income inequality reduces the spending power of the middle class thus considerably reducing the amount of money moving through the economy. Other arguments exist in public discourse as well of course. Some advocates of the “mining tax” (resource minerals rent tax) made a moral argument that seeing that resources belong to a nation and are mined at the bequest of the government that it is only fair that the profits from such mining be shared.

Without needing to endorse these arguments we can see that Vanstone has not engaged with them whatsoever, whilst at the same time dismissing their conclusions as supposedly grounded in a bad over-generalization. This is a shame as seeing as the bad over-generalization doesn’t, in fact, underlie the conclusion that large companies should be taxed more than they are at present or that we should push for greater income equality, Vanstone’s argument doesn’t give us reason to deny these claims. Yet Vanstone’s misrepresentation of the views of those she disagrees with creates the appearance that her argument does give us reason to deny them.

In sum we need to be charitable in interpreting each others arguments, we need to if we are to determine important truths. In other words, it’s fine to disagree with me, but please disagree with what I actually say, not some weird caricature of it.

with love



2 thoughts on “The Principle of Charity; or: bad reasoning in the real world Part 10

  1. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the principle of charity is about avoiding misrepresentation. It’s generally taken to be about choosing between different plausible interpretations. The idea is that you take the strongest of the options, which is going well beyond avoiding the temptation to simply misrepresent someone.

  2. Thanks, Daniel. I thought what I was trying to get across was that by not choosing the strongest reading of an argument, especially when you have reasons from other sources to favour that reading as Vanstone did, that you end up misrepresenting your opponents position.

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