The Importance of the Principle of Charity in Rhetoric

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson highlights how to become better at understanding and responding to the arguments of others using the principle of charity. You'll learn the two main ways you can apply this principle and how it can help you.

Ineffective Arguments

Clarence has a hard time arguing his case when he has political discussions with his friends. He tries to articulate his position, but sometimes he sounds like he didn't completely think through the topic. His statements don't always express what he really means when he tries to be persuasive.

Luckily, his friend Jude uses the principle of charity during their debates. This means that Jude finds the strongest interpretation of Clarence's argument that the evidence allows. In other words, Jude will focus on what does make sense in Clarence's argument and what the evidence supports.

The principle of charity is particularly important when rhetoric is involved. Rhetoric is a form of communication intended to persuade another person to accept a particular point of view. The principle of charity ensures that we don't disregard the rhetoric of others simply because there are some weaknesses in their argument structure. We can go beyond what the other person says in their argument and look more closely at whether evidence supports their point of view or not. Our own rhetoric will be stronger as well because we have more clearly thought through the issues.

The Best Possible Interpretation

Clarence is angry with the new tax structure in his town and wants to fight it. He makes his case to Jude by saying, 'The town must think I'm Mr. Money Bags! I won't stand for this!'

From what Clarence says, his argument seems to go like this:

1. The town has raised taxes.

2. The town thinks I'm a rich man.

3. I shouldn't have to pay taxes based on the new rates.

Claiming that the town thinks he's rich doesn't really help Clarence's argument against the new tax structure. The argument he uses in this case doesn't sound very strong at all.

However, Jude realizes what Clarence really means when he says the town thinks he's rich. She knows he's using that statement to express his dissatisfaction at the rates and how they seem to unfairly penalize him. After she asks him a few more questions about what he means, she realizes his argument is really as follows:

1. The town has raised taxes.

2. I can't afford to pay both the new tax rates and all of my basic bills.

3. The new tax structure is unfair to those with my income.

This is a stronger argument because it points out that those with Clarence's income are perhaps unreasonably squeezed financially by the new rates. This is a more powerful interpretation of Clarence's argument.

The principle of charity is what leads Jude to restate Clarence's argument in these more effective terms. She's found a way to allow his argument to be presented more strongly with evidence that helps him make his case.

Why Use the Principle

Let's say Jude agrees with the new tax structure and has an opposing position to Clarence. Why should she still use the principle of charity?

If Jude wasn't charitable to Clarence in this way, Jude might have challenged his very weak argument that the town thinks he's Mr. Money Bags. She probably would have argued that of course the town doesn't think he's particularly rich since he doesn't make more than the average resident.

In reality, Clarence's argument is much stronger than that. Although he doesn't articulate it very well, what he really wants to argue is that he will experience financial distress due to the new rates. Jude's ability to understand the heart of Clarence's argument helps her to make better logical arguments herself. She can clarify what is being said by the other person and try to attribute a strong argument to them. Only once she understands the other argument well - and in its best possible form can she either agree or disagree with it.

Straw Man Fallacy

When a person doesn't use the principle of charity, things can get a bit ugly. Just imagine, for example, if Jude always responded to Clarence without it.

In the first example, where Clarence said that the town must think he's Mr. Money Bags, perhaps she would have responded by saying something like:

'You're saying the town thinks you're the richest person alive and that's why the want to tax you? That's baloney.'

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