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Jonathan Haber


The Principle of Charity

Posted: 10/27/2012 6:28 pm

If biases made us politically invincible (by ginning up our side's forces to create an army of foot soldiers and donors, without any substantial downside) there would be no practical reason to abandon them (or even examine them).

But time and time again, bias (which leads to the automatic acceptance of information confirming what we believe and rejecting evidence that confounds these pre-conceptions) has led to error. And on more than one occasion, such bias-driven errors have cost an election.

I previously mentioned two instances when the victory of biased partisans (in that case, partisans of Gary Hart's or John Edward's candidacies) could have led to disaster. And while those disasters were averted through the timely defeat or exposure of these trouble-laden candidates, the 1992 election provides an example of where bias can lead a campaign to make counter-productive choices.

In that instance, the campaign of George Bush Senior knew what to do when they found themselves running against a governor from a small Southern state: use the same negative tactics that worked so well when deployed against the last little-known governor they faced (Mike Dukakis).

In this case, this classic "If it ain't broke don't fix it!" bias may have been combined with pre-conceptions many of we Yankees have of those who speak in a certain geographically determined way. (As a brilliant Navy commander from Alabama once told a friend of mine serving on his Aegis cruiser, people have lost as much money assuming those with a Southern accent are stupid as they have assuming that those with a British accent are smart.)

These all-too-human biases prevented Bush campaigners from realizing that an embrace of the same negative tactics that succeeded in 1988 made their 1992 campaign decisions entirely predictable. And bias-driven assumptions about their opponent kept them from understanding that they were up against someone bright and talented enough to use their predictability against them.

I bring this up because many of the problems the current president's re-election campaign suffer from may come down to a characterization of their opponent that is not resonating with the wider public (despite being shared by the president, his supporters, and everyone these people come in contact with). Now it could be that anyone who doesn't see Obama's Republican rival as a monstrous plutocrat is deluded (or dumb). But it is also possible that we are looking at another campaign creating its own problems due to an inability to get beyond confirmation biases.

Even if this election ends in a victory for the president, it's worth examining whether embracing our biases (and re-enforcing them by surrounding ourselves with people and media that confirm them) is ultimately good for us as individuals, party loyalists or citizens of the nation.

This subject of bias was so important that I chose to cover it first in my Critical Voter lessons that use the 2012 election to teach practical critical thinking skills. For if you cannot get past your own biases, an understanding of other critical thinking tools (such as logic, argumentation, rhetoric and the like) will be useless since even the most skilled use of them will only serve to reinforce unexamined beliefs.

Fortunately, there is a remedy for the confirmation biases we all suffer from. But it's strong medicine traveling under the innocuous name of "The Principle of Charity."

This principle, which derives from the philosophy of argumentation, requires participants in debate to extend certain "benefits of the doubt" to one another by engaging with an opponent's strongest arguments rather than just pouncing on their weakest. As the philosopher Nigel Warburton illustrates:

"... in a debate about animal welfare, a speaker might state that all animals should be given equal rights. One response to this would be that that would be absurd, because it would be nonsensical, for example, to give giraffes the right to vote and own property since they would not understand either concept. A more charitable approach would be to interpret the claim 'All animals should have equal rights' as being a shorthand for 'All animals should have equal rights of protection from harm' and then to address that."

Now here is where the strong medicine comes in. For if we were to apply the Principle of Charity to this year's presidential contests, the first thing we would have to do would be to take both candidates at their word that their primary motivation for running for president is their love for America and their desire to contribute to improving it.

While it is possible that one or both candidates secretly harbor dark motivations for desiring the highest office in the land, we are likely to get a better understanding of the candidates and the issues if we start with the charitable position versus a more typical approach of accepting positive motivations with regard to the candidate we prefer, and paranoid fantasies about his rival.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but the Charity Principle can actually strengthen arguments made against an opponent's positions better than Manichean assumptions of virtue and truth on one side, darkness and falsehood on the other.

To see what I mean, earlier this week the Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker wrote a story about why many states so stubbornly vote red or blue. And while many people (including me) criticized his argument, Pinker earned enormous credibility up front by characterizing the two primary "umbrella" political ideologies (Liberalism and Conservativism) in fair-minded terms, meaning terms a thoughtful holder of either of these positions would accept as accurate.

Philosopher Kevin deLaplante (who runs the online Critical Thinker Academy) describes the idea of the genuine critical thinker being like an actor who must be able to step into the role of those they disagree with. In fact, they need to master this role to such a degree that they, like Pinker, could argue their opponent's position to their opponent's satisfaction.

Of course, this does not mean you must accept your opponent's positions, far from it. For if you are able to articulate your opponent's arguments to their satisfaction, that means you understand their strongest positions well enough to effectively argue against them (as opposed to attacking straw men built on a parody of those positions).

I expect the most likely argument against an embrace of the Principle of Charity will be that it's impossible to take such a high road when the opposition is acting like such dishonest, manipulative, rat-fink, jerks. But given how poorly confirmation bias has worked out for partisans in the past, I would suggest that this principle is not just the ticket to a loftier political debate, but to victory as well.


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