Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Principle of Charity

In one of my classes, one of my professors frequently mentions the Principle of Charity (a good kind of PC, if you will). What exactly is this principle, and for what is it to be used? Let’s stipulate that PC is the following: When evaluating a particular claim or set of claims, if a claim is ambiguous, give it the “best” possible meaning.

This would mean, for example, if a claim can be taken in one sense in which it is logically incoherent, or another sense in which it is coherent, it should be taken in the coherent sense. If I say “Jesus is God,” and you therefrom infer that I believe in modalism, you probably aren’t exercising PC. Why? Because there is a definite sense in which I can be interpreted to be saying something that does not entail modalism.

Why should we do this? Why should we use PC? Well, it seems obvious to me that if someone can be taken in a certain way that would make them look foolish or silly, it’s not typically a nice thing to do to make them look foolish. Second, it’s all too easy to jump in to strawmen and tear them apart. Without PC to guide us, it’s much easier for us to caricature an argument and make the person say what they did not intend to say. But what if it’s apparent that the person does in fact intend to say something incoherent, or that has absurd results, or patently false? Does PC have anything for us in these cases?

I think it does. I think PC should still apply to us, because we may be able to construct an even stronger argument against our position. Now why would we want to do that? First, because we must always be open to the possibility that we are wrong. None of us is perfect; all of us make mistakes in reasoning. If we can construct a strong biblical, theological, or philosophical argument that at least has its roots in our opponent’s reasoning such that we should abandon our earlier position, then so be it. PC has served us well. Second, using PC to construct a stronger argument means we may be able to make corrections or improvements to our argument or position that we may not have otherwise seen. We can, and should, always accept correction to make our position stronger, even if we do not change it, and PC facilitates that. Finally, using PC to construct a stronger argument means that, if our position wins out, we have beaten stronger objections to it than were first presented. In fact, if we always apply PC, this will ensure that we have faced (and overcome) the strongest objections to our positions that are out there. A tested position that comes out of such a fight intact and/or improved is a position that comes out stronger.

I believe the implications for both apologetics and theological discourse among Christians are obvious. The fact that we should engage in PC with our brothers and in evangelism strikes me as almost obvious. And the final, sad, but still obvious fact of the matter is that far too often, we do not exercise PC even with those who are of the household of faith (myself included). That must change!

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