The Principle Of Charity

I just discovered this principle and it is awesome. According to Wikipedia: “In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity or charitable interpretation requires interpreting a speaker’s statements in the most rational way possible and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation.[1] In its narrowest sense, the goal of this methodological principle is to avoid attributing irrationality, logical fallacies, or falsehoods to the others’ statements, when a coherent, rational interpretation of the statements is available. According to Simon Blackburn[2] “it constrains the interpreter to maximize the truth or rationality in the subject’s sayings.””

“The first to state this hermeneutic principle was Rabbi Meir, a tanna of the fourth generation (139–163), who declared, in Arachin 5b: ‘A person does not say things without reason’.”

Out of all talkshow hosts, I think Dennis Prager does the best with applying this principle. Out of the livestreamers I hear, Richard Spencer does the best.

Operating under this charitable framework, we reduce the perils of the e-personality: “against this background of disinhibited, dissociated personhood, five psychological forces will vie to assert themselves: grandiosity, or the feeling that the sky is the limit when it comes to what we can accomplish online; narcissism, or how we tend to think of ourselves as the center of gravity of the World Wide Web; darkness, or how the Internet nurtures our morbid side; regression, or the remarkable immaturity we seem capable of once we log on; and impulsivity, or the urge-driven lifestyle many fall into online. Those are the transformations (and fractures) that occur in our identity as we sit in front of our browsers, and that is the “Net effect.””

Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal wrote in his 1997 work, People of the Book: Canon, Meaning, and Authority: Canon, Meaning and Authority:

The principle of charity is an interpretative method that would yield an optimally successful text. For example, although a person’s words might be read as self-contradictory and thus meaningless, they should not be interpreted in that way. If someone tells us he feels good and bad, we should not take his statement as meaningless but rather understand by this that sometimes he feels good and sometimes bad, or that his feelings are mixed. 28 In Quine’s usage, the principle entails quite a limited amount of charity. He discusses problems of translation that involve the use of basic logical rules. In cases of radical translation a charitable attitude is adopted so that a speaker’s words will make sense and the sentence he utters can have meaning, any meaning. Charity is not used here to interpret the other’s statements in the best possible light, but simply to shed some light on them. The other limit of charity is that use of the principle is not based on any assumptions of the speaker’s talent and capability but is simply the precondition for understanding any discussion. Charity amounts to seeing the other as a user of a language, and it is necessary for holding a conversation. The following example will help clarify the distinction between the level of charity required for shedding any light at all on a sentence and the level of placing it in the best light. A given conversation might be fraught with suspicion; for various reasons the speaker may think that his interlocutor is lying and is therefore totally uncharitable in this sense. Sometimes we just take it for granted that the other is lying, so we apply the principle of “liar until proved truthful.” But even so, we must employ the sort of charity that Quine defines, for in order to tell a lie, the other must make sense and speak a shared language.

Ronald Dworkin extends Quine’s principle of charity in interpretation to the second level. Dworkin claims that the choice between competing interpretations is governed by the criterion of which interpretation shows the work in the best light. In literary interpretation we will choose the one that accounts for all the aspects of the narrative. An interpretation that seems to leave a portion of the story unconnected and therefore superfluous will be ruled out. In legal interpretation the standard for the best possible interpretation is not aesthetic but moral. We will select the interpretation that makes the best moral case of the legal material. According to Dworkin, even those who claim that we must discover the original intention of the legislator base their opinion on the belief that this is the best possible way of reading a legal text. The writer’s intention does not provide an independent criterion for establishing the meaning of the text; Dworkin rejects that standard and argues that those who adopt it do so for political reasons. In their view, this is the only way that the legal system can achieve stability and be freed from the arbitrariness of the interpreter-the judge. Their prime guiding principle of interpretation is a value judgment concerning the optimal interpretative strategy, not an objective standard for interpretation. Moreover, according to Dworkin, in reconstructing the writer’s intention we attempt to present it in the best possible light. Interpretation is thus closely linked to evaluation, and value serves as the ultimate standard for interpretation.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
This entry was posted in Rhetoric. Bookmark the permalink.