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The principle of charity: Criticize the best interpretation of an argument (effectiviology.com)
203 points by EndXA 59 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 86 comments



I wish more people online were like this. I've basically given up on Reddit because the discussions in many of the major subs devolve very rapidly to a "you are an X, therefore your argument is junk because you are stupid/evil, here is why". Pretty much all sides do it (and all sides say they don't).

For those who've not read the article and are thinking "but what about <insert political scumbag here>", the article starts by saying you should be charitable "as long as it’s reasonable" to do so. It is reasonable to assume that a political operative of almost any persuasion will attempt to bend things and miss-represent, so you should be on the look out for that and treat it accordingly.

I like the idea of the "steel man" argument, as a more effective alternative to the "straw man", you end up with a better argument that way, and are far more likely to "win" the argument than if you present something that the other person sees as BS. Even if your opponent is talking BS, the counter-argument you come up with will be more effective in countering it, a weak argument predicated on the weakest interpretation gives them wriggle-room.

I feel like the whole idea is the debate equivalent of the idea "never attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetance". Sometimes it is malice, but usually it's just a mistake. Assuming the worst in people as the default is very isolating, and understanding that made a big difference to my state of mind as I got older.


Most of my comments on reddit are replies to borderline insensitive arguments because I believe that it is very easy sound more aggressive than intended.

Generally I found that if you explain to someone how their comment might have been out of place, or maybe they just did not consider a nicer interpretation you get a nice response back.

> "you are an X, therefore your argument is junk because you are stupid/evil, here is why"

The problem with this type of comments is that generally people are not very good at complaining about them, or at suggesting better way to frame criticism. This is especially relevant in internet forums where too many personalities interact to be able to generalize and it is hard to gauge how much criticism is warranted.


I really applaud your efforts, I'm afraid I just ran out of energy trying to be positive on reddit. The world needs more people like you.

I do feel like it's going to be realy important to teach my kids as they grow up, how to have good conversations online,and how these sort of mediums often twist the perseption of what they say without them realising.


I think it's easier to be a jerk online so it's more prevalent here but, in my opinion, the ways in which people weasel out of their conversational responsibilities are no different than most in-person encounters of the same nature. If I care enough about the person or the cause, it might make sense to stick around and hold their hand. It does get tiresome.


Indeed, the power of your arguments and criticisms is inversely proportional to the insults attached to them.


This just reminded me of Reagan's mantra of "trust but verify" during the period of nuclear disarmament (which seems like another world now). If you want to cooperate, even with your biggest enemy, you both have to operate with trust, but that doesn't mean you don't keep an eye open to other possibilities.


> Reagan's mantra of "trust but verify"

That's actually a Russian proverb, afaik. In German the equivalent typically is attributed to Lenin ("trust is good but supervision is better"), but I think without source.


Why would anyone go looking for substantive debate by making a statement and letting anyone on earth reply? You wouldn't let most of these people into your home; why would you expect an arbitrary one of them to be a good conversation partner on an important controversial topic.

Reputation matters. Filtering matters. Selectivity matters.


> as long as it’s reasonable

We are always reasonable in our judgement.


Checkout the weekly Culture War thread on /r/TheMotte - it might not be perfect, but IMO they at least try to steel man arguments. (IIRC the term "steel man" came from a lesswrong post, and the subreddit is at least moderately related to that community)

Of course, this also means that a lot of "unacceptable in normal discourse but supportable via evidence" positions get pushed. Which quite a few people seem to find disagreeable. (you see, only MY outside-the-overton-window ideas are worthy of discussion - everything else is horrible and you're a Nazi/Commie/Racist/Sexist/etc for even listening to it or allowing it to be discussed by others. How dare you!)


The parent article reminded me of a quote from Gordon Fee, a professor of Theology, who had seen many disagreements during his career. Fee put it like this [1]:

A student is not bound to reproduce slavishly the interpretations of others, but you are bound to assess critically what you read.

Before you can say, "I disagree," you must be able to say, "I understand." It is axiomatic that before you level criticism you should be able to state an author's position in terms that he or she would find acceptable. After that, you may proceed in any of six directions:

a. Show where the author is misinformed.

b. Show where the author is uninformed.

c. Show where the author is inconsistent.

d. Show where the author's treatment is incomplete.

e. Show where the author misinterprets through faulty assumptions or procedures.

f. Show where the author makes valuable contributions to the discussion at hand.

[1] Gordon Fee, Exegesis, 3rd edition 2002 p.33


> Before you can say, "I disagree," you must be able to say, "I understand." It is axiomatic that before you level criticism you should be able to state an author's position in terms that he or she would find acceptable. After that, you may proceed in any of six directions:

This assumes that the assumption of good faith is well founded. Life is too short to critically refute every single crackpot theory out there. For better or worse, if someone sufficiently damages their ethos, I will choose to not spend my time critically evaluating everything they say.

[edit]

One place where my argument does not apply is when large numbers of people hold a particular opinion. If e.g. 80% of Republicans or 80% of Democrats hold a view, we are talking about 1/3 of the population of the US. Understanding why they hold that view, no matter how non-sensical it may seem is vital to understanding the world we live in.

It is insufficient to just say "well then insert large group here are all idiots" because that is clearly not true.I have two family members who each got perfect SAT scores and one is about as hippy-left as you can get and the other is a card-carrying republican and Trump supporter. They are (in my opinion) both wrong about a lot of things, but dismissing them as idiots is not possible.


> Life is too short to critically refute every single crackpot theory out there.

In this case, rather than claiming you disagree (which should imply understanding), you can just say you don't know enough about the issue to comment on it.

The spirit of the above argument is that, if you're going to vehemently disagree or argue with someone, you should understand— not that you need to understand every issue, nor agree or disagree with every issue.


> In this case, rather than claiming you disagree (which should imply understanding), you can just say you don't know enough about the issue to comment on it.

aidenn0 is making a subtlety different point: this form of rational argument depends on good-faith. If you think that has been violated, you would not say "I don't know enough about the issue to comment on it," but rather "I don't think this person is arguing in good-faith."

I agree with the principle of charity, and your claim that you should understand before disagreeing. But it is also true that you will encounter people who are not arguing in good-faith, in which case it is sometimes a mistake to even engage.


Totally agree– I was responding to "crackpot theory" which sounds more like wild conspiracy theories that people truly believe, rather than arguing in bad faith, but after re-reading, I think that is the point aidenn0 was trying to make.


Sorry for the late reply:

On the internet (which is where the quality of rhetoric could most use the principle of charity these days), it is hard or even impossible to tell the difference between a troll or a crackpot.


But all evidence suggests everyone is indeed an idiot.


I've heard a lot of discussions of the glory of formal argumentation but I've seen some compelling arguments against it.

The issue is that these rules can be exploited by a bad faith actor. Just throw arguments at somebody rapid fire, a gish gallop, and it basically works like a DOS attack. Eventually your opponent will stop responding after which you can declare victory since your opponent was unable to refute your argument. This incidentally is an argument against free speech absolutist positions.

I feel a lot of these rules assume you're debating an academic acting in good faith who wouldn't want to resort to such tactics for fear of hurting their own reputation. They're for people who argur with eachother by writing books about how their opponents are wrong. They're not adapted to the pseudoanonymous low barrier to entry environment of the internet.

You're best off taking shortcuts that result in you making weak arguments to avoid getting bogged down in discussions with bad faith/unintelligent actors and that allows you to be the among the first to opine on an issue which grants you a wider audience. At least to some extent.


We added that to the Hacker News site guidelines a few years ago: Please respond to the strongest plausible interpretation of what someone says, not a weaker one that's easier to criticize. Assume good faith.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

Before that, I used to write about the principle of charity quite a bit: https://hn.algolia.com/?query=by:dang%20principle%20charity&.... But eventually stopped using that name so much because it can be a bit confusing to people who haven't heard it before. It's shorter to just quote the guideline.


There's an even more insidious form of argument that's even present here on HN:

1: Take someone's position that one doesn't like

2: Extend it to a reasonable analogue (aka apply 1st formulation of Kant's Categorical Imperative)

3: Show how absurd it is and try to get the original person to defend it.

4: Never provide constructive criticism nor an alternative viewpoint.

It's a toxic way to entrap others and degrade the quality of a conversation. So much so that I had to write a satirical post about it[0]

[0] https://cjslep.com/c/blog/winning-internet-arguments


I'm surprised that nobody noticed that you demonstrate the technique in your own article!

"1. Find an argument that is disagreeable."

Somebody does not agree that people should expect others to remember their preferred pronouns.

"2. Derive an underlying principle behind it. This must appear civil and reasonable at all costs as it gives you credibility. At all costs, do not engage with the actual argument."

This is the article itself, which is framing the discussion as an exposure on how people win a discussion by using a certain dark strategy (this is the really clever meta move!)

"3. Extend the principle to a plausible real world absurdity to demonstrate its impracticality."

A 7-point bullet-point list is provided, culminating on the suggestion that people who are pronoun-conservative possibly also want to commit genocide against gay people and Jews.

"4. Use this absurdity to: tear down the argument; or appeal to a slippery slope; or directly ask the original author to defend."

The subtle escalation along the bullet-point list is very clever, it slowly "boils the frog", distracting the reader from the slippery slope argument contained therein.

"5. At all costs, do not propose an alternate solution which would reveal the true intentions for doing this. That cannot be revealed."

Yup.

To illustrate what a more nuanced compromise might look like, I disclose my own position on this matter:

If somebody tells me that me addressing them with a given pronoun is important to them, I will make my best effort. At the same time, my brain has been primed by decades of following the convention of choosing pronouns based on perceived gender, so I also expect to be excused if I forget, and for the person to consider that I might be tired or have bad memory, instead of assuming malice on my part.

"6. If anyone else replies to counter or patch holes, repeat the steps at the top."

I guess I'm the one playing that role here. Your move. :)


Haha, you're the first to try to apply it recursively! That's kind of why I employed satire, to make people think.

My move is simple. Do nothing. My satire fails its own test when applied to itself as I make clear what I am looking for and what is unacceptable, emphasized with satire.

I clearly value an argument when folks make a good faith effort to argue for an alternative position, make constructive criticism, elaborate on the source of their concerns, or reveal their intentions. No hidden intentions from me.

As for the example: I thought the satire had made it very clear that the alternate solution is to have the would-be-saboteur reveal their alternate position, make constructive criticism, elaborate on the source of their concerns (ex: like you've done above), or reveal their intentions. So my satire also fails my own test that way. Again, no hidden intentions, clear alternatives.

Since you made your position clear, we can now have a constructive argument about a myriad of things: the role of perceived gender in society, cultural norms, morality of honest mistakes, etc. And I don't have to be guessing a position on your behalf while also defending a position I never took. If you let me pick for you, and you pick for me, that's not a discussion.

It's basically a giant post about intellectual honesty and good faith discussions.


You say "no move", but you made a good one. I concede the point. Thanks for being a good sport.


Thanks for making me think more on the topic -- I especially loved the recursion which forced me to reflect on a whole new and weird level.


I call this "academically missing the point." HN encourages bland contrarian word soup that appears sound, but in order to engage in any kind of substantive conversation you must spend an inordinate amount of time deconstructing whatever you're replying to, in order to provide a functional baseline for the conversation moving forward.


That's an excellent article. Thank you for sharing. I love the way you formalized the propensity for internet arguers (mis)apply first principles using Kant's Categorical Imperative.

You articulated something I've noticed before but never really expressed as concisely. If you have the time and inclination, you should write more longform pieces about this. I'd read them.


This principle was used in medieval disputation. The Summa Theologiae [1] of Thomas Aquinas is broken down into "articles" that examine every aspect of a particular broader "question". Each article begins with a series of "objections" that attempt to state the best possible arguments against the position that Aquinas will take. The next section has a relevant quote from authority, and then Aquinas explains his position. Finally, he provides an answer to every objection. Although reading something written this way is difficult for modern readers, I think it provides a healthy antidote to the craziness we have today.

1: http://summa-theologiae.org/


This is a fantastic resource on in general - note that Thomas often wrote _better_ objections than those who held the positions he would argue against. That is, he would take the arguments he disagreed with and make them more cogent, more reasonable, and provide more applicable facts and citations than were in popular circulation at the time. Then he would counter these _best_ arguments. The point was to find the truth, not to win the argument.

That said, the _Summa_ assumes that you are reasonably familiar with the works of Aristotle and Plato - so some arguments (or counter-arguments) may sound arbitrary to those who are not yet familiar with those works.

Final note, another good source to read the Summa is http://newadvent.org/summa/


Even if the subject matter doesn't tickle you, I would recommend any intellectual curious person should read through three or four of them just to get a sense of the style in use.

There is certainly an argument to be made that producing this sort of document ought to be a (not "the", but "a") end-goal of more philosophical conversations. Probably created by multiple authors, though. I think there's a case to be made that while a one-sided screed will always have its place, there isn't enough work put into this sort of back & forth right in one place structure.


This seems like a very poor account of what it is to be charitable in argument.

It is essential to coherent conversation that you do your best to understand your interlocutor's position. If their argument betrays some particular idiosyncrasy or mistake, then you should focus on and examine that. If you instead ignore those features of their position and impose a view upon them which they don't actually possess - 'the best possible interpretation of their argument' - then you will not actually be engaging with their reasoning, and thus you'll be less likely to understand the source of your disagreement, analyse the merits of those differences, and convince one another.

You should not be looking for a 'good' or 'bad' interpretation of their argument, you should be searching for an accurate one.

I think better principles of charity would be:

1. Assume good faith 2. Be open minded to alternative views 3. Don't treat arguments as a battle of wits but as an attempt to move towards mutual understanding 4. Assume the person you're arguing with is at least as intelligent as you 5. Engage with their reasoning


If this is a conversation being held in good faith, and you impute to your nominal opponent a position that you believe is better than what it turns out they actually meant, then they have an opportunity to respond in ways other than simply taking (21st century) offense at your mischaracterization. They can correct you in a followup. Or they can discover that they appreciate your own iron-cladding of their argument for them and adopt it for themselves. At the very least, unless they're on a hair-trigger for being offended, at which point basically by definition they're not arguing in good faith anyhow, they're not terribly likely to be upset that you have granted them a stronger position than you believe they successfully argued for; from a human perspective it's still a demonstration of positive intent, even if the direct manifestation was misguided.

It's not a static situation, and most of the outcomes are still better than if you drill down on some particular issue they have and play the "gotcha" game. (At least, better if your goal is authentic intellectual conversation.)


I don't think there is much of a difference between the charity principle and your five points, as the former doesn't preclude you from raising the interpretations that concern you, and from finding out whether they were the interpretations the other person had in mind.


The point of the article, and the concept it's trying to promote, is to understand that even though the person giving the argument might be flawed or under-educated on the position, that it doesn't invalidate the position.

The way to get the most value out of flawed people is to find the best version of their argument and then argue with that. The person isn't all that relevant.


> The way to get the most value out of flawed people is to find the best version of their argument and then argue with that. The person isn't all that relevant.

I disagree. Human beings want to have their views recognized. Dismissing their views because there's a better position they could take is extremely presumptuous and doesn't generally make the conversation constructive. Because the other person will recognize their views aren't being heard, and won't necessarily care whether it's because of a misguided altruistic sense of bettering their argument for them.


If it's the best way to find truth, ego is not relevant in that pursuit.


> If it's the best way to find truth, ego is not relevant in that pursuit.

I think this is completely true. Also, it fully validates the point you were responding to.

We can be in a situation where we simultaneously realize two things:

1/ the sole remaining obstacle to agreement is our discussion partner's ego, and

2/ our partner is not yet ready to confront the truth of 1/ for reasons outside of their control.

If we do realize these two things but continue to demand that the other side dissolve their ego right now or else they're not meeting our standard of good-faith (although 2/ clearly says they are), then that would be an example of our own ego getting in the way. Which shows that your criteria is valid and fully affirms the grandparent post.


This presupposes that you are better at finding the best version of the argument than the person actually making the argument. This is often the case, because the person making the argument often didn't put in much effort.

It is not always the case, though, and you do yourself a disservice by assuming that it is.


I think it's more like... help them find the best version of their argument. Being as you and your interlocutor are both human, you'll both have flaws and blind spots. If you debate constructively, you can compensate for each other's flaws and blind spots.


That doesn't seem to be the declared aim of the article. Its first sentence reads:

'Simply put, the principle of charity is the idea that when criticizing someone’s argument, you should criticize the best possible interpretation of that argument.'

Later:

'Essentially, the principle of charity embodies the idea that when you interpret what other people say, you should select the best possible interpretation for their statements.'

What is at question in both these statements is the position of an interlocutor. It is a guide to conversation.

You say:

'The way to get the most value out of flawed people is to find the best version of their argument and then argue with that.'

That seems like a highly narcissistic way of conducting a conversation. You would in effect be having an argument with yourself.

As I said above, I think imposing a view on an interlocutor that they do not actually hold is a recipe for confusion, will almost certainly make the conversation unproductive, and might prevent you from understanding their position in the first place.


Agreed that doing that would be taking this idea too far. A better bar to aim for is quoted in the article:

> You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”


I'm not sure how you go from "find the best version of their argument" and see "argue for them"...


I don't see any other way of interpreting your claim that 'the way to get the most value out of flawed people is to find the best version of their argument and then argue with that.'

You give your argument, they give theirs. Then you amend their argument for them, and argue against that, ignoring your interlocutor.

If you are not interested in accurately understanding the person you're talking to, and instead impose what you take to be the strongest interpretation of their argument on them, then you are for all intents and purposes arguing not against them, but yourself.


> Then you amend their argument for them, and argue against that, ignoring your interlocutor.

The problem is that language is ambiguous and easily misunderstood. You interlocutor also has context which you don't know about.

Being charitable means recognizing these facts and so reading their words to mean the strongest possible interpretation. If they intended some weaker argument, it doesn't matter, because dismantling the stronger version already handles the weaker interpretation.


I suppose the problem in all this is that the dictum that you should 'criticise the best possible version of your interlocutor's argument' does not specify how to identify the argument in question in the first place.

Take the following example. Suppose you claim that the meat industry is bad, advance three premises, and infer from them the conclusion that it is indeed bad. Now, if I use the dictum 'criticise the strongest version of your interlocutor's' argument, that could mean many things:

  1. I might think that all the premises were unconvincing and argue against entirely different premises in favour of the same claim.
  2. I might offer new premises in addition or substitution for the premises provided, or a different conclusion.
  3. I might interpret the specific details of the premises or conclusion differently.
One could plausibly say that all of these strategies offer a different version of the 'same' argument, but the first would have almost nothing to do with it, and the second would be majorly different. Also, note that if I switch around the premises, and argue against that amended version of their argument, it does not at all follow that 'dismantling the stronger version already handles the weaker interpretation'. Defeating a strong argument does not falsify an entirely independent argument, even if it is weaker.

I personally would say that this conversation is based on an unhelpful conflation. We should both strive to understand one another as accurately as possible, and to move the conversation in as constructive a direction as possible. They need not be in tension. The problem arises if I take the latter - the desire to make the conversation constructive - as an interpretive principle.


I would say that none of your cases covers the intent behind the dictum. You've already moved past the "ambiguous language" and right into assuming that the argument was clearly conveyed and understood, and so you must now endeavour to evaluate the plausibility of the premises, the inferences, etc.

The dictum applies prior to this step, where the premises and the argument may be phrased in a somewhat ambiguous way. When interpreting the language used to describe the premises, take the most challenging interpretation rather than the weakest/most easily attacked interpretation. When evaluation the inferences, once again take the most challenging interpretation.

For instance, a phrase may admit two interpretations, a valid or invalid inference. You should always assume your interlocutor intended the valid inference.


If you find your interlocutor's position ambiguous in some major way, then you should, firstly, tell them, and secondly, ask them to explain. Otherwise confusion may ensue as to what exactly is being argued for and against. If the ambiguity is incidental, then the principle of charity is not really doing much. I take it that your example - about a phrase admitting a valid and invalid inference - is of this kind. Though I do agree that we shouldn't jump upon those kinds of slippages.

If you read carefully and allow the conversation to unfold, while prompting your interlocutor to explain what remains unclear to you, then generally you can get a fairly accurate impression of their views. More often than not, the problem is not ambiguity, but an unwillingness to listen, and engage thoughtfully with others, through a genuine dialogue.


Doesn't this fail when dealing with genuine bad actors?

E.g. we know that social media are infected by a variety of trolls and "influencers", and it seems pointless to assume the best possible interpretation for their output - except, possibly, as a deliberate rhetorical position, which can sometimes be more persuasive than more passionate rebuttals.


It harkens back to an era when academia was a somewhat homogeneous cultural community, and when people were playing “the long game” with their reputations.

Being a bad actor may chase someone out of an argument giving you an immediate “win,” but the word goes around about you, and suddenly your professional reputation is in tatters.

But in an environment where people are basically anonymous, where you may be engaging with a paid operative, or a throwaway sock puppet account, or an account that is trying to amass followers for grift (like being an anti-vaxxer online in order to sell books and newsletters)...

None of the traditional manners around debate apply.


Just to be clear, you are almost never engaging with a paid operative. Push that out of your mind, it's paranoia.


> Just to be clear, you are almost never engaging with a paid operative. Push that out of your mind, it's paranoia.

While that may be true on the English web, I don't think that works as a general principle. There are definitely some contexts where it's much more likely than you estimate, e.g. https://gking.harvard.edu/50c.


“Almost never,” except when you are. For example, Milo. All over social media for a good long while, along with staffers, until the money behind him dried up.


That's not really what we tend to mean by "paid operatives". Every side's got people clearly being paid to advance some goal, and that's not news, not going away, and not even necessarily a particular problem.

It's the commentary that isn't clear that it's paid, the 300 anonymous comments from different accounts on some news story all expressing some opinion that turn out to be from the same source, that's the real problem.

Whether on average you're dealing with paid operatives is hard to tell. Whether they exist is not; they definitely do. (Honestly, the alternative is just absurd. "There's billions of dollars worth of value sloshing around in Internet forums in setting the opinion and the flow of conversation, but everyone in the world is so very honest that the very idea of forging the signals simply never occurs to anyone, and nobody ever has a reason to try to slant things and is willing and able to pay." Come on. Seriously.) It's the scale that's at issue.


Indeed. Perhaps people aren't arguing with paid operatives directly, but there are a lot of people repeating positions that were injected into the dialogue by paid operatives.


This is definitely the case. Most of the repeaters are incapable of following through or supporting the argument (in most cases, not even the original promulgator could follow through in a rational discussion), and they have exactly one response: change the subject with another non-sequitur. It is a mistake to follow them into the change of subject, and the charity principle doesn't ask you to do so, as they have by then revealed their true intentions.


> Indeed. Perhaps people aren't arguing with paid operatives directly, but there are a lot of people repeating positions that were injected into the dialogue by paid operatives.

The term for them is "useful idiots." But you definitely shouldn't engage with them like they are bad-faith actors, because often they're good-faith actors who've been mislead.


Yeah, much in the same way that you're "almost never" actually being followed...


I'm not the OP but I just wanted to say that it's not paranoia, as I've known of media agencies in my country (EU and NATO member) which had been hired to post favorable online comments on specific political candidates. That was happening about 5 or 6 years ago. I'm pretty sure that phenomenon has only gained momentum in the meantime.


I think those typically go for quantity though, and won't engange in actual prolonged discussion.


Citation needed. I also used to have a photo of a Financial Times article back from 2011 (I think) of a NATO higher-up acknowledging the fact that Israel and Russia were already ahead of the game at that point in terms of online influencing, with the NATO official explicitly saying that both Israel and Russia have dedicated units for this.

From personal experience I can testify that Israel was actually the first in the game, as I remember engaging against very persuasive pro-Israel posters on reddit during the summer of 2006 (meaning during Israel's war against Hezbollah), at a time when that site was almost totally politics-free. That was a lesson for me and I've since given up on any Israel-related discussions online.

The Russian shill accounts started showing up two summers later, in 2008, during Russia's war with Georgia. Somewhere in the reddit server logs there's all this information stored and ready to be analyzed but I suspect no-one has any real incentive in doing this.


Being rhetorically charitable, i.e. pretending like you don't think the other person is a moron, is a helpful way to demonstrate that someone is, in fact, a moron.

Other times you end up looking like a soft-bellied fool.


Bad actors will usually reveal themselves either by disavowing your charitable interpretation, or (more likely) by avoiding the question of whether they meant that rather than the alternatives.


> 1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

This is by far the best rule I have ever attempted. The best way to debate is when both sides reword the other side argument, with corrections until both are satisfied.

It will also reveal the most insightful and depressing hidden realities about human cognition. Significant percentage of people are seemingly incapable of entertaining alternative viewpoints. Everyone suffers from this condition when we are heavily invested int some idea or belief, but most people can suppress the tendency temporarily and see the logic of some other way of thinking.

I wonder if there are psychological tests that can be used to score this ability.


My experience of this on HN has led me to basically conclude it’s not very possible to be constructive in internet comments. I may clearly re-state a point of view I disagree with, and the response will always be that I have either misunderstood it, no matter what, or that my replies (which are tailored exactly to the item I’m responding to) don’t refute the original point and I’m “not providing evidence.”

In other words, the most common type of reply I get is something to the effect of, “Despite re-stating my argument with clear articulation, you did not understand it (and I won’t say why) and further, your counterpoints don’t constitute “evidence” or induce any information transfer (which I will take to imply your deficiency and not mine), and before looking further into any of this, the burden of collecting, organizing and disseminating evidence is all on you.”

This attitude seems often to get rewarded with upvotes as well. It’s very distressing to me personally.


Internet discussions suffer from lack of common context and bad faith arguments. People also like to argue for fun. Sometimes people intentionally misunderstand.

The effect I mentioned can only be detected when you talk face to face with someone in good faith and you both try to come to conclusion.


One problem with internet debates is the debators only ever know about the people they're debating. Rarely will you convince your "opponent," but you'll probably have an impact on people who read but don't comment. You're debating for the audience.

This is also why people should challenge others in public when needed. Your boss might not change his ways, but your colleagues could.


I agree with you very much, but you do learn something about your audience by observing what is up-voted, down-voted or flagged, and what responses moderators provide.

In general I find those things to be very personally discouraging on Hacker News. It’s a community I’d like to belong to, but feel that when I abide very carefully by the community standard of discourse, I still receive punitive downvotes for disagreeing with crowdthink or receive canned moderator responses that don’t explain the specific mechanics by which a comment is considered failing to meet guidelines, with no serious appeals process when you believe you’re being treated unfairly.


It's good advice. Ten years ago, I had some opportunity to improve some soft skills by taking some courses. I took some courses related to selling your ideas and coaching.

Turns out that this is something lots of engineers could benefit from as this is simply not part of their bag of tools when they leave university and something that can frustrate them enormously when they need to engage with others whether it is colleagues, customers, or superiors.

I've been in more than a few meetings where people were yelling at each other, or worse, where I ended up doing a fair bit of yelling myself. These days, I tend to be a bit more conscious about it than I used to be. Usually it indicates something is wrong that needs fixing and quite often it is beyond whatever is being discussed. Fixing that is often the more important thing.

A few tricks I apply: 1) If you think something is good, make a point of communicating that. It buys you good will and people are more likely to listen to you when you say otherwise. Also it keeps people motivated. 2) Talk in terms of improvements/fixes/changes instead of simply stating, "this sucks". It's much harder to argue against that by others because why wouldn't you want to improve things. 3) Pick your fights carefully. Having opinions is cheap but owning the consequences is not. I often give people room to do things their way even when I don't fully agree it's the right way. Basically I need them to do it for me without my involvement. And there's always the chance you are wrong after all. In any case, the whole point of a team is being able to trust others to get shit done without you. If you need to micromanage everything, something is wrong. That something might be you.


I think ultimately this boils down to the "diry hands" problem (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirty_hands). As long as the general public isn't equipped to identify an intentionally uncharitable interpretation (and punish bad actors for it), you will find yourself on the losing end of the argument. I do think you should generally interpret opposing arguments charitably, but you should also be able to quickly switch gears if necessary. Otherwise you will be outplayed by your opponents.


Depends on what game you're playing. Are you trying to win the argument? Or are you trying to win your listeners? You can go against bad actors, with charity, and still point out where they refuse to commit to a position, where they change positions, and where they otherwise argue in bad faith. I wouldn't do so the first time it happens in a conversation, but if it keeps happening, sure, use the record of the conversation to point out what they're doing.

Note well, however, that if I'm reading this, and I see that you have judged the other side as arguing in bad faith, and you try to document that, and I don't agree, then I think you have a hair trigger at least, and perhaps that you are arguing in bad faith. That is, you have to extend more charity than a normal reader, rather than less.


Good point. I think the game you should play when entering an argument is finding the truth. I think what I was trying to say was that if someone changes the game by arguing in bad faith (and for the sake of the point, undoubtedly so), you should note that and point it out or play along.


I always try to strongman other peoples arguments. Im not perfect but i do my best. Another important thing i have learned is to try and understand what someone is saying rather than making it only their job. This is especially true when people swear and uses faul language.

But most importantly i try to never point thd moral finger at someones position that way a much more fruitful discussion can be had.


I occasionally teach a course in informal logic, basically the construction & deconstruction of arguments and rhetorical devices. The principle of charity is the single most fundamental rule of reading/interpreting an argument in order to have productive discussions on a topic and not get bogged down in misunderstandings, accidental straw men rebuttals, etc. Everything else, from identifying the primary claim and dissecting the supporting evidence to actually rebutting the argument, flaws, fallacies etc., that all comes after.


Being able to make the other person's case and articulate it in a way that is true to them is a key step in negotiations books, as well as some conversations books. It's not really hard to understand why. A lot of time is lost in arguments/debates because one person thinks the other person isn't understanding (even when the other person does) - so it's important to signal that you understand.

There is a kind of corollary to this: Often times person A comes to me complaining about person B being stubborn about something. So I often ask: "So why do you think B is insisting on it?" They usually cannot come up with a good answer. At that point, I either hint or explicitly tell A that B has a position that A doesn't understand, and it's not surprising B will not change his position since A isn't trying to address B's needs.


I first saw this principle as a negotiation tactic in "Never Split the Difference", he talks about how FBI hostage negotiators talk to understand the motivations of hostage-takers and terrorists without necessarily giving in or agreeing with any of those motivations.

It turns out even hardened criminals want to be heard/understood, and by using (author calls) "tactical empathy", you can start your negotiation off on the right footing.


I love this principle too - I think the only time it truly falls down (other than pure trolls) is when the person is so in love with their own voice (or, don't want to be pinned down), that no matter how much you try to repeat their point back to them, they say No, and repeat it back slightly differently. The distinctions are endless.


One of the issues with pieces like this is that it implicitly agrees that the only way to engage people on the internet is by arguing. This promotes a them-vs-us mentality and the desire to "win" the argument.

I am usually trying to engage people in discussion, not "win" an argument. I try to add value to the discussion, not "win."

I especially dislike the general assumption that winning the argument means making the other person lose. Some people are seriously not happy with just being heard. No, they want someone else to go down in social rank or look like a fool. Without that element, they obviously aren't happy.


I agree that such people exist. Avoid them if possible. (I'm pretty sure I don't need to tell you that!) If not, then (in my best moments) I try to disengage quickly, making it clear that I think that they are wrong, but I'm not going to continue to argue with someone who just wants to argue.

This has the virtue of not giving them the victory that they wanted. Even if they take the last word, it's usually pretty clear to an unbiased reader what was going on. I'm (at least sometimes) content to leave it there, and to let the reader judge.



Another aspect of this is that people are often better at thinking and reasoning than they are a communicating and reading. When you play a game of "telephone" and hear something that sounds bad, you shouldn't assume "wow this person is stupid and evil for thinking this." Instead, the principle of charity suggests that maybe they aren't stupid or evil and you're interpreting it in a way they didn't intend.


I've thought there are three ways to view the Principle of Charity, depending on what you think its aim is. The exegetical aim is to accurately determine the author's belief or intention. The pragmatic aim is to conduct the most fruitful discussion of the matter in question. The ethical aim is to be duly respectful of the author. Moreover, it strikes me that these three aims overlap in practice for the most part, but not entirely.


I don't argue that it can be useful for online debates, but damn, how boring would be Frank Herbert's Dune dialogues if we follow this principle?

Specially with pearls like this: https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/91393/dune-explain...


> 1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

I like this and I'd even extend this to having an opinion on something. It really helps your opinions!

>> “I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.” — Charlie Munger


My opinion is the best in my opinion, so the best interpretation of the opponent's argument will match my opinion. Is this how it works?


There's a famous Channel 4 interview between Cathy Newman and Jordan Peterson that illustrates not just the flaws of being uncharitable but also how it can backfire spectacularly. Regardless of how one feels about Peterson, the nearly 15 million views are evidence that excessive straw-manning ends up helping the person and argument you're against.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMcjxSThD54


I clicked this hoping it would be about constructivism. Oh well.


Yes, I saw that ambiguity too, and replaced the subtitle with a more specific phrase from the article.




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