Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Principle of Charity Applied to Politics

I would like the people within eyeshot of this blog to introduce an improvement to public discourse this political season (or any political season anywhere in the world for that matter).

What I would like to ask you to do is to make an effort to make sure that candidates' positions (particularly the positions of candidates other than the candidate you support) are presented fairly and accurately.

Case in point: In a speech on July 8 in New Hampshire, Republican candidate Jeb Bush said, "people need to work longer hours".

Critics took this to mean that Bush was saying, "You lazy workers out there, you need to go out and work harder and longer so that our economy will improve."

In fact, he was making reference to the fact that, in our slow economic recovery, there are a lot of people holding down part-time jobs who were seeking full-time work. The claim to "work longer hours" referred to the need to create the full-time jobs that these part-time workers can then move into.

Mind you, these are workers who want full-time work and cannot find it. Bush was calling for creating the full-time jobs these workers want to move into.

Of course, this is a specific instance of a call for people to make honest and epistemically responsible claims generally - which people should strive for. I mention this specifically because social media seems to be particularly heavily flooded with distortions of candidates views.

In cases where claims are actually ambiguious, one should apply a "principle of charity".

Accourding to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The principle of charity governs the interpretation of the beliefs and utterances of others. It urges charitable interpretation, meaning interpretation that maximizes the truth or rationality of what others think and say.

In other words, if you are going to criticize a position, you should criticize the strongest and most rational expression of that opinion. It is not legitimate to create a weak straw-man interpretation, defeat it, and then assert from this that you have defeated the actual position.

This principle is strongly impressed upon philosophy students. However, I argue here that society would benefit if this were made into a general principle - if it were more widely applied than it is today. In other words, we have many and strong reason to use the principles of morality - praise and condemnation - to promote an aversion to presenting a distorted interpretation of a candidate's position.

An effectively way to help to make it the case that this principle is more widely applied is for those who think this principle has value to put it to use - to seek out cases in which it is being ignored and then offer a correction or improvement.

Put it to use. If you see a gross distortion of another person's position, call people on it. Tell them that people should be basing their vote on an understanding of the facts of the matter. Tell them that a candidate who can only advance his or her candidacy through lies and distortions - who couldn't win on truth and reason - probably does not deserve to be elected.

Even if this improvement is made in only one small corner of the body politic, it would still be an improvement.

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