Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Principles of Communiction: Definitions, Stipulations, and Charitable Interpretations

There are rules governing the use of words in an honest discussion.

I was involved in a couple of debates recently involving the principles of communication. One involved the term “atheist” while the other involved the term “capitalism”.

Use Standard Definitions or Stipulate Otherwise

In the first discussion, I argued that one ought to either use a word with its standard meaning for a given linguistic community, or announce that one is using a non-standard definition.

For example, let us assume that you call me asking for directions to my house and I say that there is a tree in the front yard. However, I opt to use the word “tree” in a non-standard way such that a rose bush counts as a tree.

When I say “tree”, I set you up with a set of expectations based on the common understanding of the term. If those expectations are not correct, it is not your fault that you failed to intuit my non-standard use of the term. The fault is mine. I broke the rule against using a term in a non-standard way without declaring that this is what I was doing.

I hold that the common meaning of the term “atheist” in English is “One who believes that the proposition ‘at least one god exists’ is certainly or almost certainly false. If one wants to use the word in a non-standard way (e.g., one who lacks a belief in A god), one is obligated to stipulate one’s non-standard use. If one generates confusion by using the term in a non-standard way without stipulating this fact, then the speaker/writer is the one guilty of causing the confusion, not the reader/listener.

Principle of Charity

The dispute regarding capitalism involved an article that gave a distorted sense of the term “capitalism” in order to discredit it.

[T]here’s something fundamentally flawed about a system that has a prime directive to churn nature and humans into capital, and do it more and more each year, regardless of the costs to human well-being and to the environment we depend on. Because let’s be clear: That’s what capitalism is, at its root. That is the sum total of the plan.

Let’s be clear, I do not know anybody who would defend capitalism who would accept this definition.

That’s the rule - if you are going to attack a position, then attack that which the defenders of that position would seek to defend.

What capitalism is at its root is a prohibition on aggression. It states that only voluntary agreements among people are legitimate, and that the first person to bring violence into a discussion acts immorally. All interaction is limited to the free, voluntary, non-violent interaction among individuals. People have a moral right to private property in virtue of mixing their labor with it since taking a property by force or fraud is to take - by force or fraud - a part of the life of the person who mixed his labor with it. This is an act of violence.

The point here is not to defend capitalism but to point out the requirement to present an opposing view in its strongest light. This interpretation is certainly much more sturdy than the straw man constructed above even though, ultimately, I think it fails. Still, one has to recognize that, in defeating it, one has to argue for the use of violence for reasons other than self-defense. Against the, the capitalist can argue, “Once you claim the right to violence for reasons other than self-defense, you have opened Pandora’s Box.”


I have argued in two posts about the malevolence of liars and trumpsters - two types of people who live parasitically by infecting others with false beliefs. This post follows the same theme.

One has an obligation to either use a word in its standard sense for the particular linguistic community one is talking to, or to stipulate (announce) that one is using a non-standard definition. Any confusion that results from a failure to do so is not the fault of the listener, but the fault of the speaker/writer.

And, when criticizing a view, one has an obligation to present the view criticized in the strongest light, and not create a straw man to discredit the view with what are, for all practical purposes, lies, misrepresentations, and distortions.

These are moral values. People generally have many and strong reasons to promote aversions to these types of acts, because the confusions and errors that are caused by these practices are those that people have reason to avoid and prevent. To the degree that people adopt these practices - which means, to the degree that people are willing to condemn those who do not - the better off our society will become.

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