A brief note on the ethics of the principle of charity

The principle of charity is often introduced as a maxim for reading texts or conversing with interlocutors. In such contexts, it’s mostly taken as the idea to interpret your interlocutor in the most rational way possible. So if you read something and you have trouble understanding, you should try to reconstruct it in the best possible way, rather than dismissing it as nonsense. However, as I see it, the principle also has an ethical dimension in that it is rooted in our mutual recognition as humans.

Why do I think that? Donald Davidson famously claimed that the principle of charity is not optional. While he says this in the context of discussing conceptual schemes, I like to see it as the precondition of shared rationality in virtue of shared humanity. It should be in place when you interpret your interlocutor as a fellow human, as a fellow rational being. Recently, I put it as follows: The more you give your interlocutor the credit of being rational, that is making good sense of your interlocutor, the more you see them as human.* Conversely, the more you attack, try to find holes and belittle what your interlocuter says, the more you tend to dehumanise them. Of course, not every uncharitable reading is a form of dehumanisation. But there is certainly a number of problematic degrees, starting from local and perhaps voluntary misunderstandings, moving on to ‘othering’ your interlocutor, ultimately resulting in forms of dehumanisation.**

When you can’t see clearly, you’ll try to adjust your view or change the perspective. By contrast, when certain philosophers can’t understand someone well, they charge their interlocutor with talking nonsense. Isn’t it strange that we philosophers, of all people, are often so uncharitable? Given that the rest of the world makes mostly fun of us for being incomprehensible, you’d think we should know better. A ressentiment?


* I’d like to thank Chloé de Canson and Ismar Jugo for great and greatly charitable conversations on this topic.

** Here, I take dehumanisation as a way of seeing others as subhuman in their rational capacities.  See David Livinstone Smith’s work for a thorough account. (Here is a start.)