Thoughts on Charity and Argumentation

Argumentation is an unavoidable part of apologetics, and, when doing apologetics, it’s crucial to note the difference between an argument in the everyday sense and an argument in the philosophical sense. While the former is a heated and aggressive clash of opinions, the latter is simply a set of statements that lead to a conclusion. Nonetheless, sometimes arguments of the first sort occur over arguments of the second sort. There are a number of reasons why these clashes take place, one of which is this: often apologists and sceptics alike fail to treat their interlocuter’s arguments, ideas, and opinions with charity. Conflict may be avoided if each party is guided by the “principle of charity”.

What is the principle of charity?

In a nutshell, the principle of charity is a principle that (ideally) guides philosophical dialogue, and, by extension, apologetic endeavours. It states that, when representing an argument or idea that you don’t agree with and are evaluating, you should represent that it in (i) the strongest form possible, and (ii) a way that is faithful to the argument/idea as originally presented. Here’s an everyday example of an uncharitable representation:

Sam: “Mum, I feel sick and I don’t like to eat junk food when I’m sick, so I think we should eat at home tonight” (said no child ever).

Sally: “Mum, Sam always feels sick, and besides, he won’t die from having KFC this once. I’ve been wanting it for weeks, so let’s eat out”.

Notice how Sally misrepresented Sam’s argument, then countered that misrepresentation with her own reason for the opposite course of action. Sam never said he’d die if he ate out—that’s an unfair caricature of his statement. Unfortunately, this sort of distortion occurs in serious dialogue as well, but more on that later. A more charitable conversation might run like this:

Sam: “Mum, I feel sick and I don’t like to eat junk food when I’m sick, so I think we should eat at home tonight”.

Sally: “Mum, it’s true that Sam is feeling sick and that he doesn’t like junk food when he’s ill. But he’s feeling sick because he hasn’t eaten all day, and since we’re out already, he’ll feel better sooner if we get some sushi before going home”.

In which of these examples is Sally’s case strongest? Granted, these examples are somewhat corny, but they illustrate well the difference between charitable and uncharitable representations of arguments.

Why be charitable?

Now, one might ask, why be charitable? Well, there are a number of reasons to do so. Firstly, as we noted earlier, treating peoples’ ideas and arguments charitably helps to avoid unnecessary conflict. No one likes to be misrepresented!  Secondly, as apologists, 1 Peter 3:15 instructs us to be respectful in our interactions with non-believers. Peter writes “in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience” (ESV, emphasis added). Respecting non-believers entails representing their views accurately and charitably. Remember, as apologists we’re not dealing solely with ideas and concepts—our goal is to win people to Christ, and uncharitable refutations are unlikely to direct people to Him. By being respectful and charitable with people’s arguments and opinions, we better represent God’s character and His work in our lives.

A third reason to treat others’ arguments charitably is this: if you represent the strongest form of an opponent’s argument, and then refute that, your own case is strengthened. Think about it for a moment; suppose you’re in conversation with someone who raises a number of arguments against God’s existence. In response, you misrepresent his or her arguments and refute them. When responding, your interlocuter can simply reply “that’s not actually what I think, so my arguments still stand”. As such, their case remains untouched, while yours struggles under the weight of their objections. In contrast, if, when they present their arguments, you take the time to properly understand what they’re stating and to present those arguments in their strongest form, your refutation will strengthen your case, while simultaneously weakening your opponent’s.

Attacking a Straw Man

The principle of charity is closely tied to a logical misstep known as the “strawman” fallacy. The strawman fallacy occurs when someone intentionally or unintentionally misrepresents an argument, refutes the misrepresentation, then proceeds as though the original argument has been dealt with. When people do this, they can be said to have “attacked a straw man”. Sadly, this fallacy crops up (pun intended) all the time in news reports, blogs, books, opinion pieces, and the like. One example I recently stumbled across can be found in Peter Boghossian’s book A Manual for Creating Atheists.

The prominent sceptic Michael Shermer introduces Boghossian’s book with a fleeting but fiery foreword. In assessing the claims of Christianity, Shermer describes the Trinity as follows:

God could just forgive the sin we never committed, but instead he sacrificed his son Jesus, who is actually just himself in the flesh because Christians believe in only one god—that’s what monotheism means—of which Jesus and the Holy Spirit are just different manifestations. Three in One and One in Three[i].

If you’ve done any study on the doctrine of the Trinity, you’ll see the problems immediately. Shermer has uncharitably misstated the doctrine, thereby making it seem absurd. This leads him to conclude that the doctrine is “barking mad!”[ii]. For the sake of brevity I won’t outline Trinitarian doctrine here, but if you’re baffled and can’t spot Shermer’s error, I’ll leave links to helpful resources in the endnotes[iii].

In response to Shermer’s attack, the Christian can respond “wait a second—that’s not what I believe!”. Shermer has attacked a straw man, and has failed to truly show that the Trinity is absurd. If, on the other hand, he had charitably represented the doctrine and responsibly responded to that, then he and his conversant could have a productive discussion, and perhaps one or both of the parties would adjust their view accordingly.

The Importance of Charity

Hopefully you can now see how important it is to be charitable in representing other peoples’ arguments, opinions, and ideas. Next time you’re interacting with non-believers, keep in mind the benefits of being guided by the principle of charity:

  1. The principle of charity helps avoid unnecessary conflict.
  2. 1 Peter 3:15 instructs us to be respectful when doing apologetics. This entails being charitable.
  3. Your own case will be strengthened if you refute a charitable representation of your opponent’s argument.
  4. If you treat others’ ideas and arguments charitably, you’ll avoid committing the strawman fallacy.

Remember, apologetics is about winning people to Christ, not just scoring debate points or winning arguments. This task is best carried out gently, respectfully, and charitably.


Endnotes

[i] Boghossian, P. (2013). A manual for creating atheists, p. 12. Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] For information on the doctrine of the Trinity, I recommend Greg Koukl’s two part series “The Trinity: A Solution, Not a Problem” which can be found here (pt. 1) and here (pt. 2). For a more in-depth study, try William Lane Craig’s Defenders podcasts, available here.

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