The space between charitable and uncharitable

Judging from the reactions to my “Read the dead uncharitably” post, including Leah Libresco’s, I think that post may have suffered from a poor choice of words. When I talk about “uncharitable” reading, all I mean is making no special effort to read charitably. But Leah’s post talks about the problems with reading “antagonistically,” and says, “When I read or argue with anyone uncharitably, I am training uncharity in myself.” That doesn’t reflect my intention–I don’t even know what that last sentence means.

I think the language of charitable vs. uncharitable creates a false dichotomy: either you’re actively trying to read someone in a nice way, or you’re actively reading them in a mean way. It leaves no room for simply calling it as you see it.

I also think it’s a mistake to conflate charity with reading carefully, or that to be charitable means “to make sure you fully understand the other position before you put it to critique.” Sure, sometimes when you read carefully, you realize the other person’s position is more plausible than you thought, but other times a careful reading is what makes a position fall apart.

Recently, I’ve been reading Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near as part of a project for the Singularity Institute, and it’s turning out to be a good example of the latter case. A lot of what he says looks plausible at first glance, but then on a more careful reading it starts to look like quite a mess. (Equating uncharitable and superficial is one mistake that Eric Schwitzgebel makes, by the way.)

This is something that should be more obvious than it is. Why on Earth would you assume a careful reading will make someone look better? When all you have is a first impression, how do you know how a more careful reading will turn out? You haven’t done it yet!

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    I guess that Leah was being… uncharitable to you?

  • http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/ Garren

    I would say you’re calling for people to read the dead respectfully rather than charitably.

    If I write something you find lacking, I would prefer you respect me enough to take what I said and not substitute it with something else you find more appealing.

    • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

      I think we have some divergent views on what Chris said. As I saw it, it’s not about reading the dead respectfully, it’s about reading them accurately. Why should we assume the best of everyone when this assumption is just as often wrong as not?

      Respect’s got little to do with it. If I had a choice between describing someone accurately, and describing them in a way they consider respectful, I’d choose the former. Furthermore, even if it was coming from someone I strongly disrespected, or from someone who doesn’t need respect (ie long dead philosophers), I would still wish to represent their views accurately.

      • Chris Hallquist

        “It’s not about reading the dead respectfully, it’s about reading them accurately. Why should we assume the best of everyone when this assumption is just as often wrong as not?”

        Bingo.

        I would counsel against the advice in your second paragraph at Thanksgiving dinner, however.

      • J. J. Ramsey

        “As I saw it, it’s not about reading the dead respectfully, it’s about reading them accurately.”

        True, but given that it’s almost inevitable that one will err in understanding the views of another (whether he/she is dead or not), erring on the side of charity is more likely to avoid strawmen.

        • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

          Yes, one of the justifications I came up with for the principle of charity is that we have an intrinsic bias against others (and an intrinsic bias towards ourselves).

  • Mary

    From a Christian perspective, we say that we are charitable in our thoughts or in our speech when we do not attack anyone personally. We are, and we should be, free to critique and disagree with something a person says or writes, but we need to remind ourselves that Christian charity demands we do not resort to personal attacks or say things that could destroy another person’s reputation.

  • Nobody

    Reading the title of that piece did cause me to form a negative opinion of it. Had I stopped at that point, that assumption of what Chris was saying might well have festered away inside until, if I was predisposed to blogging, I could even have been driven to write an article about why we shouldn’t be disrespectful of the deceased. But instead I read the article in full and my thoughts quickly shifted to “Oh, that wasn’t what he meant at all. Get over that initial bias you had from the provocative headline.”

    True story. My own belief is that this anecdote supports exactly the points Chris was raising, but YMMV.

  • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

    “When I read or argue with anyone uncharitably, I am training uncharity in myself.” That doesn’t reflect my intention–I don’t even know what that last sentence means.

    It just means that she is normalizing uncharitable behavior. It’s a Catholic thing, especially the formation of that sentence — it’s related to their view on morality.

    • leahlibresco

      To translate it into LessWrongese, I’d say I’m trying to make sure arguments-as-soldiers isn’t my default approach.

      • Chris Hallquist

        Well, presumably you don’t want Arguments as soldiers to be your approach ever. Which wasn’t what I meant by reading uncharitably.

  • Pingback: How about “faithful reading” as an alternative to the charitable vs. uncharitable dichotomy?

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