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Posted by on Mar 1, 2013 in Philosophy, Politics | 4 comments

Magical intentions and the principle of charity

One of the things I’m struggling with this year is the transformation of a course I teach into an online version. Not a MOOC – a full, for credit course at the University of Cape Town, offered to around 1000 students this semester. In the first 3 weeks, I teach critical thinking, including some work on cognitive biases. The struggle is in getting students to see that things aren’t always easily divisible, because a particular example might share attributes of both the availability heuristic and representativeness, for example. Or, we might be dealing with a post hoc argument that also includes a smattering of something else.

Instead, we need to see things in context, I say to them, and try to justify our answers by reference to what is the most plausible interpretation. Also, we can justifiably be concerned with the politics of a situation, and be looking for a way to resolve an interpretive dilemma rather than being most concerned with defending our own point of view. One of the reasons I typically don’t get involved in what people here at SiN are calling “the drama” is because too much writing on it seems motivated by a desire to be right, rather than a desire to fix the problem. As I wrote a few months back,

when a debate gets heated, we should try to remember that no matter what’s come before, we’re constantly at a new decision-point, where we – and only we – are responsible for what we say in response to something we find provocative. Sure, someone else has committed a wrong, and we can be inflamed by that. But essentially juvenile questions of “who started it”, while diverting, seldom help illuminate the question of how it can be ended.

The détente involving Dr. Harriet Hall and Amy Roth has given rise to the most recent deluge of posts on “the drama”, here and elsewhere. Many of these contributions are making the point that the principle of charity is an important element of productive debate. This is true, but it’s also true that it’s possible to squander the goodwill you’d normally be entitled to, thanks to a track record of causing some form of (unjustified) offense. Some offense is merited, and some is not – and I’m not going to make any pronouncements on that here. The point of the quote above is that we can – at least in principle – separate the matter of whether the offense is justified from how best to respond to it given the desire for a certain outcome.

My presumption is that the outcome we desire is to be able to debate issues of substance from within a common framework of skepticism, atheism and humanism. If we can’t talk about how best to improve the world from within that framework, we’re using the wrong framework. And, if you think that some other value trumps those three and their cognate ideas, then whether you’re right or wrong is less relevant than the fact that you’re addressing a different – even if overlapping – constituency.

So, within that framework, perhaps we can sometimes be reminded that the real world is messy, especially the emotive, political world that we’ve constructed for ourselves within the skeptical community. Intentions are certainly not magical, but they’re certainly not irrelevant either – and deciding how to respond to claims regarding what people intended might require subtle and sensitive judgement. For this reason, I’d have to disagree with Justin Vacula’s post on intentions. Not necessarily because he’s wrong on the facts regarding how we should interpret others – I think I mostly agree with him there – but because his post strikes me as another example of what you could call a tone-deaf response.

It’s wrong to impute negative intentions – that’s where the principle of charity comes in. And while an insistence on people setting aside any pre-existing perceptions regarding your motives might be logically coherent, it’s not sufficient in this world of real insults and (at least psychological) harms. Once again, whether you think the harms as severe as some claim, or whether you think particular examples overblown or not, is only part of the point – and perhaps sometimes a small part. A larger part of the point might be that you’re talking to people who believe they have been harmed – and might even have been harmed – and adopting the blameless view-from-nowhere demeanour is a signal that you aren’t willing to acknowledge that.

Instead, it’s perhaps a signal that you’re willing to talk, but only on your terms, and only once the opposition grows up (or somesuch). A similar sort of tone-deafness is present in Richard Carrier’s post on the Hall/Roth correspondence, where he asserts that Harriet Hall is now “redeemed”. It’s the smugness, and the entitlement (my concern with his atheism+ post, also), that gets to me. As if Carrier is the arbiter on this, as if it’s now axiomatic that Hall needed redemption in the first place.

Both these posts have this in common – they ask you to accept a version of things that’s self-serving. In Vacula’s post, we’re encouraged (albeit subtly) to regard people who use phrases like “intent is not magic” as folk who over-react to criticism. The fact that Vacula doesn’t mention who they are is part of the subtlety here, in that we all know who they are, but it’s now more difficult to call him on it. In Carrier’s post, a version of history is written wherein Harriet Hall was known to be a transgressor of certain norms or rules, but has now been redeemed – and so, a little more authority to be the judge, or arbiter, is assumed.

It’s obviously problematic if we’re all having to constantly second guess what we write or say, because we know it’s going to serve as fodder for the confirmation bias others have with respect to our views. So, ideally, I’d love it if we were all able to operate in the domain of pure logic, clarifying intentions and meaning without making assumptions about the other. But that’s not the world we live in. But while we’re figuring this stuff out, let’s be wary of the tendency to assume that “they” are the ones getting things wrong, and that the truth is always a simple matter.