Rational Reconstruction and the Principle of Charity

From a logical point of view the ordinary reasoning we encounter is usually incomplete and often confused.  Rational reconstruction is a painstaking attempt to interpret a person's reasoning so that it is as complete and unconfused as it can possibly be.  You've noticed how difficult this is, and probably thought it a bit strange that you should have to work so hard to interpret reasoning that often seems to have been put together rather carelessly. You might also think it pretty odd that the rationales we construct are somehow supposed to capture the meaning of what was originally said.  After all, the author probably doesn't even know what a rationale is; he probably couldn't tell you the difference between an argument and an explanation if he tried; he probably couldn't figure out his own damn principles to save his life!  You might think that.

We often do talk about the act of interpretation as if it is an attempt to grasp the true and original meaning of what someone has said.  This can be a useful way to think about it when the reasoner seems to have a clear and authoritative grasp of the matter at hand.  But a rational reconstruction is really not an attempt to discover an originally intended meaning.  As with any other form of speech, people typically reason without fully understanding what they are saying. The original reasoning provides the content and the basic logical relationships, but its meaning is really indeterminate until it has been clarified to the point that it succeeds in communicating something. 

When we rationally reconstruct a person's reasoning we attempt to arrive at an interpretation that makes the most sense from a logical point of view.   Logical interpretation is just one form of interpretation, and it can be usefully compared to others.  We interpret facial expressions, physical gestures, stories, poems, sounds, signs, experiences, dreams, fortunate and unfortunate events.  Is the point of, say, literary interpretation to capture the original intended meaning of a work? Some people think so, but it's a tough view to defend.  After all, if we want to know the intended meaning of a poem, why wouldn't we just ask the author?  The reason is that the author doesn't actually get to decide this sort of thing.  Of course, we'll probably give her interpretation more significance than others, but what makes a literary work powerful and worth talking about is that it can generate different satisfying interpretations at different levels to different people. Even if the author had some original meaning in mind, we don't have to care that much. What counts in the end is what it means to us.

Interpreting reasoning is similar in some ways, but different in others.  When we adopt the logical point of view we really don't think the ability to generate multiple interpretations is such a wonderful thing.  Ambiguity is a literary tool, but (as we'll see below) it is a logical failing. On the other hand, as with literature, we don't accept the author's perspective as completely authoritative, either.  This isn't because all interpretations are equally interesting. Rather, it's because, in the language the author is using, words have conventional meanings, and these meanings determine unambiguous logical relationships, even if the author himself didn't intend them. It makes perfect sense to ask an author if your particular reconstruction is based on a charitable interpretation of what he originally said.  But he really is not in a position to decide whether his reasoning is subject to the logical relationships depicted therein.

A good rational reconstruction almost always end up being a compromise between what the reasoner actually said and what would make the most sense from a logical point of view.  A good rational reconstruction will not compromise the original reasoning, but it will often reformulate what a person said in clearer, more logically satisfying way.  When we proceed in this manner we are following the Principle of Charity in Interpretation.  You can think of this as a kind of logical Golden Rule:  Interpret unto others as you would have them interpret unto you.  Of course this formulation works only for people who always want to be interpreted from a logical point of view, and few do.  So our Principle of Charity is better stated:  Always interpret the reasoning of others so that it makes the most sense from a logical point of view.

Charity and Sincerity

One thing that logicians enjoy pointing out is that sincerity proves nothing.  But charitable interpretation means accepting that a person believes what he is saying, and in fact there is a rather large domain of phenomena that people themselves are best able to judge, so that their sincere conviction is some evidence of the truth.  Molly may sincerely believe that she and Jack will live happily ever after. She is deluded.  However, if she says that sincerely loves Jack, then she probably does.  (More on believing people who haven't given us a reason to doubt them.  Implying that many reasons we should accept at face value.)


Violations of the Principle of Charity:  Straw Man and ad Hominem

Straw Man

The nice thing about the process of rational reconstruction is that the principle of charity is built right into it.  Everything you have learned so far:  the discernment of rationales, the distinction between argument and explanation, the judicious interpretation of reasons and conclusions, and the careful articulation and attribution of principles is what the principle of charity is all about.   By contrast, people who don't know how to do rational reconstruction, or who don't have the patience for it, will often base their assessments of reasoning on uncharitable interpretations.  This is a common interpretive error, and is traditionally characterized metaphorically as "creating a straw man." 

A non metaphorical straw man is otherwise known as a scarecrow.  A scarecrow scares crows because most crows are dumb enough to think that it is a real man.  Similarly, a logical straw man is a dumbed down interpretation of what someone has said.  But, like a scarecrow, it is similar enough to the real thing that uneducated, uninformed, and inattentive people won't notice.  So, just like one of the brighter crows might win the admiration of his comrades by pecking the eyes off of a scarecrow, someone who traffics in straw man interpretations can appear to be refuting someone's reasoning, when he is really just misrepresenting it.

Everyone uses the straw man method of interpretation once and a while.  Like most logically problematic practices, it has its practical uses.   For example, if you are forced to engage the mind of someone who offends you, you'll naturally be disinclined to spend much mental energy on charitable interpretations of his reasoning.  If you can save some time by dispatching it with a straw man, you may just do it.  Consider:

Example 1

Butch:  I frankly don't understand why we have to pay taxes to support freeloaders.  I bust my hump for my measly paycheck, and I don't appreciate having to hand a chunk of it over every month to people who just won't work.

Barb:   Oh totally.  In fact, I think we should just line those buggers up and shoot them.  Not to mention the cripples and the psychos and the retards.  It would sure be a lot more humane than watching them starve to death once we stop supporting their lazy butts.

Barb's ironic response simply dismisses anything reasonable that Butch could have been saying, and implicitly exaggerates Butch's remarks as if they implied that a much larger class of human beings would end up dead if we didn't support them.  A careful rational reconstruction wouldn't have allowed that, of course, but Barb was deeply offended by Butch's callous disregard for poor people, so she chucked the principle of charity and reached for the straw man.

The problem, of course is that sometimes you will be offended by or impatient with reasoning that you probably ought to be taking seriously. Even Butch's poorly formulated argument above has some merit.  After all, why should Butch have to support people who won't work?  That's actually not an easy question to answer. (The answer, by the way, is that we probably shouldn't.  But we do need a system that supports people who can't work, and since any such system is going to be abused, we inevitably will end up supporting a small percentage of people who won't work.)

One of the most famous examples of a straw man gone bad occurred during an 1860 debate between Bishop Wilberforce of Oxford and Thomas Huxley, a disciple of Darwin.  Like many people who are offended by Darwin's theory of evolution, Wilberforce created a straw version that allowed him to pose to Huxley the question whether he was related to apes by his mother's side or his father's.  Huxley replied:

A man has no reason to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather.  If there were an ancestor whom I should feel shame in recalling, it would rather be a man, a man of restless and versatile intellect, who, not content with success in his own sphere of activity, plunges into scientific questions with which he has no real acquaintance, only to obscure them by an aimless rhetoric, and distract the attention of his hearers from the real points at issue by eloquent digressions and skilled appeals to religious prejudice.

Although straw man is usually defined in terms of producing weak interpretations of what people say or believe, the idea extends easily to producing weak characterizations of what people do as well.  The mechanism is the same.  Just mischaracterize the behavior in a way that makes it easy to criticize.

Example 2

I don't believe in using corporal punishment on children.  You can't just whack the crap out of a kid every time he does something wrong.  Kids who experience that learn that the best way to solve problems with other people is by using physical violence.

Of course, what this person is saying makes some sense.  The problem with it is that it mischaracterizes the practice of corporal punishment in terms of its most extreme form.  Most people who believe in capital punishment wouldn't subscribe to using it all the time, or even most of the time.

The straw man is a logical error because it inhibits rather than advances rational inquiry.  We define it as follows.

Straw Man

You'll notice that the definition of Straw Man comes with instructions for identifying it.  We'll do this with all of the logical errors we discuss.  Here are some examples of straw man errors properly identified.

Example 3

Identification:  Butch commits a straw man against Barb by misrepresenting her reasoning in a weakened form.  The original form is that Barb didn't go to class because she is ill.  The weak form Butch presents is that she didn't go because she didn't feel like it. 

You'll notice, that in the above example Butch did this because he thought it was closer to the truth than what Barb actually wanted him to say.  All this means is that Butch thought he was justified in committing a straw man.  But it is still a straw man.

Example 4

Identification:  Barb commits a straw man against Butch by misrepresenting his reasoning in a weakened form.  Barb's response constitutes a refutation only if we interpret Butch as saying that all women are more concerned with their looks than men.  But Butch only says that women tend to be more concerned with their looks, which allows that there will be exceptions.  Barb's version is weaker than Butch's actual version because it can be refuted simply by pointing out one exception.

Example 5

Identification:  Butch commits a straw man against Barb by misrepresenting her statement in a weakened form.  Barb tells Butch that he should not wear his Speedo if he prefers not to be taunted.  She does not tell him not to wear his Speedo at all.  Butch ascribes the second version to Butch inasmuch as his refutation applies to it, but is irrelevant to what Bar actually said.

Example 6

Identification:  Shelly here misrepresents a practice in a way that makes it easy to criticize.  She suggests that bus drivers are trained to do things that make their customers angry, when in fact they are trained simply to stay on schedule.

Example 7

Identification:  Derrick misrepresents Samantha's reasoning in a weakened form.  He characterizes the cat's condition as minor (similar to having a hairball) when in fact Samantha has identified symptoms that constitute evidence that the cat is very ill.

Ad Hominem

One of the most important things you learn as a result of training in rational reconstruction is the distinction between what someone says and what someone is.  For example, if Conrad were to reason as follows:

Oh my God, I really think Mr. Simpkins is planning to kill me.  I just saw him  in the pawn shop looking at a pistol, and he gave me this really creepy look.  Do you think he found out that I'm the one who called the Neighborhood Action Committee about not cleaning up after his dog?

You would recognize this as an argument for the conclusion that Simpkins is planning to kill Conrad together with an explanation of why Simpkins is planning to kill Conrad.  Of course, upon hearing Conrad reason in this way you might conclude that Conrad is paranoid, but that would be your conclusion, not Conrad's.  In other words, the statement that Conrad is paranoid would not show up in the rationales that attribute to him.

The inability to separate a reasoner from her reasoning is responsible for a lot of uncharitable interpretation, as well as a lot of misguided criticism.  For example, whenever we suspect a person of saying something hypocritical, we naturally focus attention on his character.

Melissa's reaction is perfectly human, but it really doesn't have anything to do with what Marcus said.  In other words, even if if Marcus really has no right to say this sort of thing to Melissa, that fact itself has no bearing on whether Marcus has given Melissa some good advice and good reasoning in support of it.  Most of us don't deal particularly well with personal criticism, especially when it is coming from people who irritate us.  Professional athletes typically think they've got nothing to learn from people who have never played the game at their level.  Soldiers think people who have never been to war have no business trying to run one. Poor people are offended when others who were born into wealth tell them they have to save their money.  Again, all perfectly understandable reactions, but all equally problematic from a logical point of view. 

"Ad hominem" is Latin for "against the person".  In logic, ad hominem reasoning is any attempt to discredit a conclusion by focusing attention on the motives, character, or individual circumstances of the person offering the reasoning rather than examining the reasoning itself.  People usually speak of ad hominem arguments, but ad hominems often take the form of explanations. Specifically, ad hominem reasoning, often attempts to refute the reasoning that is given for some conclusion by explaining why the person making the argument actually holds that view.  So, to take a simple example.

We define ad hominem reasoning as follows:

Ad Hominem

Definition Attempting to credit or discredit reasoning by calling attention to the character, actions or personal circumstances of those who accept it rather than examining the reasoning itself.
Identification: Reconstruct the ad hominem reasoning and show how it constitutes an attempt to refute the original reasoning by focusing attention on the character, actions, or personal circumstances of those who accept it.

Example 8

Smitty:  Of course dentists say that everyone should have a teeth cleaning twice a year to prevent cavities and gum disease.  Why wouldn't they say that?  That's how they make most of their money. They'd recommend having one every day if they could get away with it.

Here Smitty straightforwardly ignores the argument for semi-annual prophylaxis and proceeds to explain why dentists recommend it in terms of their profit motive.  Generally speaking, what makes an ad hominem uncharitable from a logical point of view is that it simply ignores the evidence presented.  It's not that Smitty's explanation has no merit.  It's that Smitty seems to be using the explanation for the purpose of ignoring the argument.  If we work hard to produce a charitable interpretation of what Smitty is saying, we might come up with an argument like this:

Admittedly, there is a certain amount of wisdom contained in this rationale.  Smitty is making the legitimate point that dentists have a conflict of interest. The problem with the principle, though, is that it would require us to ignore the advice of anyone who provides any kind of service at all.  Smitty's stance would be appropriate if dentists simply recommended frequent cleaning for no reason, but since they do give reasoning the charitable response is to examine the reasoning. 

 Now consider a variation of Smitty's reasoning.

Smitty:  Dentists say that everyone should get their teeth cleaned twice a year to prevent cavities and gum disease.  But they present no evidence that people who get twice a year cleaning have a substantially lower rate of cavities and gum disease than people who just get a once a year cleaning. Until I see some evidence, I'd say they are just trying to drum up business.  I think they'd recommend having a cleaning every day if they could get away with it.

The difference here, of course, is that Smitty now is paying attention to the evidence and gives reasons for finding it unconvincing. In a weak sense, the ad hominem remains, but it is no longer uncharitable because it is not the basis for dismissing dentists recommendations.  It is simply an attempt to explain why they make the recommendations given the absence of evidence. It's important to understand that it is not always a violation of the principle of charity to explain people's beliefs and actions in terms of their motives, character or personal circumstances.  The violation occurs when use these explanations as a way of ignoring any arguments that have been offered.

Example 9

Maureen:  Joe Bob says that stopping to help that gal with her flat tire was the right thing to do because it was getting dark in a nasty neighborhood and who knows what sort of seedy characters might have stopped and taken advantage of the poor girl before a tow truck arrived.  But, Doris, I just can't help but notice that the first time Joe Bob ever stops anywhere to help anyone with anything is for a chick who looks like she's on her way to a photo shoot for Penthouse. 

In this example  Maureen basically ignores Joe Bob's argument that stopping to help the stranded woman was the right thing to do by explaining why Joe Bob actually did it, viz., he found the woman to be very attractive.  Now, knowing Joe Bob, Maureen is probably right about this.  But what's important to see is that Joe Bob may also be right that stopping to help the woman was the right thing to do. The fact that there is a compelling biological explanation available for Joe Bob's behavior does not automatically undermine the reasoning he provides in support of it. 

As with Smitty's dental example above, we might try to provide a more charitable interpretation of Maureen's reasoning.  Maybe it is something like this.

P1 is another ad hominem facilitating principle that contains a little bit of truth but remains highly unreliable. Most of us would say that helping the woman was the right thing to do regardless of Joe Bob's motives.  Of course, the fact that Joe Bob was attracted to the woman isn't what makes his action right.  We might agree with Maureen that Joe Bob isn't particularly admirable for having done it, and that it would be really disgusting if he just drove right by a homely woman in the same situation,  but these are different points.


Example 10

Philip Morris defends itself from people who criticize it as a company whose product kills hundreds of thousand of Americans a year and millions more people worldwide by citing the fact that it spends millions of dollars annually educating kids about the dangers of smoking.  It sounds so sincere, but Philip Morris knows that when kids see ads by a cigarette company telling them not to buy their product, that just makes them want it even more.  And by playing the role of a "company that cares" Philip Morris is effectively softening public opposition to their deadly product.

Here the apparent ad hominem against Philip Morris (in this case a company rather than a person) might be charitably reconstructed as follows.


P1 is another common ad hominem principle. The fact that someone benefits from an action is not a good reason to admire them, but it isn't a good reason not to admire them, either.  P2 is a little more reliable. Although we sometimes do admire people who strive in vain achieve a worthy goal, we admire them more if they actually achieve it. 

Although this argument has problems, it is nor a particularly good example of an ad hominem because the only reasoning Philip Morris gives in its defense is that it spends money on advertisements designed to discourage kids from smoking. Philip Morris gives no evidence that the advertising is effective.  Since the rationale above does question the effectiveness of the ads, it can not be accused of a failure to examine the reasoning presented.

Although, the principle of charity forbids the use of ad hominem reasoning as defined above, it does not forbid the attempt to explain people's beliefs and actions as the result of prejudice, error, irrationality, stupidity, bad character, greed or whatever.  After all, these explanations are often correct.  The mistake of the ad hominem is that it ignores the reasoning provided for a conclusion and explains the conclusions causally instead. The habitual ad hominizer is someone who is unable to separate the reasoner from the reasoning, who can not understand that the truth of a statement, or the validity of a rationale has nothing to do with who has actually uttered it.

Let's finish with a couple someexamples of ad hominem reasoning properly identified.

Example 11

Chub:  I don't care what Alice says about the Atkins diet helping helping her drop 40 lbs in 3 months. The bottom line for me is that she likes the diet because it lets her eat junk food, and that's just wrong. She just doesn't have the discipline to stop eating stuff that is bad for her.

Identification:  Here Chub ignores Alice's reasoning in favor of using the Atkins diet by explaining why Alice likes the Atkins' diet in terms of Alice's attraction to junk food.

Example 12

Howard:  Maggie, I don't get it.  How can you, a lifelong carnivore, an accomplished griller of flesh, see one documentary about livestock and poultry farming and suddenly decide to become a vegetarian?  Cruelty, schmuelty, I say.  Do you have any idea how Totally Un Fun it is going to be to eat with you from now on?  Think of our marriage!

Identification:  Here Howard ignores Maggie's reasons for becoming a vegetarian and focuses on her personal circumstances instead, namely that she will suffer for becoming a vegetarian.

Comment: Here, Howard makes a straightforward argument that Maggie should not be a vegetarian because it will hurt their marriage.  That, is not really an ad hominem, because it is mostly concerned with the negative effect Maggie's vegetarianism will have on Howard.  But Howard also claims vegetarianism is contrary to Maggie's carnivorous nature and cooking interests. Since Howard pays scant attention to the fact that Maggie has decided there are serious moral problems with eating animals that aren't raised under humane conditions, this does satisfy the definition of an ad hominem.  It's a little unusual in that Howard does not explain away her actions as purely self-interested.  Rather, he criticizes Maggie for the failure to act according to self-interest.  It's important to note that the error Howard makes is in his failure to discuss Maggie's reasoning.  Howard's argument that Maggie's self-interest should take precedence over moral concerns is not itself intrinsically bad reasoning.

Example 13

Identification:  Here Cleo ignores Quinton's argument that high gas prices will do a lot of good in the world, by focusing attention on Quinton's personal circumstances, namely that high gas prices will make his own life more difficult.

Here is a final example in which both Staw Man and ad Hominem are committed.

Example 14

Pea: Jesus Christ, I am just sick of that Reverend Tom Baxter preaching to us about love.  Love thy neighbor! Love thy enemies!  Love thy neighborhood child molester!  After that affair he had with Wilma Barrington last year you'd think he might realize that lovin' your neighbor's wife just ain't a particularly bright idea.

Identification 1:  Pea commits a straw man by mischaracterizing the reverend's exhortation to love ones fellow man.  The kind of love the preacher is advising is not romantic love, but benevolence.

Identification 2:  Pea commits an ad hominem against the reverend by ignoring his advice and focusing attention on the fact that continuing to give it makes the reverend the subject of ridicule among his congregation.

Justified violations of the Principle of Charity

The principle of charity requires us to treat reasoning with respect.  But there are situations when we will be logically justified in violating it.  For example

Example 15

Mom's response matches the definition of ad hominem perfectly.  She is ignoring Ebenezer's reasoning and explaining his statement in terms of the fact that he is a liar.  But this seems perfectly justified.  Mom has basically had it up to here with Ebenezer's stories and feels she doesn't even have to hear the content of what he is saying to know that it should probably be ignored.  Of course, it's possible that Ebenezer is telling the truth this time, but so what? We can't be attentive to all possibilities and we are not logically required to try. In the end, what makes Mom's ad hominizing justified is that the principle involved in the rationale is trustworthy.

It is perfectly reasonable to categorize people who have shown themselves to be liars or bullshitters as untrustworthy sources of information.

Reasoning is a skill that can be used for good or ill.   Some people are very adept at using it for the purpose of convincing less skilled reasoners of things they know aren't true.  We call these people sophists (as in "sophisticated").  Some others are so completely convinced of their own beliefs that the only purpose that reasoning has for them is to convince other people they are right.  We call them dogmatists. Sophists and dogmatists are not as easy to detect as crude liars and bullshitters.  If you know you are dealing with one of them you should avoid their reasoning like the plague. The problem is that the main indicator that you're dealing with a sophist or dogmatist is that they tend to very convincing.  Rational reconstruction is an excellent prophylactic against these abuses of reasoning, but it's not foolproof, and occasionally you will hear a little voice warning you that someone is taking advantage of your logical charity.  You should pay attention to that voice.  Sophists, dogmatists, liars and bullshitters are often great talkers but poor listeners. The mark of a good reasoner is not that there reasoning is utterly convincing, but that they have the time and patience for the charitable interpretation of yours.