Straw Man Arguments and the Principle of Charity

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Straw Man Arguments and the Principle of Charity

I read something yesterday I found important. Let me quote from "Schaum's Logic" by Nolt, Rohatyn, and Varzi:

"Implicit premises or conclusions should be "read into" an argument only if they are required to complete the arguer's though. No statement should be added unless it clearly would be accepted by the arguer, since in analyzing an argument, it is the arguer's thought that we are trying to understand. The primary constraint governing interpolation of premises and conclusions is the -principle of charity-: in formulating implicit statements, give the arguer the benefit of the doubt; try to make the argument as strong as possible while remaining faithful to what you know of the arguer's thought. The point is to minimize misinterpretation, whether deliberate or accidental."

Our goal should be to avoid creating "straw man" arguments by theists that we can easily destroy.

I have found that theists easily pick up on this and pull no punches letting me know. So in order to prevent wasting time and to increase the chances of persuading a theist, Scham's advice is pretty good.

It's good in principle, but I'm guiltier than most of creating straw man theist arguments to refute; both intentionally and unintentionally.

While I encourage criticism of the straw man arguments I refute, I think it is our duty also to "man the watchtowers" when theists make straw man arguments out of the atheist position.

For some other reading, check out

Straw Man definition:

Principle of Charity:

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This is also a very

This is also a very succint, clear formulation of the principle of charity.  Profound stuff.  I wish I'd read this 10 years ago.

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Very nice work. You should

Very nice work. You should start up a blog/section on the site devoted to critical thinking/scholarly approaches to debate/discussion.

"Hitler burned people like Anne Frank, for that we call him evil.
"God" burns Anne Frank eternally. For that, theists call him 'good.'

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I am told you have your own

I am told you have your own philosophy site.  Link?

And todangst, I've been thinking about this charity principle since yesterday, and I can't get it out of my head.

 I began debating in high school.  I was a captain of the team & was very successful, although I know it's not very humble to say so.

Nonetheless, high school debate is about winning votes and being the "better debater."  High school debate is a game with a winner, not a discussion.  The purpose of high school debate is really NOT to obtain a better understanding of a topic.  For according to the debate rules, a judge must not assign a win to the team who espouses a position that the judge agrees with, the judge must vote for the team that "does a better job of debating."

I was very good at finding loopholes and technicalities that would ensure a win.  For instance, one could overwhelm the opposing team with arguments that could NOT be answered effectively in a finite period of time.  Dropped arguments were considered conceded.  I became disillusioned at national competition when this tactic became so problematic that teams spoke at a rate that was borderline incomprehensible.  It ruined the debate, in my opinion -- even though I was above average at "fast" debate.

Moreover, a high school debater had a significant advantage in creating straw man arguments to refute.  If you could fool a judge into misunderstanding an opponent's argument, refute it, and have the opponent fail to pick it up; you're in really good shape.

 In the context of this forum and the aims of philosophy, "winning" the debate should never be our goal.  That is, a debater can play devil's advocate and "win" a debate, but be unsatisfied himself because he defended a position he didn't even agree with.

Lawyers and politicians must "win" debates.  Philosophers and academics should never see it as their goal to "win" a debate and get a pat on the back.

 I had once thought about being a lawyer, but I realized that the court room is not a game any more.  It's not about winning medals and trophies; it's about people's lives.  And I don't think I would feel morally right about defending positions I didn't believe in.

 Our goal SHOULD be to

1.  Understand your opponent's arguments and attempt fair refutation of their ACTUAL arguments, not misunderstood versions or intentionally weakened versions.

2.  Attempt to convince our opponents in a discussion; rather than convincing an audience or a judge.  If we try to convince our opponent, NONE of the debating "tricks" such as extremely voluminous arguments or straw men have any purpose.  If we're trying to convince the opponent, they will simply not respond to such tactics.  To analogize, imagine Robin Hood stealing from the poor to give to the poor.  It doesn't make any sense.  Similarly, using trickery against your ALLY in a discussion serves no purpose.

3. Our ultimate goal should be arriving at the truth.  Truth is a vague concept; but in theory, we should strive in discussions to at least approximate the truth as closely as possible -- conceding the fallibility of all human thought.

 Moreover, we should consider our opponent in a discussion as our ally in arriving at the truth.

 I think it will be most helpful to adopt the following philosophy about discussion:

1. I will do my best to defend my own arguments, and refute my opponent's arguments fairly.

2. My goal is to persuade my opponent.

3.  But if my opponent provides more rational arguments than I do, I will accept his position; considering I am fallible.

4.  If my opponent manages to "convert" me to his position, I accept the fallibility of -that- position.


Some of the most invigorating, inspiring moments in my life have been being convinced -- after days or even MONTHS of debate -- that my position is wrong and that I must adopt a new position.  One example is determinism vs. free will.  I read about determinism, thought it made total sense, and went about defending it tooth and nail on a forum for about 2 months.  At the end of a grueling debate, something "clicked" and I adopted a modified free willist position.  Contrary to feeling angry and upset at "changing my mind," I found it exhilirating.  However, I do not actively seek a change in my positions as though it were a drug-like fix.  Simply put, changing your position on something is not the calamity that many think it is.  As William James said about the preacher holding on to a branch for dear life...  When he let go, he realized that the fall was only a couple feet.

So with regard to the theists on this forum, I shall attempt to adopt this new philosophy.   If theists can prove to me that their position is more rational, I will embrace their positon.  I simply ask for the same.

Doctrines of infallibility, blasphemy, and admitting such things as "I will never change my mind," are almost insurmountable impediments to WORTHWHILE and FRUITFUL discussion.  I can only hope that theists can be brought to understand their irrationality when they adopt those three stances.  It is the fraction of surmountability in the theist's stubbornness that gives me hope and keeps me trying.

Do you have anything to add?

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Wow. Good speech.Sometimes

Wow. Good speech.
Sometimes in a debate you can sometimes get too caught up in trying to pwn your opponent and the truth loses out.

 Talking of which, the "Kill 'em with Kindness" forum is out of moderators. The two guys who are supposed to do it have gone awol and there's been some 'rough play' in there. I was thinking of suggesting to Sapient to make me a moderator so I could clean it up a li'l! Smiling
I thought that you two would make good moderators too.
What do you think?