I recently read a paper for one of my philosophy classes that I strongly disagreed with. The conclusion wasn’t right, the arguments were weak and assumptions were being made all over the place. While reading this paper, I often got mad and verbally argued with the book. I wondered how something like this could have even been published. Then I paused. This paper had been published. Furthermore, it was assigned as an important reading for my class. How could this be? Clearly this was a terrible paper. Or was it? I went back and realized that I had misunderstood what the author was actually saying. I had formed an opinion about and criticized something that I did not really understand.
What I failed to do is read the article charitably. Instead, I determined that I was going to disagree with this author and then proceeded to disagree with him without actually taking the time to properly understand his argument. People tend to do this quite a bit. We scrutinize and harshly criticize arguments from people who we don’t like or who have opinions we disagree with. They aren’t given any room for error, and the spirit of what they are trying to say can be ignored if their wording is not perfect.
This attitude goes beyond arguments. Think about laws. We may understand what the spirit of any given law may be, but if we disagree with it or find it inconvenient to live up to, then we go by the letter of the law and look for loopholes. After all, this is how it is written, so it must be fine.
Is this view charitable, though? Is it just? When we disagree with someone without taking the time to fully understand the spirit of their argument we are ignoring the most important part. This is not fair to the other person, and this does not show them love. Charity demands that we take the time to fully understand the other person’s position before we critique it. Not only that, but if we find something lacking in their argument that we know how to improve without compromising their position, we are obligated to consider the stronger version of their argument. Only then can we rightly critique them.
We should be striving for truth in debate, not just the defense of our opinions or beliefs. If we only consider the weaker versions of the other person’s arguments, then we are disregarding truth and just trying to “win” or beat them. However, if we consider the strongest versions of the other person’s arguments, then any refutations of those arguments will bring us closer to truth. To achieve this, though, we must set aside our need to be right or our need to prove that other person or group wrong. If we don’t, we miss out on an opportunity to show love and justice. We miss out not only on bringing others closer to truth, but on getting closer to truth ourselves.
Alex Hoffman is a senior computer science, accounting and philosophy triple major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column reflects the views of the writer only.