A Principle of Empathy

[Content note: Donald Trump and the election (not the main focus).  Enough said.]

The Principle of Charity is an idea that seems to be touted fairly regularly by members of the rationalist community. Scott Alexander is especially well known as an advocate of it and even devoted the first post on his now very popular blog Slate Star Codex to declaring the Principle of Charity as the ethos of the new blog.  It more or less says that in examining another person’s viewpoint, one should strive for the strongest, most reasonable possible interpretation of their argument, in particular not assuming that they’re being stupid or completely irrational.  I’ve seen related terms used a little more loosely (“I don’t think you’re interpreting her words very charitably”) so as not to apply strictly to intellectual debating scenarios.  The general idea is closely related to the practice of steelmanning.

When I first discovered the internet rationalist community and looked up what the Principle of Charity was, I took it as further confirmation that I had found “my people”.  I recognized it as not only an argumentative tactic I fervently believed in, but as somehow a core part of who I was and a personal characteristic that guided me in my interactions with people.  Today I want to explore a little more closely how the principle speaks to me so strongly, as well as how I might revise it to something which reflects my temperament even better.  In doing so, I may in fact be treating a rather broad strawman of the Principle of Charity rather than the bare essence of the thing itself, but I feel somewhat justified in doing this as our principles often become a little broad and strawman-like when we actually put them into practice.

I. Understanding my charitable instincts

And you overlook Dumbledore’s greatest weakness: he has to believe the best of people.

– Severus Snape, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J. K. Rowling

Those who know me in real life (which presumably isn’t anyone who is reading this, although who knows) find me a bit frustrating from time to time because of my way of argumentatively defending others who have committed offenses.  I say things like “they were probably just trying to Y” or “I’m sure they didn’t mean anything as bad as Z” or “I agree that doing X was wrong, but it’s really difficult for them because of V and W”.  I get told on a regular basis that I have a strong tendency, to a fault, towards “giving everyone the benefit of the doubt” or “seeing / assuming the best in everyone”.  This is perceived as extreme enough to be qualify as a fault because it leads to me being easily manipulated / pushed around… as well as for the oftentimes more immediate and obvious reason that it causes me to argue with my friends on behalf of third parties who have committed offenses and clearly don’t deserve to be defended.

I’m not sure exactly what to say about this component of my personality, except that by and large I haven’t tried to change it because I continue to believe that generous assessments of other people’s behavior have been proven correct on average throughout my life’s experience interacting with humans.  (To be fair, maybe this belief depends entirely on further assessments of other people’s behavior which continue to be too generous.)  Sometimes I overestimate the good intentions behind people’s actions, and sometimes I am too credulous of narratives being related to me, and that has led me into some toxic situations.  I really don’t know exactly how best to calibrate my good-intent-ometer in such a way that I avoid being taken advantage of while continuing to model reasonably correct views of the world.  To explore that in writing would require a whole other blog entry falling into more of a “self-therapy” category.

But clearly, the fact that I tend to assume the best of people, and that I believe that such assumptions on average turn out to be accurate while holding that villainizing others tends to be destructive both for good debate and personal conflict-resolution, has led me to find the Principal of Charity a pretty attractive idea.

However, when listening to feedback given to me over the course of my life on this personal feature of mine, perhaps what strikes me the most is the nature of those which take the form of compliments.  People tell me that I’m “nice”.  Part of this I’m sure alludes to my tendency towards politeness to other people’s faces and even behind their backs, but a lot of it seems to come from an impression that I “see the best in everyone”, which sounds roughly equivalent to “believing everyone is good” or “holding unusually high opinions of everyone”.

I’m really intrigued by this because I think it’s a fundamentally mistaken impression of the way I am.  I don’t hold the other human beings in my life in particularly high esteem.  I like a lot of those around me a lot of the time, and yet there are some days and even whole weeks when I feel incessantly irritated with everyone and with humankind in general.  (Granted, I keep most of these thoughts to myself, as I’m very confrontation-averse and go out of my way to avoid any kind of drama.  Maybe that qualifies as “niceness” or maybe it’s just cowardice; you tell me.)  As far as I know, these occasional misanthropic moods are nothing abnormal, and I wouldn’t say that I hold the other human beings in my life in particularly low esteem either.  Taking the mean over my opinions of everyone I interact with, I estimate that the height of my opinion is not much greater or less than than that of most anybody else.  What’s different is the variance: where most people perhaps think very well of some and very badly of others, my opinions of almost everyone fall somewhere in the middle.  I don’t mean that I go around saying, “Meh, I feel the same so-so feeling towards everyone”; I feel very fond of a lot of people close to me but in my more pensive moments view them as creatures shaped by genetics and environment which happens to have put them in a position of positive impact on my life.  I tend to concoct excuses and/or unpleasant circumstances for the bad things that unsavory people do, but I also tend to concoct selfish motives and/or fortunate circumstances behind the good things that highly respectable people do.

Why do I process personal events this way?  Maybe I just have a strong tendency towards deterministic explanations for everything.  Maybe my reason for leaning towards deterministic explanations is that I badly want to understand what makes other people tick, and assuming libertarian free will amounts to throwing up my hands in the face of the mystery of why others act as they do.  Maybe this is related to the major importance I place on Theory of Mind — I wanted to attach a link to the phrase “Theory of Mind” there, but I haven’t written that post yet; for now, this article provides an introduction.

But I’ve come to realize that although my habit of interpreting the motives behind a lot of questionable actions charitably might be described as applying a Principle of, well, Charity, that doesn’t work as a unified explanation my full mindset in dealing with other people.  I’ve become aware that my first priority is not necessarily to be charitable or sympathetic, or to assume the best, or to give everyone the benefit of the doubt all of the time; it’s to understand.  This makes some objective logical sense: after all, if one’s ultimate goal is to know the truth, then full understanding rather than bias towards believing positive things seems like the way to go.  And so even though the celebrated Principal of Charity is obviously something I’m generally in favor of, it may not most closely reflect my personal creed.

II. The best of people and the worst of people

One of the difficulties in applying the Principle of Charity all the time — and again, this isn’t exactly a rebuttal against the original notion so much as a doubt I’m raising about the general mindset that comes with it — is that it can sometimes become tricky in practice it to fully apply it to multiple sides of an issue at one time.

Suppose you are a relationship councilor and Alex and Beth are in your office explaining each of their sides of a conflict which threatens to destroy their relationship.  Alex is very angry with Beth for having cheated on him.  Beth explains that to some extent they had always had an open relationship.  Alex disputes Beth’s interpretation of exactly what kind of “openness” they had actually agreed to in the relationship.  Beth disputes Alex’s interpretation of this as well as to what degree her behavior constituted “cheating”.  There is some disagreement on concrete physical events and exactly what was said or done when, but more of the disagreement is over interpretations of things that had been “understood” between Alex and Beth.  Your job here, inasmuch as it involves directly resolving the conflict rather than just facilitating better communication between your clients, is tricky.  Applying charity by assuming the most reasonable possible motives behind each person’s point of view seems like a good idea and may be sufficient to fully resolve the problem.  But depending on the circumstances, it may ultimately lead to contradictions: maybe the more charitable you are in interpreting Alex’s words, the more uncharitable you are forced to be towards Beth, and vice versa.  Maybe adopting a model of one (or even both) of them as just a manipulative jerk ultimately fits the evidence better than being as charitable as you can to both of them just up to the point of reaching a complete impasse.

That illustration was kind of vague and maybe not even that realistic, so let’s move from hypothetical personal situations to actual political ones.  For as long as I’ve been following politics, I’ve forcibly avoided demonizing politicians.  Yes, they generally don’t come across as the best of people, but maybe one really has to act with some level of dishonesty in order to make a difference through the political process.  If a politician stood on a platform I strongly disagreed with, I assumed they just held different values at different priorities from me or interpreted facts differently from the way I did (or had access to different sets of facts), rather than assuming that their stance was based on malice.  I figured that if only everyone treated these figures as charitably as I did, then our political discourse would become far more productive.

Then along came a certain non-politician political candidate whose apparent moral bankruptcy evaded all of my early attempts to apply charity.  That man is now the president-elect of the United States.

(I’d like to mention here that I had the beginning of a draft of this essay sitting in my WordPress account, bearing the current title, before I even started writing my recent post on the rationality of voting and therefore well before the election.  I was already planning to bring up Donald Trump.  Then, with the election rapidly approaching, I decided to hurry up and write the essay about voting in time to publish it before the big day.  I figured I would finish this post next and apologize for bringing up Donald Trump, since obviously everyone would be sick of hearing about him following Hillary Clinton’s victory.  But the election didn’t quite go as I foresaw, and we’re all going to be constantly hearing about Donald Trump for a long time to come whether we want to or not, so what the heck.)

Anyway, as the long campaign season unfolded, I found myself less and less able to excuse Mr. Trump’s outlandish remarks, even though my initial instinct had always been to treat him with just as much charity as I had always given to every other candidate.  I had to ask myself, if I had no particular bias against him, why did I appear to be treating him differently from almost everyone else?  And then I realized that it wasn’t really charity that I had been employing to evaluate other political candidates: it was a determination to understand them as completely as possible.  And with Mr. Trump, I had been embarking on the same quest: I wanted to see the inner workings of his mind and exactly what made him speak and act in the ways that he did.  And the model that began to form was that of an ignoramus who held no serious convictions on anything except for his own desire to seek glory through general bullying behavior while feeling vindicated by every success along the way, however absurd.  Now under this model, certain uncharitable interpretations became inescapable for me.  When he made a quip about what those second-amendment people might do if Clinton became president, was he really just joking about how that crowd is just really strong and determined when it comes to fighting for their second-amendment rights?  Could he really have been innocently confused due to a bad earpiece when asked how he felt about David Duke’s support of him?  Did he really mean [insert a dozen other things here]?  Come on.

If I continued to apply charity by accepting every single one of Trump’s explanations for every reprehensible thing he said, it would somehow feel like a violation of common sense.  And eventually it might lead to much dicier issues.  I’m not saying that charity towards Donald Trump necessarily directly implies anti-charity elsewhere, but it does kind of seem to go hand-in-hand with uncharitable interpretations of his detractors’ criticisms of his words and actions.  Scott Alexander made some good points in his recent Slate Star Codex post following Trump’s victory, but a lot of it struck me as an effort to bend over backwards to take a charitable possible attitude towards our president-elect which ironically resulted in rather uncharitable interpretations of some major anti-Trump talking points.

Note that today I don’t care to actually analyze and defend my beliefs on any of these features of our recent election and its aftermath — to do so would require another post of its own, longer than this one.  The reader is free to disagree with me completely, but I ask them to nonetheless accept my reality regarding Trump as a hypothetical situation which illustrates something about the limits of the Principle of Charity.  A lot of what I took for an instinct to be charitable was actually an instinct to be empathetic, and while a lot of the time that results in positive assessments of people, or at least excuse-making, sometimes it results in my realization that their motivations are actually reprehensible and that they don’t deserve excuses.  Charity is always beneficial to the object (while potentially to the detriment of other parties involved in the same debate), but empathy can cut both ways by exposing the best of people and the worst of people.

III. The risks and rewards of empathizing

I propose that we reform our Principle of Charity into a Principle of Empathy.  This Principle of Empathy is not a repudiation of the old Principle of Charity, but rather an evolution of it, one which will lead us closer both to objective truth and to the most understanding possible society.  And given recent events which threaten to polarize our discourse even further, I believe that the goal of striving to be empathetic will be, if anything, more difficult but also more crucial than ever going forward.

I don’t claim that being highly empathetic on a personal level is not without its risks.  I have reason to imagine that I operate on incredibly high levels of empathy, perhaps abnormally intense levels.  I’ve noticed that this is often not only to my detriment but to the detriment of those around me.  For instance, if the suffering of someone close to me is too much for me to handle so that I feel forced to shut them out, then I’m really not being as good a companion to them as if I provided support while managing to remain stronger and less affected by their adversity than they are.

I also see risks in publicly defending others through empathetic reasoning, which is one reason why thus far I’ve generally stuck to empathizing with them in my own mind or behind their backs.  It can become very delicate to stand up for someone on the basis of what you perceive to go on in their minds, both their strengths and their weaknesses, without coming across as a totally condescending prick.  Compare an attack of “What Bob did is completely inexcusable because of A, B, and C” to a defense that sounds like “What Bob did was wrong, but I can understand how he did it given that he’s been through X and Y and this appears to have resulted in him lacking the emotional strength to face up to Z.  Even though the perfectly rational decision would have been W, it was evidently really hard under the circumstances for him to be rational and so he made the wrong choice.  Please show him some forgiveness.”  I imagine that the Bob here might actually feel more angry and hurt by the defense than by the attack.  (Or if one is using the flip side of empathy to instead condemn Bob for sinister motives, he would probably be angered more by this type of condemnation than by an argument based in the external fact of his action having been wrong: “How dare you assume that you know me and the way I think and feel!”)

And yet, I see these both of the issues described above as ones of execution only.  For the former, I have to learn how to feel empathy in the most productive way possible; for the latter, one has to gain the skill of producing diction that conveys a tone of genuine solidarity rather than condescension.  My viewpoint in theory remains unyielding: it is the duty of each of us to go forth and empathize!

4 thoughts on “A Principle of Empathy

  1. Lots of interesting points here – I’ll just add a few thoughts. I very much recognize your tendency to have low variance in your opinion of people due to applying the principle of charity as a personal ethos, it might be because there is a symmetry in it (at least for me) where looking for the good in what bad things people do also makes you look for the bad in what good things people do – I don’t mean “bad” precisely, just that one always looks for motivations beyond just “goodness” and “badness”. I think that’s a good thing, it means you see people more like they are instead of judging them by your own moral standards and confusing it for their true nature.

    And about being too credulous in accepting narratives: I don’t think that’s a problem if you avoid making the “friend or foe” judgement for each new narrative. In a way narratives are the opposite of possessions: the more you have the more they own you, and vice versa. But with narratives, the more you have the less they own you.


    1. It seems that we operate on similar principles when it comes to judging people’s actions, but my main point was that on deeper reflection it makes more sense to diagnose this as empathy, not charity. I’ve known people who consistently seem to see only the best in others, assuming that good actions come from purely “good” motives, while “explaining away” not-so-great behaviors. That is what appears to me (as an outside observer) to be a personal ethos of true charity. There’s still a lot of overlap between these two mindsets, and only in recent years have I begun to consciously draw a distinction between them. (It’s possible that charity leads to a low variance of opinions as well, just clustered around a more positive value.)


      1. You may be right, I think we’re probably just talking past each other a bit, semantically. But do you really think this should be called empathy? I see it as an intellectually driven thing rather than feeling other people’s emotions.


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