Be Fearless: Teach Intellectual Charity | Nate Otey | 7 Min Read

July 26, 2022

Instructors can help students discuss controversial issues by explicitly teaching the skills of intellectual charity. Students can improve these skills by working through simple, engaging practice exercises.

“You can be very, very powerfully persuasive without offering an argument at all. One way you can persuade someone to believe something, or at least to act exactly as if they believe it, is to convince them that their membership in their tribe hinges on their believing the claim in question.”

Thus spoke Harvard Philosophy Department chair Ned Hall to a group of professors at a recent seminar about how to help students practice charitable thinking skills. Dr. Hall posits that students’ group-ish tendencies contribute to the anxiety that now grips classrooms nationwide. An increasing majority of students are too afraid of their peers’ opinions to risk discussing controversial issues. As a result, students are more likely to keep quiet and pretend consensus with their group. So too increasingly are their professors, many of whom are chilled by anecdotes of discussions gone wrong. 

How then shall we transform this anxious climate? How can faculty and students become fearless? In part, I propose, by practicing the skills of intellectual charity. 

As the HxA Way suggests: 

“One should always try to engage with the strongest form of a position one disagrees with (that is, ‘steel-man’ opponents rather than ‘straw-manning’ them). One should be able to describe their interlocutor’s position in a manner they would, themselves, agree with … Look for reasons why the beliefs others hold may be compelling, under the assumption that others are roughly as reasonable, informed, and intelligent as oneself.”

When we steel-man an argument that we disagree with, we show that the argument is not something to be feared, a threat to our identity or to our safety. We might even have something to learn from it. 

In my experience, faculty are often careful to model charitable thinking skills like this when helping students engage with scholarship in their field. Such modeling is commendable, but it’s generally insufficient to help students become more charitable. Instructors may hope that students will absorb these skills by a sort of osmosis. Such a hypothesis may be a priori plausible, but can we honestly claim that it’s bearing out in practice? 

Like any other learning objective, the practice of charitable thinking skills must be made explicit as an instructional goal, or most students won’t learn it. 

We’re Talking About Practice

Fortunately, students can practice and improve the skills and dispositions of intellectual charity by working through simple, engaging exercises. 

For example, one essential charitable thinking skill is to notice that a statement can be interpreted in more than one way and choose the best formulation of the statement — usually the formulation that makes the most sense in context and is most likely to be true. 

Consider the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” A careful thinker will notice that this vague, politically loaded phrase can be interpreted more or less charitably. An uncharitable interpretation might be: “Black lives matter more than other lives.” Such a reading is uncharitable both because in context this is not likely what the speaker means to communicate and because such an assertion is highly implausible. The charitable thinker will seek an interpretation that makes more sense in context and is significantly more plausible, such as “Black lives have been devalued throughout America’s long history of racial injustice.”

As a further exercise, consider the phrase “All Lives Matter.” Which of the following would be the most charitable reading of this phrase?

  1. Racism is not a problem in the United States.
  2. We should aspire to value all lives equally, regardless of race. 
  3. All lives matter equally, including the lives of animals and plants. 
  4. We should support the police.

At this point, we might highlight for students the vital role of accounting for context when practicing intellectual charity. For example, if “All Lives Matter” is understood as a kind of retort to “Black Lives Matter,” which is understood to stand for the claim that racism is a problem in the United States, then option A might be a reasonable (albeit unfavorable) interpretation. On the other hand, if someone who says “All Lives Matter” has already interpreted “Black Lives Matter” unfavorably as above, then we might imagine that such a person intends to communicate something closer to option B. (Try explaining to yourself why options C and D can’t be the best interpretations, in any case.) 

Here, we might also emphasize that one of the most useful — and woefully underutilized — charitable thinking skills is simply to ask your interlocutor to clarify what they mean. 

No doubt instructors can think of many other phrases that similarly require charitable interpretation. Better yet, faculty can construct their own practice exercises to suit their course objectives and their specific students. Such exercises may or may not have a clear “right answer,” but they will naturally prompt dynamic and fruitful discussion. You might also ask students to probe the limits of charity: When should we not be charitable? 

The point is to direct students’ attention to a discrete skill and help them practice this skill on purpose. Proficiency in this skill can be improved and measured, for example, by restating someone else’s claim in your own words and asking whether you’ve understood them correctly. 

Other charitable thinking skills that students can practice and improve include the following:

  • Notice when you find an argument offensive or irritating and self-regulate appropriately, including stepping away if necessary.
  • Identify hidden assumptions (i.e., suppressed co-premises) and choose modest formulations that achieve inferential strength.
  • Try to verify that you understand an argument correctly before criticizing it 
  • When you disagree, note what is good about the argument or something you learned.

Simple enough, but not always easy for students to practice. That’s where argument mapping can help.

Argument Mapping 

Argument mapping is a straightforward, practical way of analyzing and evaluating an argument. You simply draw a diagram of the argument structure, placing the main claim at the top and the supporting premises underneath, according to their logical support relations. When students map an argument accurately, they verify that they have understood it charitably and can then evaluate it fairly. I provide an example below.

A growing body of research indicates that argument mapping significantly improves students’ argument analysis skills and may even decrease partisan polarization. My own experience working with hundreds of educators matches these findings. 

Why does argument mapping help students practice intellectual charity? Here are my top five reasons:

  1. The process of mapping an argument requires students to pay careful attention to what the speaker or the text is actually saying. You can’t map the argument accurately unless you understand the main claim and the reasons given to support that claim. (This is unsurprising — generating a visual explanation improves understanding.) 
  2. Argument maps significantly reduce cognitive load, thereby decreasing students’ reliance on mental shortcuts that might cause them to straw-man an argument that they’re inclined to disagree with. In other words, our brains are more likely to process the strongest version of an argument that is mapped, as compared with the same argument in ordinary prose. 
  3. Mapping naturally prompts students to expose hidden assumptions in an argument, which are often the true source of disagreement. 
  4. Mapping is collaborative. Students who deeply disagree can easily work together to map an argument about the contentious topic. Thus shoulder to shoulder, they share a clear task with a mutual goal. This simple activity provides a remarkably effective basis for developing further trust and empathy.
  5. Argument maps remind students to criticize claims rather than people. We can point at a premise and ask whether it’s true, and we can point at an inference and ask whether it’s strong. But we don’t point at a person and ask whether they are good.

To summarize everything I just said, here’s a map of my argument. As an exercise, you can try mapping it out for yourself before comparing your map with mine. Then you can ask yourself whether you find my argument persuasive. (How charitable are you feeling?) If you disagree, you might point out precisely where you think I’ve gone wrong. 

Argument mapping can be highly versatile: Students can work together in pairs or small groups to map a text or project a map on the board to frame a class discussion. They can also work through additional practice exercises outside of regular class time. 

To learn more about how you might teach and measure the skills of intellectual charity, check out these resources from ThinkerAnalytix and the Harvard Department of Philosophy.

You and your students can be fearless. It just takes a little practice. 

This article was originally published on Heterodox Academy’s heterodox: the blog.

You may also be interested in watching How To Disagree And Still Be Friends: An Interactive Workshop that Nate Otey presented for Intrepid Ed News.

Nate Otey

Nate Otey is a Harvard Philosophy Fellow

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