4.1: The Principles of Charity and Fidelity
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When someone says something that is obviously false, the logical reasoner will look deeper and not be too quick to find fault. Maybe the person meant something true but simply slipped up. "I collided with a stationary truck coming the other way," a male driver wrote in an insurance statement, attempting to summarize the details of an accident. Because a truck cannot simultaneously be moving and be stationary, you note the inconsistency but are charitable and assume that the person didn't literally mean what he wrote. Maybe he meant that he collided with a truck carrying paper stationery, or, more probably, he meant that the truck was stationary but that he, himself, was coming the other way.
By trying to make sense of apparent inconsistencies, and by trying to make sense of false statements that are too obviously false, we are applying the principle of charity or the principle of charitable interpretation. This principle is really a request to be kind and to try to make reasonable sense of odd statements and not to be in "attack mode."
Besides applying the principle of charity, we want to respect the principle of fidelity. That is, we should preserve the intended meaning of the speaker's original statements when interpreting them or analyzing them. We don't want to twist the original so that the speaker would react with, "Hey, I didn't mean that." Nor should we be so charitable that we are blind to real falsehoods and real inconsistencies.
Suppose you are trying to interpret what someone meant by saying, "You will have some good luck." Which of the following interpretations would violate the principle of fidelity?
a. You will have some good luck today, or soon.
b. You will have something positive happen to you.
c. You will cause somebody to have some good luck.
d. Eventually good luck will happen to you, but it won't be that far off.
Answer (c). It twists the original statement by changing who the good luck will happen to, whereas statements (a), (b), and (d) are all reasonable interpretations of what the original statement might have meant
It is important to accurately represent what people are intending to say. If they intend to say something that turns out to be false or inconsistent, they are being false or inconsistent, and that is that. It's their confusion, not yours. But what do you do when faced with a statement that is blatantly inconsistent? For example, suppose a friend of yours says, "I don't believe in God's existence; nevertheless, God exists." Perhaps your friend intended to say something consistent, so you ask yourself, "What else could the sentence mean?" Maybe (but just maybe) it means "I find it hard to believe in God's existence; nevertheless, I actually do believe in God's existence." That would not be inconsistent. When you are in doubt about apparent inconsistencies or weirdness, ask the speaker to clarify, if you can. The burden is on the speaker not to confuse you.
Tension may occur between the principles of fidelity and charity. To maintain fidelity, the analyst will say that a sentence that appears to make a false statement is in fact false, yet to be charitable the analyst will try to find a way to interpret it to be true. Consequently, applying the principles is an art that requires a delicate sensitivity.
Applying the principles of charity and fidelity to the sentence "The musician Tommy Tutone is dead, but alive," it would be best to say what?
a. Tommy Tutone is probably not a musician but a detergent.
b. "Dead" means "not alive."
c. "Alive" means "his music is still listened to."
d. There are some people who are biologically both dead and alive.
e. If a person is dead, then the person cannot be a musician.
Answer (c). If you say that a person is physically dead but that his music is still listened to, you are not being inconsistent. Answer (a) also is consistent, but that answer violates the principle of fidelity