Philosophaster on “Persuasive power versus intellectual integrity”

I found this very nice piece on a forum.

In philosophy, there is something called the “principle of charity.” This is the idea that in a debate, we should address the strongest, most reasonable interpretation of opposing arguments, rather than take the easy way out and knock down a flimsy straw man, or try to make the opposition look idiotic through deliberately slanted or simplistic reading.

A couple of close relatives of the principle of charity are:
(1) Address the smartest, most capable supporters of opposing views, rather than “easy targets.”
(2) Address the most powerful objections to your own views, not just the ones that are easiest to answer.
(3) Concede when your opponents have made a good point, rather than just dropping the subject and hoping nobody notices.
(4) When one of your allies makes a shoddy argument, admit it — or even point it out.
These sound like nice ideals. Nevertheless, they may not make for the most persuasive presentation. Admitting that there can be reasonable objections to your views could be taken as a sign of weakness, and often enough probably is taken so. Taking on the strongest opponent available, you run more of a risk that a fence-sitter will judge in their favor rather than in yours. Critiquing the arguments of allies gives the appearance of disunity, and makes them look bad.
Now we can think about some opposite principles, call them “principles of propaganda”:
(1) Never give an accurate, detailed, plausible statement of your opponent’s views: this might make those views look too convincing, or make your own look worse by comparison.
(2) Don’t critique the argument of an ally, even if the argument sucks: doing that is like shooting at your compatriot in a war.
(3) If your opponent has made a good argument or has refuted one of your points, don’t concede it. Ignore it and hope nobody notices.
(4) Go after the most obviously incompetent and ridiculous arguments and people on the opposing side. Ignore the smarter and more capable ones, or claim that only morons and evil people could possibly oppose you.
Is it accurate to say that there is a fundamental conflict between intellectual integrity (or the principle of charity) and persuasive power? If so, how do you negotiate it?
The answer is “yes”. Which to choose depends on the audience and the need to succeed. For the purposes of serious philosophy and science, I always go with all four ‘charitable’ principles. Needless to say, politicians don’t.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. fast

    What is the conflict that you find fundamental? Can I not be persuasive with integrity? Don’t we have the creativity to successfully persuade without having to resort to shady rhetoric? Haven’t we the capacity to be both shrewd and honest? Sorry for the string of questions, and yes, a lot may weigh on the target audience, but where you see conflict, I see a chance for compatibility.

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