The Principle of Charity — Debating as a Catholic

Research into artificial intelligence began in earnest at Dartmouth College in the summer of 1956 shortly after the invention of the electronic computer and the development of stored computer programs. Many of the researchers present at an initial conference predicted that machines of equal or greater intelligence than humans would exist in at least a generation.

Obviously, they were wrong, and while AI research hasn’t produced what most would consider intelligence, it has made progress on many interesting problems. One of those problems involves the nature of intelligence. What is it and how do we know when we’re looking at it?

Alan Turing in a 1950s paper proposed a famous test (which now bears his name) that, while highly criticized, provides a good starting point. The Turing Test operates by setting up a blind conversation between a human tester and several unknown partners (which may be fellow humans or machines). If the tester can’t reliably tell the difference between the humans and the computers, one may safely ascribe human-level intelligence to the machines.

Atheist-turned-Catholic blogger Leah Libresco proposed a variation of the test called the Ideological Turing Test where atheists and Catholics masquerade as the opposite ideology and readers try to tell the difference between the real practitioners and the frauds. Success in such a test comes from an intimate understanding of your opposition and its perspective. Seeking that understanding should be at the heart of Catholic debate.

Here’s why: I think it’s a fact about the modern world that people aren’t really convinced by argument. It’s nice to think of yourself as a budding Aquinas, but people are probably swayed more by their peers, experience, and self-image than by careful point-by-point syllogisms. On the other hand, we are called to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). What’s the best way, as a Catholic, to make that defense?

St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words”. The best way to argue for the truth of Catholicism is to be a good Catholic.  If you believe that religious morality is better for the human person then be a better person. If you believe that Catholicism encourages charity then be more charitable. If you believe that NFP is better for relationships than contraception then be a good spouse. Actions speak much louder than words; it’s better to work on what you’re practicing than to work on what you’re preaching.

In the actual discussion, being a good Catholic involves acting with charity towards your opponent. Avoid going into arguments with the intention of winning. When your goal is to win you start seeing your interlocutor as the enemy and you see his arguments as obstacles to ruthlessly destroy. You’re going to fail in charity if you try to bludgeon your opponent over the head with your views and you’re going to fail in logic if you try to destroy every single opposing argument and never admit uncertainty.

Being charitable in a debate involves giving your opponent the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to go after your opponent’s weak points and interpret his position in the worst possible light, but you don’t change minds that way. Your opponent will know that you aren’t representing his position fairly and will not thank you for it. Instead, go after their strongest points. You’ll make a better overall case and you’re more likely to act with compassion and empathy.

Treat every discussion as an opportunity to learn something. People aren’t often truly stupid and malicious, more often they are seeking something they incorrectly perceive as good or they’re pursuing a real good incorrectly. Try to understand those goods and you’ll have a more productive discussion and be able to argue more effectively.

Ask your opponent to clarify whenever possible and, if you’re not sure you understand him correctly, perhaps try to re-state his beliefs and ask him if you’re representing him properly. You’ll avoid a lot of frustration on both sides if you ensure you’re on the same page with disagreements.

Remember that, at the end of the day, your opponent is an individual loved by Christ and a child of God. Be respectful.

Thomas Carey is a husband and father. In his spare time, he’s a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, Boulder and tries to relax from both by hiking, climbing, and playing board games.


3 thoughts on “The Principle of Charity — Debating as a Catholic

  1. Pingback: The Porch
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