The idea of the “principle of charity” has been simmering in my brain since I first learned about it. This notion of seeking to understand a view at its best point seems to be a very wise way to live life, though it requires a bit of work in transforming our cognitions. It first requires us to recognize that humans aren’t perfect. We convey ideas and thoughts in ways that are twisted, convoluted, and imperfect. Instead of allowing ourselves to get lost in these imperfections, the principle of charity demands that we put forth the extra effort to go beyond hearing what is said and towards understanding what is meant. If we can assume that the people around us are coming to the table from the perspective of the principle of charity, it makes it easier to engage in dialogue and discussion. It allows us to trust that those around us will give us both the benefit of the doubt and the room to express our ideas, although it may be in an imperfect way.
The principle of charity, then, sounds like a great concept to try to include in our lives as we go about our conversations, relationships, and daily life. But how does that connect to our work as professionals? How are we to reconcile providing the benefit of the doubt with holding others accountable and maintaining professional rigor? After all, fields such as science, programming, or research aren’t about feelings or intentions; they are about results.
It’s important to recognize that while the principle of charity does have far-reaching potential, it does have its place, which is not in a scientific lab. And yet, that doesn’t diminish its value or importance. Science is only one part of a much larger world, and it is entirely possible to be an inquisitive and focused scholar in other fields while still utilizing the principle of charity.
The “how” of this is a bit more vague, and it would look different within each field and for every individual. One common thread, however, would be the framework through which we approach every professional interaction, whether it is with a student, colleague, client, or supervisor. This principle demands that we look beyond each individual interaction and listen to the motivation of the other person. We must pause and consider the “why” behind hurtful decisions, unclear comments, and difficult dialogue. Essentially, it asks us to ignore the idea that we can completely separate work from one’s personal life and recognize instead that each of us has our own set of experiences that have shaped us into the people we are today. Those experiences have led each of us along our paths and are inextricably connected to our work as professionals. The principle of charity asks us to remember this and to view the actions of others from a framework that incorporates an understanding of this. Once we have achieved that, we can engage in dialogue at a deeper level of understanding.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about the idea of self-actualization, which is the process by which an individual moves from who they are at the present moment to who they are truly capable of being. We see a similar distinction present in the principle of charity as well. As we see beyond the actual reality and look towards the ideal, we help those around us to do the same. In doing so, we shrink the gap between the two while becoming better suited to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.