Deconstructing strawmen and the principle of charity

Deconstructing strawmen

In the tutorial ‘why do we argue?’, I explained that the goal in philosophy is to give knowledge and to get knowledge. Sadly, there will be those who will not have this as a goal and will prefer persuasion, even if that will require misrepresenting arguments that challenge that person’s view. In debates, or in some writing, you may come across accusations of ‘that’s a strawman’ or ‘you’re strawmanning me!’ This comes from the rehetorical tactic called desconstructing strawmen. Deconstructing strawmen is when somebody will make a sound argument against a claim or argument that the person they were arguing with did not actually make. Here is an example:

Person 1: We should give money to charity.

Person 2: But if we gave all of our money to charity, we would starve to death!

Person 2 has committed a strawman, because person 1 was not saying we should give all of our money to charity, only that we should give money to charity. Some philosophers call this a fallacy, I prefer to call this a rhetorical tactic because it is not really related to the logical structure of an argument or the content in the argument, but merely a tool to try to persuade people.

The principle of charity

Sometimes people will give an invalid or unsound argument. However, just because it is unsound does not mean it is necessarily false, we just cannot know the conclusion. If we wish to get or give knowledge from arguments, we should apply what philosopher’s call the principle of charity when we’ve been given an unsound argument. Look at this argument:

  • 1. I am human
  • Therefore,
  • 2. I’ll eventually die

This argument, at least at first, is invalid. Just because I am human, I don’t know yet that I’ll eventually die. Maybe some humans can live forever. But as we know from looking at this argument previously, we can make the argument valid by adding in a premise we think the person making the argument is either taking for granted or has not considered, which is ‘all humans will eventually die. So, we will add that in as what is called a ‘suppressed premise’. So, we will reanalyse the argument:

  • 1. I am human
  • 2. All humans will eventually die (suppressed premise)
  • Therefore,
  • 3. I’ll eventually die

As we know, this is valid, and the premises are true so it is sound. This way, we have used the principle of charity to improve a bad argument to get to know the conclusion.

The other way an argument be unsound is by having a false premise. Take a look at this argument:

  • 1. I am human
  • 2. All humans will eventually die
  • 3. The Earth is flat
  • Therefore,
  • 4. I’ll eventually die

This argument is unsound, because one of the premises is false. The Earth is not flat. Since we know that premise is false, we can remove the premise we know is false and retest the argument to see if it is sound:

  • 1. I am human
  • 2. All humans will eventually die
  • 3. The Earth is flat
  • Therefore,
  • 4. I’ll eventually die

Now we have made the argument sound.

So, the way the principle of charity can help us get and give knowledge is by trying to make arguments sound by removing all false premises, and trying to add true premises that can make the argument valid. If we cannot, we cannot know the conclusion. If we can, then the conclusion must be true.

Test questions

With the following test questions, try to see if you can improve these arguments to make them sound:

  1. Richard Nixon committed a crime. So, some politicians are criminals.
  2. All people found guilty of crimes are guilty. Charles Manson was found guilty. Therefore, Charles Manson is guilty

If you wish to ask any questions, seek clarification, raise some objections, or check how you went on the test questions, please write them in the comments section and I will try respond as soon as I can.

I highly recommend purchasing the book ‘Understanding arguments’ by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Robert Fogelin, which is available for purchase in the link below. If you do purchase the book via this link, you are helping support this webpage. Thank you.

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

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