Arguing Well Isn’t Charity, It’s Due Diligence

I think I’ve done a bad job so far of explaining what I actually mean by being charitable in argument. Several people have pointed out to me that charitability, as I’ve described it, seems to have some pretty severe limitations. What if someone’s being an asshole? What if you’re being personally attacked, or it feels incredibly personal, and you don’t have the energy or distance to be perfectly detached and rational about everything?

raisevoiceI think this can be explained if I dump, at least for the moment, the term “charity.” Charity is what you do if you’re feeling extra virtuous that day. Charity is what you do it’s convenient and you have some extra money in your wallet. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m asking all of us to work on doing when we argue with people is practicing due diligence.

It is our due diligence as people who argue to think about the most productive and effective way to get our ideas across.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to make sure to address the arguments that someone is actually making.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to focus more on the core of someone’s argument than on peripherals that aren’t as relevant.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to try to understand where people are coming from, so we can understand what lies behind their arguments.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to not strawman.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to ask ourselves what we think we know about the topic and the person we’re arguing with and how we think we know it.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to acknowledge counterarguments to our position, and any other weaknesses besides.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to consider the possibility that we are wrong
It is our due diligence as people who argue to be clear about what we’re arguing
It is our due diligence as people who argue to explain and justify our reasoning.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to only make claims about the world or other people that are justified with the evidence
It is our due diligence as people who argue to not automatically assume the worst of people
It is our due diligence as people who argue to realize that people are going to disagree with us and be wrong who aren’t bad people.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to realize that our words and actions can have effects far beyond this particular argument, especially if the argument is public.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to treat our opponents like human beings.

This due diligence is what gets us productive arguments that help us learn. They’re also the kind of arguments that I think are most likely to persuade someone, if that’s what you’re interested in. All else equal, practicing due diligence is an intellectual and a moral duty to others.

But there’s a lot due diligence doesn’t mean.

It doesn’t mean, for instance, that you always have to be “nice” to people. Sometimes arguments are more heated. Sometimes you really don’t like someone. Sometimes you’re going to really bring it to demolish someone else’s argument, marshalling all of your available evidence and refuting them point by point. Nothing in due diligence prevents that.
Example: This wonderful takedown of a misleading National Organization for Marriage ad against Prop 8 back in 2008.

Similarly, due diligence doesn’t mean you can’t get angry. Anger can fuel and inspire us. It can push us to do our absolute best to make the world a better place. None of that is wrong. As long as the arguments are thoughtful, well-supported and true, it’s fine to get angry sometimes. There are costs of course, and times when it’s less productive to seem angry. But nothing about due diligence abolishes it altogether.
Example: Greta’s classic piece on why atheists are so angry, which is also a talk and a book, is angry but accurate, incensed while remaining judicious.

It also doesn’t mean you have to like people. There are a lot of people I really don’t like. There are people I think are mean, hurtful, irrational, stubborn, sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, closed-minded, hateful. Sometimes I argue with those people. It doesn’t mean I have to forget that they are these things. It doesn’t mean I have to pretend that they’re actually fantastic people. It doesn’t even mean I can’t point it out, if I think it’s appropriate. But it does mean I have to be judicious in my arguing and have some respect for them while I’m arguing with them.
Example: Nate Phelps’ talk at Reason Rally about his family, pretty much the worst people ever, was thoughtful, sincere and totally damning.

Due diligence doesn’t mean you have to make excuses for someone saying something wrong or awful. By all means, call people out. Tell them what they’re saying isn’t true, that they aren’t facing the evidence. Tell them they’re wrong. Tell them they’ve said something that causes harm. Tell them they’re perpetuating stereotypes, making lives harder, hurting a movement. Just be clear about what you’re actually saying, and then be diligent about the argument you’re making. Don’t always assume they meant to cause harm (both because it isn’t always true and because it will make you less persuasive). Don’t immediately label them the enemy.
Example: Laci Green, a fantastic sex vlogger, thought what Jenna Marbles said in one of her videos was slut shaming, but she didn’t make Jenna the problem, she just called out the general issue, clearly and forcefully.

Due diligence also doesn’t mean you can’t argue that a public figure or institution shouldn’t have our respect or shouldn’t be taken seriously. If someone has a strong history of harmful conduct or unacceptable speech, please give a highly critical rundown of all the bad things they’ve done and what that should mean for us so that we don’t honor bad people or groups. Just stick to the facts, make sure you’re never making claims that the evidence doesn’t support and keep in mind that you may not know their true motivations.
Examples: This open letter to the Richard Dawkins Foundation about what they do (or don’t do) with their money and this piece by Andrew Tripp about Ayaan Hirsi Ali and her bad politics.

Finally, and this one’s important, due diligence doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions to due diligence. I fully admit that there are cases, some I’ve thought of and some I haven’t, where this style of argumentation isn’t ideal. If you’re in a debate, for example, it might be more important to win than to be all proper. If someone is hurting you or someone you care about, it might be more important to get them to stop then to convince them that one or more of their ideologies is wrong. If someone’s trolling (i.e. arguing in bad faith and they’re unreachable by argument) then it might be reasonable to ignore them, delete their comment (if this is taking place online), Snark Attack them or troll them right back. The best course of action is always going to depend on what your goals are.
Example: Eliezer Yudkowsky at probably any dinner party. In particular,

“I was once at a dinner party, trying to explain to a man what I did for a living, when he said: “I don’t believe Artificial Intelligence is possible because only God can make a soul.”

At this point I must have been divinely inspired, because I instantly responded: “You mean if I can make an Artificial Intelligence, it proves your religion is false?””

Full article, in which there is a great discussion in the comments about this very topic.

Due diligence in argumentation is hard. Doing anything properly is hard. There are going to be all kinds of times when you can’t argue at your highest level, just as at many times we fail to be our best selves in other ways. I certainly don’t argue perfectly charitably or thoughtfully all the time, especially when the person I’m arguing with is being stubborn or thoughtless or ignorant. And as I said above, there are exceptions to this practice, times when it doesn’t apply, which I hope to talk about in the future.

But none of that means that we shouldn’t do our level best to have the kinds of arguments that we should be having, the ones that force us to see things in a new light, or get someone thinking about something we said. I want us all to have the kinds of arguments that make us realize that the truth resists simplicity, even as they help us discard falsehood and error. I want our arguments to teach, to challenge, inform, convince and win. I want us to get more right (or, if you will, less wrong), by arguing right, and I want us to do it together.

Previous Posts About Better Arguing/Charity/Diligence

  • Steelmanning
  • Being Charitable
  • Acknowledging Counterarguments
  • About Nuance (not part of this series, but still relevant)
  • And watch out for future posts that will expand the notion of due diligence and what it entails. Potential examples: When smart people disagree with you, reevaluate; Justify *all* claims, not just the obvious ones; Be clear about how you arrived at your position; and more!

Midnight Run: What I Learned When I Stopped Doing Nothing and Helped People

There are a lot of reasons not to do charity. Personally, I come up with new ones every day.


When I say “sorry” to homeless people who ask for money on the street, passing them without giving, I think to myself, “There’s no way this is the most efficient use of my money for good. Also they might use it for drugs and alcohol. Also I’m tired and I have places to be. And it’s not even my money, most of it is my parents’.” Plenty of that is true, of course, but it’s also true that I generally don’t donate to charities and I have extra cash almost all the time and it would likely mean a great deal to these people if I donated and it is especially true that I spend my parent’s money on far less worthy things.

But let’s say all of it is true and just because I don’t do better things with money doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do at least some, less good things. Maybe I don’t have the time?

Except, my time isn’t worth a lot (I’m currently doing two different unpaid internships. My time is not just worthless, it is doubly worthless. Which, to be fair, is still just worthless.) So, presumably, I should do good things with it, like volunteer or, for the purposes of this post, help out the homeless.

So maybe there are other reasons it’s a bad idea. I mean, isn’t it just putting a band-aid over more systemic issues? And people aren’t hungry in this country, right? And Maimonides had a thing somewhere about not doing charity for other people in which they know who you are. And if I were homeless, I wouldn’t want privileged rich kids feeling all righteous and virtuous because they took one night off from drinking or watching Youtube videos to make and hand out basic sandwiches, the cheapest apples they could find, and three shirts someone was kind enough to take off his back root out of a pile of things he likely never wears (which is still better than almost everyone else, myself included, who did not donate any clothes).

So I, wracked by guilt and paralyzed by indecision, do nothing. I am not sure where or how to give money, so I do not give at all. I am not sure that this is the right decision, so I do not look those who ask in the eye, worried that at some level they know that my smile and conversation would be a self-serving act intended to alleviate my guilt over not doing what seems like the obviously correct things by replacing a donation that would help them with a greeting that helps me because I get to be proud of “treating them like a human” and therefore being better than everyone else on the street. But, of course, I don’t even have that, because I don’t do it at all.

The truth is, I do not give food or money to the homeless because I am embarrassed. I am embarrassed at how little I am doing compared to how much I could do. I am embarrassed that I am abusing my privilege, that I am Othering the homeless, that I might be causing more harm than good. I am embarrassed that I might be, in the end, making the wrong decision, and my heartfelt sincerity is my socially evolved emotions’ joke on me. I am embarrassed that my friends might find out, and think how silly I am, to do something so gauchely earnest instead of engaging in further argumentation about Foreign Aid legislation and welfare politics. I am embarrassed to be doing something that I know looks good to others when I do not totally believe in it myself, even though I’ve been doing social justice projects my whole life.

What this means, of course, is that more privileged than spending money on conferences instead of malaria nets, more elitist than acting as if other humans are not worth my time, more self-serving than potentially getting more out of charity in the form of gratification and a sense of righteousness than I give in help or kindness, worse than all of that, I decided that my embarrassment was more important than their need.

It took doing the Uri L’Tzedek Summer Fellowship’s annual mandatory-for-fellows Midnight Run on Tuesday night to get me to shut up my over-active hyper-analytical excuse-finding machine that sits atop my neck. We signed up ahead of time, made about 100 sandwiches, put them in paper bags with cookies, juice boxes and snacks, and went in a van to preset spots to give them away. When we handed out the bags, we also spent time talking to the people we saw. This is fraught, too; who are we, to be entitled to their stories and their lives, when we would expect nothing of the kind from the housed? And yet, they spoke to us freely and happily, and those that did not want to talk were not pushed. We learned that Jose’s parents died when he was young, and Cynthia has a nursing degree and a terrible employment agency. Another woman told us she loved us and gave us all hugs. They often formed a network, telling us where their friends were and how long it had been since they’d eaten. One man hadn’t had anything to eat in two days. Overall, they preferred tuna sandwiches to peanut butter. It was wonderful, joyous, friendly, amazing. I felt happy; I felt like the evidence of the happiness and gratefulness I was causing showed I was doing the right thing, or at least a right thing.

What did I learn?

That empathy has limits. Empathy is a process of plugging a situation into your brain and letting it spit out what you might feel. It does brilliantly at illuminating the truths of what it means to be other people in the face of humanity’s overwhelming commonalities. It crosses barriers, extends care and undermines Otherizing. But empathy fails to contribute to understanding when there are real differences of experience and circumstance to contend with, and such is the case here. What I think I might feel is less than unhelpful; it turned out to be actively counterproductive, and exactly wrong.

That, contrary to popular belief, people still go hungry in this country.

That kindness, a willingness to engage, and a respect for choice go a long way.

That charity is a severely political act.

That even if we get more than we give, it’s a getting that doesn’t take.

I don’t think everyone should necessarily start giving money or food to the homeless. There are many reasons not to. Find whatever moves you, or maximizes the variable you’re looking for. But if what’s stopping you from doing something good is constant fear of doing it wrong, you should just do it. Grab friends, or do it alone. Sign up with a group, go with a church or a community service group or Volunteers Beyond Belief. Do it thoughtfully, of course, with as much care and respect and planning as possible.

When the stakes (your embarrassment, possibly making a fool of yourself, maybe doing a suboptimally good thing) are so low, you should just try. There’s time and space to improve; we don’t have to get it right the first time. If we get Food Aid wrong, we can destroy the economy of a small country. But if we get the everyday things wrong, the worst we have done is given sandwiches to those who are hungry, or lost a few dollars to the vicissitudes of humanity, or faltered while learning how to do good. So you try, and you learn, and you reflect, and then you get to do more good tomorrow.

This is going to sound saccharine, but I don’t want to be embarrassed of that anymore, so here goes:

Go make the world a better place. Even if you’re scared. We all are.