Principle of Charity and Normativity

This one begins to reflect about the principle of charity in relationship to the current US President, Donald Trump (from now on, Trump).

As you might know, the principle of charity has been formulated in different ways by different people. (Even the first page of a google search of the word ‘principle of charity’ allows you to access many of these documents quickly.) This post will stick strictly to your formulation: “a principle of charity says that (like the rain dance) a long-standing  practice should not be attributed to idiocy without strong evidence”. This formulation itself will not be questioned but assumed as a given. The only evidence used in this post is an extremely fragmentary viewing of the CNN and the BBC World coverages of Trump during the last week or so. (No thorough viewing of either of the two channels is claimed; the references in this post merely pick out fragments from programs as memory ‘recalls’ them today.) Two dramatis personae: Some media coverage and the event of Trump presidency; one question: what does the principle of charity do or advocate in the following cases? Such cases can be indefinitely multiplied but it is restricted here to five. One side of the argument is presented briefly only because that side of the argument is in wide circulation.

  1. To begin with the first three press briefings by the new press secretary. (Watched: the last three or minutes of the first; nearly 55 minutes of the second and a fragment of an answer from the third; some fragments from some CNN commentaries of the first two, a fragmentary watching of the BBC World and three news clips and commentaries from the Flemish Televisions about the third. Read: many pieces from the NYT.) The focus here is on one issue that has received much coverage: the size of the crowd during Trump’s inauguration. The ‘takeaway’, as the Americans so disgustingly put it, from all of these is: Trump lied; the Press secretary defended both his first speech and his boss rather ineptly, while underhandedly admitting to telling lies or half-truths.

The press secretary repeatedly claimed the following: in his first speech, he had said that the audience numbers referred to the sum ofpeople present in person and the viewers watching the inauguration. It was the highest ever in any inauguration. (In the second Press briefing, he also read out the sentence he used during the first briefing and no one challenged it.) The reporters kept pushing their point and the press secretary kept giving the same answer, while repeatedly drawing attention to the fact that he had already answered it. The ‘facts’ and the aerial picture of two presidential inaugurations were constantly in the background, when discussions began on the TV channels. Assuming that the long-standing practice is that neither the press secretary nor the President lies and that the Press reports the truth, what does the principle of charity recommend?

One route: The Press should check facts and report them as they are. Because of the ‘strong evidence’ (photographs, metro numbers, empty spaces, etc.), it concludes that the White House lies. (Reports about Trump’s past appear as further corroborating evidence; the conclusion is that he lies, bluffs and is obsessed by ratings and popularity.)

The other route: Neither Trump nor the Press secretary has ever stood in front of such a gathering. ‘Faces as far as the eyes could see’, ‘awesome’, etc. as the Press secretary said repeatedly. Thereafter, both Trump and the press secretary receive the audience number (including those present in person and the TV viewers). This number appears to corroborate their extraordinary and, possibly, unforgettable experience. ‘The biggest audience ever’ is, in this sense, a perfectly reasonable and a completely honest claim. Even if it turns out to be wrong at a later point in time, Trump and the press secretary are entirely justified in believing that this was the biggest audience for a presidential inauguration. As of now, there are no confirmed and verified numbers available to the public that suggests to the contrary. Assuming the long-standing tradition that the presidential office does not lie to the press, the conclusion is that they are telling the truth they know. Further, because one cannot tell a truth that one does not know and, to the best of their knowledge, this is what they think is true, and because we do not know how many people watched the event, the Press should retract its statement about Trump and his lies.

The principle of charity ‘recommends’ both routes unequivocally. Which route should we, from the ‘outside’, take? Neutrality (‘I do not know’, ‘insufficient information’, etc.) is not a possible option when using the principle of charity.

  1. About the inaugural speech (watched: about 6 TV stations and multiple commentators; read: some NYT pieces). Every commentator repeated the same line: campaign rhetoric, non-presidential, no policy statements, etc. Normally speaking, the President reaffirms his campaign pledges during his speech, and formulates them as his policy to the nation at large.

One route: the long-standing practice (excepting Jackson, apparently) is that a presidential inaugural speech tries to unite the nation; it lays out in the broadest outline the noble ideals of the incoming president; affirms and acknowledges existing friends, allies and treaties, etc. Every single line in that short speech was an evidence to the contrary; instead of inducing hope, it presented a bleak picture of the nation. The principle of charity demands attribution of precisely those properties which these commentators used. Trump has no policies of any kind and is polarising the nation even further.

The other route: the election speech demonstrated an extraordinary consistency. Trump reaffirmed what he had said throughout the campaign. He laid out his policy in very simple, understandable and unequivocal terms: trade with other nations will be bi-lateral and not multi-lateral; making deals with individual nations is the modus operandi, which is possible only if both nations benefit (otherwise, there could be no deals); foreign policy of the US will be defined purely in terms of strengthening the nation; thus, no playing the ‘policeman’ of the world or hide imperial ambitions by speaking in terms of ‘protecting American interests’; no wars and wanton destructions of other peoples and nations elsewhere in the world, while trying to protect ‘their borders’, etc. Trump said all these, reaffirmed his promise to the American people, down to using the same language. He did even better by repeating his pledges more or less in the same way he made them while seeking votes. His election words were not meant to merely attract votes; he repeats them even after becoming the president. No evidence of any kind to suspect that Trump was violating the long-standing practice. Thus, obviously, his speech was genuine and honest. His policy repeated the word he gave to the American people.

Again: the principle of charity ‘recommends’ both routes unequivocally. Which route should we, from the ‘outside’, take? Neutrality is once again impossible.

  1. Nomination for the secretary of state: an Exxon Mobil CEO.

One route: The nominee has corporate interests at heart, is friendly with Putin and Putin’s Russia, has no diplomatic or political experience, and is singularly unqualified to promote US interests, etc. Trump chooses corporate America to run and represent the nation. All are expressions of bad faith because sectional interests (the corporate interests) are promoted by disguising them as the general interest (of the nation).

The other route (also partially presented by the White House Chief of Staff on the CNN): has experience in dealing with many nations; has fairly good, working knowledge of international law; has dealt with many foreign governments; knows how to close deals with high-placed political figures; will pursue the interests of the nation with the same zeal he pursued corporate interests; is willing to give up a lucrative career for the sake of serving the nation. One could add: what precisely are the special ‘skills’ and ‘abilities’ that Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, etc. possessed that qualified them to become secretariesof the state? Leading an army, being a diplomat, being a senator or being elected by popular votes do not magically and automatically provide an individual with those special skills and abilities that a secretary of state should have. What are those special skills and abilities anyway? Besides, if the American and European idea about running the government as an efficient business organization is true (‘good governance’, ‘corporate governance’, etc.), the Exxon CEO would be the best choice for the post.

The long-standing practice is to name a capable person as the secretary of the state, someone who can best represent and defend the US abroad.The principle of charity recommends both routes unequivocally. Again, which to choose?

  1. Senate hearings regarding the above nomination. Marc Rubio questions the CEO, among other things, about Putin’s status as a war criminal. The nominee says that he does not have sufficient information to make a judgement on the issue; the Senator refers to facts about bombings and civilian deaths in Syria and expresses disbelief; is faintly sarcastic about the ‘lack of sufficient information’ that the nominee speaks about and pushes hard. The nominee reiterates that he does not have sufficient information. (Watched: Rubio and some other senators; some commentaries on CNN, MSNBC; BBC World; read: nothing.) The long-standing tradition: the Senate hearings are reasonable and honest; tough questions that bypass party lines are raised; the commission must be satisfied before the nomination is put to vote; worrisome candidates face grilling. Further: the nominee outlines the policies of the administration, acts as a responsible public figure during the hearings and both are judged in terms of their effects on the US national interests. What does the principle of charity advocate in this case?

Let us begin with the assumption that Putin personally identified the targets and ordered the bombings in Syria. Let us also assume that he identified civilian targets knowingly. Assume further too that the evidence for both these assumptions is overwhelming. Questions are these: are they evidences to establish that Putin committed war crimes? What are the consequences of such a stance? Was the nominee right in saying that he did not have sufficient information to make that judgement?

One route: Rubio asked honest questions because he is genuinely worried about Putin and Russia. (Some snide comments about Rubio’s ‘true’ motivations by some commentators will be neglected here.) He acted in a non-partisan fashion because, as a Republican, he grilled a Republican nominee. The nominee ducked a simple question and evaded giving a straight answer to an issue that preoccupies the American people. Rubio behaved responsibly but the nominee dissimulated by refusing to accept the overwhelming evidence that Putin has committed war crimes and by pleading the lack of ‘sufficient information’.

Second route: if bombing civilian targets is enough to convict one of committing war crimes, what does one say about the US presidential decision to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagaskai? Both were civilian targets. How should we treat carpet and napalm bombings in the Vietnam war? If we make the same assumptions about the US presidents that we have made about Putin’s role in the Russian bombings in  Syria, is not every single US president involved in a war abroad a war criminal by definition? Saying ‘Yes’ to Rubio’s questions would necessarily entail convicting not just all the US presidents involved in wars but also the heads of States of all nations (involved in war) of committing war crimes. A pacifist might believe this to be true, but doing so utterly trivialises the notion of war crime. In each of these cases, including the nuclear bombing of civilians, we bring in multiple arguments (military, ethical, pragmatic, social, economic, etc.) to say that killing civilians alone is not sufficient to equate it with war crimes. Consider this simple fact: six to eight months of Russian involvement in Syria has increased the probability of reducing the horrendous suffering of the Syrian people. More than 5 years of war fought by the US and her allies did not accomplish even this much. An analogous consideration is used while discussing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All the necessary arguments and considerations required to judge are unavailable to us at this moment. In this sense, the nominee is right in saying that there is insufficient information to accuse the head of the Russian State of committing war crimes. As a probable secretary of state, he cannot go around simply transforming his moral outrage and anger (however justified they might be) into the foreign policy of his country. It is highly irresponsible to suggest that all the US presidents involved in wars are war criminals and it damages the US tremendously to accuse many more foreign heads of state of committing war crimes. It is, after all, the established practice is that a presumptive nominee for the function of the secretary of state does not damage the US. And there is no evidence of any kind to suggest that he was ducking the question, evading the issue or dissimulating. He was honest and behaved as it befits a future secretary of state.

Again, the principle of charity recommends both routes, while shutting out neutrality.

  1. Many, many more such examples could be taken up but it would be better to end with an example of a different type. There were civic disturbances on the inauguration day which was followed by a march of millions in Washington, hundreds of thousands in NY and many thousands elsewhere. CNN gave much coverage to these events, especially the march, and many others broadcasted these happenings. Of course, there were learned pundits and political experts talking about the significance of these events, not to mention the media anchors themselves.

One route: there is no need to summarize the arguments (as they were continuously interspersed with comments about the inauguration numbers) except to note that it is a long-standing practice to express dissent in a democracy and that most found that the participants were justifiably expressing their problems with the election results. It also indexed the unpopularity of Trump. The broadcasted speeches (‘I am a woman and an immigrant’ lady who was apparently expressing the fear of many people in the US came on the screen repeatedly on multiple channels) were mostly appreciative of this event (even if worried about the divided America). The press and the political experts were entirely in tune with the responsible media, which informs the citizenry of important and unimportant events, that though anguishing (‘the polarisation in society’), the event itself was legitimate and laudable.

The other route: America, rightly or wrongly, has a great impact on many nations and people regarding democracy. This event, especially the way it was covered and commented upon, provided legitimacy and justifications to this way of expressing ‘dissent’ about democratic election results. Out of nowhere, the legitimacy of the electoral college as an institution is questioned by the mere number of ‘popular votes’. A popularity poll (even if it is expressed in terms of votes) can trump the legitimacy of the constitution in the sense that one is ‘justified’  in questioning the priority of the constitution over a popularity poll. The march was portrayed as a laudable expression of democratic freedom, even when such expressions challenge (and thus undermine) the very constitution that guarantees and safeguards such freedoms. In that case, what would be the problem if the citizens take to guns to challenge an election result they do not like? The march, the media and the pundits glorify an event that potentially undermines democracy because it is directed against someone who was not as ‘popular’ as another candidate but, nonetheless, won the election legitimately. It undermines an important democratic institution, namely the presidential office. Legitimacy is not any more an issue of Law and the constitution but an index of the changing preferences of a fickle public. By undermining the long-standing practice of the legitimacy of the rule of law and because of the strong evidence that America has a serious effect on the world, one should question not just the ‘responsibility’ of the event itself but also the justification and the legitimacy that the ‘intellectuals’ provided. Thus, the argument provided by the event and its justifiers comes down to this: the Europeans (and the world) should abolish democracy because it brought Hitler to power. (There is no assumption here that Trump is a fascist or is a Hitler. Such facile characterisations are poisonous, debilitating and highly irresponsible.)

The principle of charity condones both routes. Which should be taken?

Pernicious scientific rubbish (‘there are no alternative facts’, ‘there are only facts and falsehood’ etc.) are presented with an air of authority and covered with the mantle of truth that are accorded not even to God’s Word or Christ. Anything that even remotely ‘smells’ of Trump is anathema. Is there any wonder that Trump says that the media consists of the ‘most dishonest people in the world’? The same principle of charity must nod approvingly at the answers here as well.

The principle of charity is about ‘charity’ in the first place. It is given to those who are in need of it and to those who are needy. Who is not needy in this world? As the Bible says, and the philosophers endlessly repeat, the human being is a needy creature, which means that all human beings are always needy at all times. This means that the principle of charity is accessible to all people, in all circumstances and at all times. Normally, one supports one’s own favourite charity and one gives charity to those goals or people that one chooses. One cannot ask further justificatory questions about the choice of either the goal or the recipient of charity. Therefore, the principle of charity must be capable of supporting all claims and, in the hands of people, support their chosen claims without discrimination. To help the needy is an obligation that the Biblical God places on humanity. Thus, one responds to those needs that one’s preferences and choices dictate. This is ‘charity’. This label makes one feel good and noble because one has fulfilled God’s commandment. Hence also the ‘nobility’ of the ‘principle of charity’ that thinkers in the West so proudly propagate. If, in the process of fulfilling the needy, one forgets those who are deserving, surely, it is not a problem. If fulfilling some needs damages the deserving indirectly or obliquely, why, it is but a collateral damage; after all, unintended consequences are inevitable when it comes to human actions.

In other words, as I begin to realize now, the principle of charity is not only toothless but it is also pernicious and poisonous. That is perhaps one of the reasons why Indian culture knows of no ‘charity’ of any kind; it knows of ‘Daanam’, which is given only to the deserving. Bhiksha is not a daana but a one-time gift given to those in difficulties.

There is more that requires saying in this context but there are other times and places to do that. The post is already too long. A great deal of thought is required to realize how deeply Christian all of us have become. Perhaps, there is still some hope left for the heathen ‘souls’.