The Volokh Conspiracy

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"Steelmanning" and Interpretive Charity

Two different useful forms of good argumentative hygiene.


One of the things lawyers need to do, and therefore one of the things I try to teach my students how to do, is to understand the strongest arguments against their position. Lots of people agree that this is important in principle, but can falter in practice. (Look, I understand the strongest arguments against my position, it's just that they are all bad arguments! That's why my position is correct!)

So a useful exercise to get there is what some people on the internet call "steelmanning." A steel man is the opposite, of course, of a straw man. Steelmanning "is the art of addressing the best form of the other person's argument, even if it's not the one they presented." For instance, given the inconsistent quality of judicial opinions, this can be a very useful supplement to just reading cases if you are trying to think through an area of law.

Indeed, I now sometimes test a version of this skill on my exams, asking students to write up both sides of an argument, with the rule that their grade will be based on the quality of the worse of the two arguments. (I discussed this a little bit towards the end of my recent podcast appearance on Rationally Speaking with Julia Galef.)

On Twitter last night, my friend Jacob Levy asked whether this practice is really just a re-labeled version of the older notion of "interpretive charity," in which we try to put others' claims in a sympathetic rather than an unsympathetic light.

Reflecting about it, I think these two strategies are obviously related, and both are forms of good intellectual hygiene, but there are some differences.

Interpretive charity is ultimately more interpretive than steelmanning. There is a potential limit to interpretive charity if you think: I know he should have said X, but he just plainly rejected X or didn't think of it. "You have to be able to declare, at some point: 'For crying out loud, he never would have thought of that!'" By contrast, with steelmanning it doesn't really matter what a particular person said. It just matters what the best argument is.

Relatedly, there are multiple ways one can be "charitable" to somebody else's claim. One can try to make it as true as one can. One can try to make it as consistent or coherent as one can. One can try to make it fit in to a broader philosophical world view, even if it's a world view that you don't hold. One can try to trim off particularly ugly implications. Etc. Steelmanning, by contrast, focuses on making an argument as true as possible.

Relatedly relatedly, I've sometimes seen people use interpretive charity in ways that actually make an argument easier for them to reject. Justice so-and-so says X, which seems weird to me. But maybe I'll be charitable and assume that this argument was motivated by his underlying political philosophy. And I reject his underlying political philosophy because it is wrong/uninformed/racist/whatever, so I can now safely reject his argument. This may indeed be charitable to the speaker; but steelmanning is less focused on the speaker and more on the listener. What is the version of this argument that hits closest to home for me?

Again, both of these can be useful tools. I don't think steelmanning is categorically superior to interpretive charity, even when trying to get at the truth. For instance interpretive charity might be a better tool for understanding the argument of an epistemic peer—somebody whose arguments may well be persuasive to you if you only understood them better.

By contrast, steelmanning may be a better tool when dealing with the arguments of those who start from different premises. Rather than safely reduce their argument to its premise and then reject the premise, you can be forced to search for other premises that might ground the argument closer to where you stand.

Regardless of the differences between these two, both ought to be a standard part of our critical thinking toolbox.