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The Presumption of Sincerity

The Presumption of Innocence is understood as the practice of legally assuming that a party is innocent until they are proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

This presumption is not free of risk. Each time we act on it, we take the chance of allowing guilty people to walk free.

We make this presumption, however, because of its pragmatic value.

If we gave ourselves the right to arbitrarily condemn others as guilty, everyone would be a criminal.

There’s a similar practice that I employ when engaging others in philosophical dialogue or debate.

I call it “The Presumption of Sincerity.”

The Presumption of Sincerity is the practice of addressing people’s arguments and ideas as if they are a sincere expression of what those people actually believe (until one has evidence to the contrary).

This presumption is not free of risk. Each time we act on it, we risk wasting our time conversing with people who are only interested in fruitless quarreling.

I make this presumption, however, because of its pragmatic value.

If I gave myself the luxury of arbitrarily attributing ulterior motives to anyone who expressed disagreement with me, the chances that either of us would learn anything useful from one another would be minimal.

Statements like “You know that I’m right” or “You’re just being stubborn” or “You’re deliberately avoiding the issue” evince an attitude of distrust towards one’s partner in dialogue.

If we find ourselves making these sorts of accusations, perhaps we should consider terminating the discussion or evaluating our assumptions.

If we believe people are being sincere, we should speak to them as if they’re being sincere.

If we don’t believe people are being sincere, we should ask ourselves why we insist on arguing with them at all.

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