Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Right to be Wrong?

I hear a lot of arguments -- on everything from gun control to whether the soul is a substance formed in the fifth dimension. Within these arguments there is a move that gets made often enough to depress my philosopher's soul -- whatever dimension it inhabits. Someone has just had their position skewered and heads for higher ground by huffing "Well, I'm entitled to my opinion."

This doesn't do much for the discussion, but isn't it true for all that? Don't we have a right to our opinions?

It depends on what you mean.

In this country, we are legally entitled to believe anything we like, though whether we may act on all our beliefs is rightly another matter. So far, then, so true: everyone has a legal right to hold and -- subject to remarkably few constraints -- express any opinion. This isn't trivial. In some societies, holding certain opinions can lead to brutal consequences. Most of us, including me, find that appalling, and so we might go further and say: even if the law didn't recognize it, everyone would have a moral right -- a basic human right -- to believe anything at all.

All this is high-minded, but, it leaves something out. We don't think people should be persecuted for what they believe, but typically when people insist on their right to their opinions they aren't being persecuted. What is usually going on is that their views have been challenged, and they've run out of things to say. But my right to an opinion doesn't conflict with your right to argue that I'm wrong.

What we need is another category: not legal rights, not moral rights but "logical rights," to concoct an awkward phrase. Logical rights aren't cheap; the coin of the realm is evidence, judgment and knowledge.

An illustration: some physicists now suspect that quarks have smaller parts. Other than the brief story or two I've read, I know nothing about the evidence and not a whole lot more about quarks themselves. Am I entitled to an opinion on this issue?

It sounds a little odd to say I am. Of course I shouldn't be shot if I start spouting about quarklets, or whatever they might be called. Ignored, perhaps. Or better, reminded that I don't know what I'm talking about. Here we have a clear case of having no logical right to a view. I simply don't know enough to have a basis for an opinion.

This case may be clear, but there is a sort of a slide when it comes to opinions. Most people recognize that a casual opinion about whether it rained in London on July 17th, 1532 is worth nothing. It's a matter of fact that doesn't yield to mere speculation. Most people also recognize that they haven't earned the right to opinions about elementary particles or the number of irreducible representations of the four-dimensional rotation group. These matters call for specialized knowledge. On questions that deal with people, however, caution is more likely to be cast aside. I've heard people who wouldn't know a chromosome if it belted their jeans offer firm opinions about whether homosexuality does or does not have a genetic basis. And when we come to matters of Ultimate Significance, opinions flow like spoiled gravy. Detailed views about the innermost secrets of the universe are as cheap as eggs and nearly as sturdy.

This isn't really surprising and it reveals an interesting tension. Our most anxious concerns are human concerns, earthly and cosmic; we can hardly not to pardon the urge to opine. But this very anxiety might help us to see why reasons and evidence are still important.

First, what you or I think about earthly concerns can affect others. It may not matter what our opinions are on the nature of angels. But consider some less esoteric questions. Are illegal immigrants a drain on the economy? Do lenient divorce laws lead to higher divorce rates? Will banning discrimination against gays undermine the traditional family? None of these questions have obvious answers, but opinions on them abound. People vote on the basis of these opinions. People give money to causes. People organize and people act.

Here someone might object: most of us aren't experts on the issues that influence our votes. For democracy to work, people must participate. Indeed. But presumably democracy works best when people actually have well-considered opinions. Furthermore some opinions are downright vicious. If you think members of (fill in favorite suspect group) are prone to (fill in suspected evil trait) you will probably act accordingly. And if what you think is a mere ill-founded suspicion, you are likely to increase the sum total of human misery for no good reason at all. Whatever the nature of your "right" to such opinions, it can be plain wrong to hold them.

The second point is that even when it comes to the secrets of the universe, we care about truth. And the loftier the matter, the less our mere guesses are worth. To the extent that we do care about truth, we need to keep caring about the credentials of our beliefs. Our logical rights serve our deeply-felt ends.

Should we withhold all opinions until we know that we're right? If we did that, we would do nothing else. None of us can justify all our beliefs. Even the best opinions are fallible things and a brilliant conjecture can be worth a dozen dull facts. Not only that: some criticisms aren't worth the trouble of a response, though distinguishing good criticism from bad is often an art in itself. But what we can do is learn to be more aware of what we don't know. Like Winston Churchill's modest little man, we have much to be modest about when it comes to our beliefs. And when we're called up short, we can stop and think rather than insist on our rhetorical rights. At least, that's my opinion.

--Allen Stairs

© copyright The Washington Post, 1996

link to the source: http://brindedcow.umd.edu/philosophy/opinions.html

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