On Being Entitled to One’s Opinion11 February 2019
We’re each entitled to our opinion; or so the undergraduates in my introductory philosophy course remind me. They’re right, of course. But I suspect that they misunderstand what they’re right about, and this can lead to confusion about contemporary discourse.
To be entitled to do (say; think) something is to have the right to do (say; think) it. Usually, the entitlements in question are legal or political: people’s entitlement to healthcare, say, or a worker’s entitlement to a living wage. Roughly put, to enjoy these entitlements is to have a claim against the government to ensure that our access to the good in question (whether healthcare or a living wage or …) is preserved and protected.
At least since the enlightenment, people in liberal democratic countries have enjoyed the legal right to think as they choose: we are legally entitled to our beliefs, religious and otherwise. This doesn’t protect us from criticism or censure for believing as we do; only that we can expect to be protected – assuming such protection is needed in the first place – against attempts (by others or by the state itself) to have beliefs imposed on us.
No one should dispute the claim that we each enjoy a legal right to our own opinions. (Even if it were possible to force someone to believe something, neither the state nor anyone else should be allowed to force another person to believe in one way or another.) Still, I have the sense that this is not really what my students mean when they say that we are each entitled to our own opinion. For what prompts my students to say this is not any worry about the government imposing a rigid orthodoxy of belief. Rather, they typically make this statement when, in the midst of a persistent disagreement, they want to bring the debate to a close with no side feeling “less than” the other. For example, one student advances the idea that unfettered capitalism is the best solution to our social problems; another responds that without serious government regulation markets are likely to make our problems worse. Neither gives the other credence. Eventually someone speaks up and says, “Hey, we are each entitled to our own opinion!”
At this point I like to introduce the distinction between being entitled to believe as one does (in the legal or political sense) and being epistemically warranted in believing as one does. Whereas the former has to do with our legal or political rights, the latter has to do with the quality of our reasons or evidence. To be epistemically warranted in one’s belief is to believe on the basis of adequate reasons or evidence – reasons or evidence which make it likely that our belief is true.
When I illustrate the importance of the distinction between being legally entitled to believe as one does and being epistemically warranted in believing as one does, I typically do so in terms of beliefs which no one thinks are reasonable: for example, the belief that the earth is flat. Of course we have the legal right to believe this if we wish, but such a belief would be unsupported by what we know of the world. This much is usually uncontroversial. However, when we move to more contested matters – which news reports are fake, which public policies are most likely to produce equitable outcomes, which medical precautions (such as vaccines) are effective, which scientific results (about climate change) are trustworthy – many students shy away from the idea that some beliefs are better-supported than others. Worse still, when disagreements arise over what evidence we ought to use as we try to reach conclusions about these topics, students often opt out, resorting to the idea that we are each entitled to believe as we wish.
I believe that there is a cautionary lesson here. In cases of deep disagreement, there will be a strong temptation to avoid the risk of a more serious confrontation by resorting to the idea that we are each entitled to our opinion. It is a good thing, of course, that we avoid resorting to force or violence to settle our disputes. Even so, I believe that it is to be regretted when we reach the point at which we return to our own corners, each comforted by the fact that “we are each entitled to our own opinions.”
For one thing, agreeing to conclude a protracted dispute in this way can encourage intellectual laziness. Why should we go to the trouble and effort of continuing reasoning with each other, and (when necessary) of seeking out further evidence, when we can settle into a comfortable agreement in our disagreement?
Second, the move to conclude a dispute by saying that “we are each entitled to our own opinion” encourages a distorted attitude about the significance of evidence and reasons themselves. It can encourage the idea that reasons are only valuable when their probative force is appreciated by those we hope to convince, so that when our reasons fail to convince, these reasons must not have been so good after all. But such a conclusion is seriously misguided: the intellectual value of evidence and good reasons does not depend on our ability to convince others with these reasons to believe as one does. If it did, then the committed skeptic (who is convinced by nothing) would reveal that none of our reasons are good.
Third, dealing with a disagreement by concluding that “we are each entitled to our own opinion” leaves us with limited resources for collective deliberation. In particular, in any situation in which a community needs to decide how to act, the community will be left nothing except the various beliefs of its members. This should be worrisome even – perhaps especially – to those who believe in democratic decision-making. Community decisions are best when they are based on facts, and the facts themselves are not determined by a democratic vote.
Fourth, the move to end discussion with “we are each entitled to our own opinion” offers the wrong incentives to the worst among us. If one can be certain that any dispute, if prolonged enough, will reach the point where all we have to go on is what each person thinks, why should the cynical or the selfish or the racist or the abuser bother reasoning with you in the first instance? If they stick to their guns long enough, then they will have succeeded at ensuring that their belief counts equivalently to anyone else’s – the absence of any support for their so-called opinions notwithstanding.
It is in the context of these concerns that I worry a good deal about the corrosive doubts about expertise so common these days. If there are no experts, then there are no people whose beliefs are particularly authoritative on the difficult factual questions of our day. But if there are none whose beliefs are particularly authoritative on the difficult factual questions of our day, how are we to reach decisions on matters whose success will depend on what those facts are? It seems that the only fair thing to do is to do so democratically: let each weigh in with an equal voice. This would be fine if we could be confident that each of us arrives at our opinions on the basis of the best reasons and evidence there is. But this is far from the case: each of us is profoundly influenced by our family and group affiliations; we have a strong tendency to believe things that are in our own interest, whatever the evidence happens to be; and we are inclined to “confirm” what we already “know,” swayed by our deepest convictions despite evidence to the contrary. What is more, no single one of us on our own can ever learn very much about our world; we depend on others – parents, teachers, professionals, and so forth – whether we like it or not. In this regard we all ought to be interested in the question of who is worthy of being believed.
With this, I return to my students’ use of the idea that we are each entitled to our own opinion. Even if they are right in what they say – each of us should be protected against threats and violence when it comes to matters of belief – how much comfort is there in this idea, once we give up on the prospects for knowledge? My students’ mantra should be seen as the beginning of the conversation, not its termination; what remains is the hard work of determining what is worthy of being believed.
Image: Megaphone by Bruno Buontempo on Flickr CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0