Do you have the right to an opinion?
Many months ago I was in a discussion that ended with two people disagreeing and the other one saying something to the effect of “well, this is my opinion and I have a right to it.” I didn’t say this at the time because I was happy for the discussion to end, but my thought was: That’s the problem here. The problem is that you think you have the right to think what you think, whatever that happens to be. You don’t. That’s right, you do not have the right to an opinion, whatever that opinion might be.
Now of course there’s at least some sense in which this isn’t true. You have a legal right to believe whatever you like. The law has nothing to say about what you believe, and within reason you also have a legal right to express whatever opinion you hold. But even the law in New Zealand and many other countries makes a distinction between types of belief. Take defamation – the expression of claims that lower the standing of another person. This is sometimes allowed, namely when what you are saying is demonstrably true or a reasonably held opinion. Some opinions are not reasonably held. If you publicly say, without any good reason, that I’m a child molester, then you have defamed me because you cannot reasonably believe that about me. You simply don’t have the right to believe that about me.
I’m not talking about legal rights. I’m talking about moral rights. Of course if you don’t believe that anyone has moral rights at all then you agree with me already: Nobody has the right, morally speaking, to anything. But suppose you believe that moral rights are worth something so that law, instead of just creating rights, actually ought to recognise human rights. If you have any rights at all, do you have the right to form just any opinion for any reason? Not in my world.
[Y]ou should not form beliefs for the wrong reasons.
The idea of the “ethics of belief” is that you should not form beliefs for the wrong reasons. In general (i.e. unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary), you should only form beliefs for truth-aimed reasons – that is, you should hold those beliefs if it is more likely that they are true than that their denial is true. You could form beliefs for other reasons too – to make yourself feel happy, to make yourself a more suitable partner for that special someone, to fit in with your social group and so on. Sometimes forming untrue beliefs may even be good for you. For example, you might have almost no realistic hope of leaping across a crevasse to get off a mountain in blizzard conditions in which you will certainly die. But believing that you have a decent chance might motivate you to make the attempt, thereby increasing your chances (albeit only slightly) of survival, since if you don’t leap, you will definitely die. But in general, the ethics of belief are such that, to quote William Clifford, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” You do not have a “right to an opinion.” When you hear people saying that they are “within their epistemic rights” to believe something, this is what they’re probably talking about. (“Epistemic” means to do with forming and holding beliefs, a phenomenon studied by the branch of philosophy called epistemology.)
And yet, this empty-headed notion that you have the right to an opinion is pervasive in our culture. Richard Boock repeats the claim on the abortion issue. Ricky Gervais says it (although he adds that this right does not amount to the right to have that opinion taken seriously).
Imagine the world we would live in if people just held whatever beliefs they fancied!
Whence do you think you got this “right” to hold an opinion for which you have no good reason? Who bestowed it upon you? Did you grant it to yourself? How convenient! Imagine the world we would live in if people just held whatever beliefs they fancied! Don’t like your political opponents? Just believe that they are involved in crime and corruption – and go ahead, tell everyone. Do you want to quell any nagging worries you might have that maybe some religion is correct and your entrenched atheism might be wrong? Easy! Just train yourself to believe that the rejection of religion amounts to the acceptance of reason. Once you’ve done that, you’ll feel better (and you’d be surprised how often this happens). Form whatever belief forming habits you like – and teach your kids to do the same (supposing we can overcome our intuitive tendency to form beliefs in response to evidence). Then watch the chaos unfold when your kids, students or colleagues need to form beliefs and act on them in ways that can save or lose lives.
Nope, you don’t have the right to an opinion.
I am not the only one to point this out. Philosophy teacher Patrick Stokes writes that he makes a point of telling his students this each year. I think he oversteps the mark, saying “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.” This isn’t quite right. It’s possible to form an opinion on adequate grounds without being able to demonstrate to another person that you have adequate grounds. Beliefs like “I felt happy yesterday,” “I’m experiencing the redness as I look at this apple,” “other minds exist” and other beliefs would fall into this category. So you don’t need to be able to demonstrate the truth of a belief to another person in order to be warranted in holding it. But you do need to be warranted in holding it before you have gained the ability to say “I have a right to this opinion.” Evidence may be a broader category than some people realise (Alvin Plantinga, for example, thinks of evidence as only something that you can offer to another person, which I think is too narrow). But you need to have it before you’ve got the right to your opinion. Your right to hold opinions isn’t a blank cheque, where you have a right in advance to just whatever opinion you settle on.
There’s a religious angle here, too. One of the consequences of believing that the world was created by a personal God is that it creates the possibility that our belief-forming faculties have a proper function, namely the formation of true beliefs. That’s what they are for. If you don’t believe that there’s a purpose to anything in the world because the world is uncreated, some of this might, admittedly, have less pull. Conversely, if you’re convinced, as I am, that we should believe true things and there’s something deeply dysfunctional about always forming false beliefs because of some non-truth aimed goal, then maybe at some point you’ll reconsider your naturalist view of the world.
In any event, if you ever find yourself in a discussion with another commenter here at Right Reason and you’re tempted to retreat to the haven of “well then just respect my right to disagree and hold this opinion,” don’t.
- David Bain, reasonable doubt and defamation
- Could atheism be a properly basic belief?
- Do babies know right from wrong?
- On the evolution of moral beliefs
- Nuts and Bolts 011: Ethical Intuitionism