What right to an opinion?

Epistemology

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 can rightly say anything like “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.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Stewart Polley August 15, 2014, 10:48 am

    So I don’t often comment on your blogs, but just after recieving the email informing me of this new post, I came across this picture.

    I thought it was rather relevant.

  • Jo August 15, 2014, 1:18 pm

    truth is not effect by space-time continuum, perhaps. then truth does not depend on opinion, or who said it; if it is true that the earth is smaller in its size than the sun, it will remain true even when a child say so, or it will remain true even if a king denied.
    I think this is probably because of the nature of truth, that no one is entitle right of his or her opinion, but is this just another opinion from me? in the first place then, how do you know that we have no right to our opinion? but if truth by its nature does not depend on what we know, how do you know what you know is true? and why not that is just another opinion from you?

  • ratamacue0 August 15, 2014, 4:23 pm

    You are a Christian, right? Do you believe the following claims? (1) Yahweh is the eternally-existing creator of the universe; (2) the Christian Bible is his inspired message to us; (3) Jesus is his son, who was resurrected from the dead. If so, what are your epistemic justifications for these beliefs?

    (Posted pseudonymously with permission.)

  • Marius August 15, 2014, 4:23 pm

    I keep trying to formulate a short, pithy sentence (or two sentences) to capture what you’re saying here, but I keep second guessing myself. So now I’m asking you instead if this is correct or even remotely correct:

    One can formulate a belief/opinion and have the right to it as long as one has sufficient warrant to hold the said belief. Sufficient warrant in this instance does not have to amount to bullet-proof evidence, it only has to be reasonably sufficient for the person in question, and must serve the goal of finding truth (and not serving an alternative goal than truth seeking).

    Whew… what a mouthful.

  • Glenn August 15, 2014, 9:25 pm

    Hi ratamacue0 – that’s no small question.:) The most I could hope to do in a comment box is offer a very, very brief overview. Basically, if God is made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth whom he raised from the dead, then Christianity – of at least some form – is true. The reason Christians relate to the Old Testament and to Yahweh is Jesus, who claimed God as his father. The reason the Early Christians regarded Scripture as so vital was because it was a witness to what God has done and is doing, because it revealed the person and work of Jesus.

    First, we enjoy clear epistemic warrant for thinking that Jesus was a man of history. Indeed, the various “Christ myth” or copycat theories out there, that Jesus was no more than a mashup of mythological figures, is really the laughing stock of the world on New Testament studies. They are the kind of theory that a lot of people only even know about because of internet discussion boards. I’ve said a bit about them here before. I have also discussed the historicity of Jesus in a short series on the subject. Here’s part one. beyond that, I recommend the excellent work of Boyd and Eddy, The Jesus Legend.

    In fact the evidence is very good that the Gospel accounts represent the genuine beliefs of the first century Christian community, much of which was contemporary with the life of Jesus. Richard Bauckham has probably done the best currently available work in defence of this historical claim in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

    Once we realise that we can’t simply dismiss the historicity of Jesus the man, nor can we seriously maintain that what Christians claimed about Jesus was a much later interpretation of his life but was actually present in the first Christian message when the Church began, the minimal facts argument for the resurrection of Jesus looms large and cannot be pushed aside. I’ve given a succinct presentation of that argument here before in a podcast episode. We are eminently justified in believing that Jesus lived, was crucified, was buried in a tomb, that his tomb was found empty and that his disciples suddenly and all together came to genuinely believe that they had encountered him alive again, raised from the dead. Of course people living today could be wrong about whether or not those first followers had those experiences, but those first disciples themselves could not have been – they really believed that this had happened. That’s what we’re justified in believing, and provided we’re not closed to the possibility, the divine resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the facts – especially given that this is not just a kind of “random” miracle, like John Smith claiming that his aunt was raised from the dead and that other than this, there’s nothing significant about her. Rather this event would be the pinnacle in a truly remarkable life.

    So if you haven’t seen any of those resources, including the modest material that I’ve linked to here at this site, I’d recommend it. There’s some very, very simply material out there like Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict and so on, but assuming you’re an adult and you’re happy to look at some fairly substantial pieces of work, I really do recommend Boyd and Eddy’s work as well as that of Bauckham, and although I haven’t managed to get time to read it yet, Michael Licona’s fairly recent book The Resurrection of Jesus, I’m told, is the best current work on the resurrection from an historical point of view.

    All of this should be seen alongside the case for theism in general, which I think is very good but not on your list. If we already think that there are decent reasons for believing in God – for thinking that there’s an intelligence behind the physical world, then the case for Christ becomes very strong indeed. But still, I say that even if you are not already that way inclined, the case of Jesus can be what tips the scales in favour of theism too.

    ratamacue0, if I may offer some advice (not that you asked for it of course!). If you’re finding things getting a bit murky and you’re not sure if you believe this any more (I get the impression from your site that this is the case), you need to close your ears to the peanut gallery. You know, I suspect, as well as I do that the internet is full of competing voices, and those that are passionate about their rejection of the truth of the Christian message – on the internet and in comments sections, at least – are very often not the best people to provide credible or fair comment or perspective. My saying that might annoy some people, but I’ve become convinced that’s true. Just voicing the possibility that you’re having doubts may well attract them like flies to a dog poo. There are some really good resources available. My advice would be to spend some time digesting them, and even if you’re not sure along the way, pray about it. Ask God to make himself known and the truth clear as you investigate these things (in other words, of course prayer isn’t a substitute). What’s the worst it could do? 🙂

  • ratamacue0 August 16, 2014, 5:13 am

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply with citations.

    Can you check the links? At least a few are broken for me.

  • Glenn August 16, 2014, 1:56 pm

    Whoops, sorry ratamacue0, I forgot to add the http:// in those book links. Fixed now.

  • ratamacue0 August 18, 2014, 2:50 pm

    Clarification: My research continued fairly quietly. At this point, I don’t consider myself a believer anymore, though that may yet be a bit tentative.

    My epistemological approach has been that the truth should withstand scrutiny. Now, I’m wanting to do a “why I’m not a Christian” post (or series) on my own blog, when I find time. Then scrutiny will work both ways.

    Your idea presented here that we should not hold beliefs without epistemological justification caught my attention. I do agree. It also reminds me of e.g. Matt Dillahunty, and it was a factor in my deconversion. Naturally, I disagree with your claim that you have epistemic warrant for believing the positive claims of the Bible, most notably the resurrection of Jesus.

    I am familiar with the “minimal facts” argument, as presented by the likes of WLC, Habermas, and Licona. Re: the “facts” themselves, (1) I grant that the existence of Yeshua is most probable (though I’m interested to see if Carrier’s hypothesis goes anywhere); (2) likewise his crucifiction; (3) I’m unsure of what to make of the probability of his burial; and (4) I’m skeptical regarding the claim of the empty tomb, though that may also be true.

    Now I realize I’m not even giving citations here, let alone supporting my position. That’s because my skepticism arises largely from considering the gospels as unreliable sources on the background knowledge, e.g. unfulfilled prophecies, non-prophecies, and improbable events. In any case, I think it will be most productive for me to put together my new thoughts on the matter on my own blog, and then to see if they can be torn down–vs. engaging here.

    Regarding the case for theism, in my research, I neither presupposed the existence nor the lack of any deities, nor whether they have revealed themselves. As of yet, I have seen insufficient evidence to convince me of any revelation, and I see specific reasons to disbelieve the claims of the Bible. (Again, not listed here.)

    if I may offer some advice…you need to close your ears to the peanut gallery.

    I don’t mind the offer, but this does read to me like poisoning the well.

    Just voicing the possibility that you’re having doubts may well attract them like flies to a dog poo.

    I sought input from “both” sides, again based on my approach that the truth should withstand scrutiny. I endeavored to treat claims from either side with skepticism.

    Ask God…prayer…

    I have, but again, without presuming his existence.

    So, feel free to respond to anything I’ve said here, but I’m pretty much trying to table the meat of the conversation for now.

    New questions:

    1. If I become an apostate (if I haven’t already), and remain as such until my death, what then becomes of “me”?
    2. What of unbelievers in general?
    3. In particular, what of those who never hear the gospel?

    Naturally, citations and reasoning are welcome.

  • ratamacue0 August 21, 2014, 2:50 pm

    Glenn, are you planning on responding to my most recent comment?

  • Glenn August 21, 2014, 3:01 pm

    Yes, I am, ratamacue0. But as they’re important questions that I want to give proper attention to, largely because of the potential importance of the outcome, I’m putting it off until I’ve had the chance to give it due consideration. I haven’t done that yet, sorry.

  • ratamacue0 August 21, 2014, 3:20 pm

    Thanks for the update.

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