On Opinion Rights
A collection of thoughts by the New Zealand/British Philosopher Jamie Whyte - Omissions and additions by Myself
People are reluctant to change their minds even in the face of evidence and argument. Instead they will often accuse you of violating one of their rights, namely the right to hold their own opinion.
Everyone seems to think that they have this right or that we all have this right.
The idea that we do not simply hold our beliefs, but that we are entitled to hold them, is a truism of modern democracy. But like many such truisms - it is false.
We are not really entitled to our opinions, nor should we be, because such an entitlement is the enemy of intellectual progress. It creates a kind of intellectual protectionism analogous to economic protectionism that restricts free trade of ideas and so too the progress that comes with that free trade.
Rights versus Liberties
To see what’s wrong with the idea that we have a right to our opinion we need only understand one fact about rights - simply that they entail duties. In fact rights are defined by the duties that they create.
Your right to life means that everybody has a duty not to kill you. This isn’t something that the government might or might not associate with your right to life – it is your right. A law that fails to impose on others a duty not to kill you would fail to establish your right to life. Answers to the questions of other’s duties are what defines and delimits your rights.
If a right is ever claimed then the test that such a right really does exist requires that we should ask what duties are implied. Duties and rights are flip sides of the same coin. Where there are rights there will always be implied duties. It will be obvious, when asking what duties are implied by a supposed right, whether that right is reasonable to expect.
It was once claimed by the Australian Prime Minister that every child has a right to be loved. However, there are many such things that it would be nice to have, like every child being loved or everyone having £1000,000.00 but just because something would be nice to have it does not automatically follow that we have the right to it i.e. that someone has the duty to provide us with it.
There are two kinds of rights, namely, claims and liberties.
1. Claims are entitlements or positive rights such as contracts where if you have a claim on something that implies that someone other has a duty to provide you with it. If one side of the contract is fulfilled then there is a claim with regard to the other side.
2. Liberties are weaker types of rights. If you have a liberty to live then it just means that others must not inhibit you or interfere with you in your exercising of that liberty. Others are not obliged to provide you with anything – they simply cannot inhibit.
Rights and claims are irrelevant to the issue
The idea that we have a claim on our beliefs, the idea that our right to believe what we want is a claim, is absurd - it just doesn’t make sense. What would it mean to say that you have a duty to provide me with a certain belief? For example, I’d like to believe that I’m immortal, but I can’t, and if nobody can provide me with that belief then who do I sue for failing to give me that belief?
So, if we have a right to our beliefs – they must be a liberty, not a claim. It must mean that others have a duty not to force us to change our beliefs. Now, you might be sympathetic to this idea, you might think that nobody should force anybody to change their beliefs about anything. But this is a hopeless ideal, because the only way to get beliefs is to have them forced upon you.
Elimination of the need for protection of opinions
Choosing our opinions
Believing something is not a matter of choice. You can test this for yourself – try to believe that you are the king of England or that you can fly. Believing is not like dressing. You can’t pick the beliefs that suit you. Believing something is more like getting freckles, stand out in the sun and they are forced upon you.
Beliefs are not forced upon you by threats of violence or other penalties. That kind of force, political coercion, cannot change what you believe. If you are threatened to be fed to the lions if you do not give up your belief that London is in England, you may say that you no longer believe it, but the threat will not actually have changed your belief, you’ll be merely lying to save yourself.
Sensory-evidence and argument
Beliefs can be acquired and changed only in certain ways, most often they are forced upon you by the interaction of your senses with reality. Few of you will now believe that I have a large tattoo of Hillary Clinton on my stomach, but if I were to open my shirt and reveal one you would soon believe it and, importantly, with no choice in the matter.
Even when beliefs are not acquired directly from our senses, but are instead arrived at by a process of considering evidence and arguments, it still is not a matter of choice what you end up believing. Either the evidence or the arguments convince you or they do not - we can’t choose how our minds will react to these arguments any more than we can choose how our skin freckles in the sun.
In short, our beliefs are not formed and changed by either personal choice or political coercion such as threats and bribes. They are formed and changed by the force of argument and evidence including what comes directly via our senses.
So a right to hold onto your beliefs is not a protection against political coercion – it’s a protection against evidence and argument, it obliges other people not to prove you wrong.
Being nasty to someone who holds a belief you differ with is very different from critiquing those beliefs. One just should never be nasty, whether the matter is one of differing opinions or not. Everything can be questioned without ever any need for nastiness. We argue to get at the facts and we quarrel to get at each other – one should never quarrel.
We cannot simultaneously have a right to hold our opinions and a right to express them, these rights are quite at odds with each other. If you are to respect my right to my opinions you must not say anything that might change my mind. You would need to remain silent, as I, lest we inadvertently change each others beliefs - thus violating each others rights.
The right to your own opinions therefore creates intellectual protectionism. It shields belief from competition with other beliefs and this intellectual protectionism promotes falsity because it shields false beliefs from public refutation. The idea that people are entitled to their opinions is the enemy of intellectual progress. That’s why it is not just a silly idea but a dangerous idea.
Scenarios obviating the irrelevance
If you consider ordinary everyday beliefs then the idea that people violate our rights by changing our opinions is clearly absurd. No one thinks there either is or should be such right.
Consider the example of a friend crossing the road who is obviously of the false belief that there are no cars coming – are you obliged to let her keep that belief? Obviously not – in fact she would thank you for changing her beliefs.
The list of matters on which no one seeks protection of their beliefs is almost endless, no one will complain if the butter is not where they think it is or if they have not received the change that they were owed or that they have got a crumb on their lip. In all such matters no one is an intellectual protectionist.
Arbitrary invocations of the irrelevant right
Yet on certain matters many people do take this alleged right to hold an opinion seriously. Some beliefs are deemed special and their robust scrutiny is constrained – either by good manners or corporate codes of conduct or in some cases by the law. The culture of respect for beliefs that are associated with our supposed identities means that someone with utterly preposterous beliefs can go through even a university degree without having them ever challenged. This typically involves topics such as religions, sexes or sexualities. The law even goes so far as to charge people for inciting religious hatred or hatred on the grounds of criticism of sexuality – this is not the inciting of a racial crime but merely the crime of inciting feelings in people.
Invoking the right is only necessary when our beliefs are false
We all should of course dislike racial hatred or hatred of differing sexual beliefs but we should all dislike the protection of our beliefs even more - because once the idea of intellectual protectionism is accepted all sorts of people will seek it for their beliefs. And, as with economic protectionism, those who get preferential treatment will be those who need it and who can lobby successfully. Keep in mind that the truth never needs protection – in this context it is only falsities that do.
Intellectual protection will be sought by people with obviously false beliefs and will be achieved only when enough people, or when important enough people, can be gathered to give it political influence.
So, perversely, the more widespread a falsity the more likely it is to be protected.
The politics of protectionism is never required to protect true beliefs, true beliefs do not need protection, instead we should give up on the whole idea of opinion rights, the answer is in fact to deny that anyone has a right to his opinion.
The Irrelevant Right
The cliché is most often employed fallaciously in defence of some evidently inconsistent or blatantly false opinion. Two people might be debating and disagreeing over the reasons for George Bush’s invasion of Iraq and just after the moment one participant demonstrates an inconsistency between two claims, or a claim and its implications, made by the other participant the other participant retorts “Well, I do have a right to my own opinions”. The fallacy is in the assumption made by the second participant that such a retort somehow constitutes a satisfactory reply to the identified inconsistencies. The fact actually is that such a retort is utterly irrelevant. The discussion is about an invasion of Iraq and not about people’s opinion rights. Bringing up the matter of opinions rights in the middle of a discussion on reasons for an invasion of Iraq is just as relevant to the topic as changing the subject to the matter of whether whales are warm blooded or whether in fact it does, in Spain, rain mainly on the plains.
People do not appeal to the right when they are admitting that their opinion is false. The right is only appealed to when a person wishes their opinion to be considered a true opinion or an opinion that in some mysterious personal way should remain a truth of sorts.
Interpreting the cliché to exclude the possibility of falsity – that is to mean that we are entitled to have all our opinions be true – has its own unavoidable problems. The entitlement cannot be used to decide who is correct in the debate – if both participants have a right to their own true opinions, but the two participants disagree, one of them must be suffering a rights violation as in at least one of them must have a false belief. So even if we had the right to true beliefs, that would only show that it is a right violated all the time, on precisely those occasions when our true opinions are in fact false.
In any dispute, to know whose right to a true belief is being violated we would first need to work out whose belief is false. That is, we would need to settle the original dispute and a diversion on the matter of rights would get no one closer to answering the question of whose beliefs are false and therefore whose right is being violated.
Equivocating on the word “Entitlement”
In the one sense the word "entitlement" in the expression “We are all entitled to our own opinions” has a political or legal interpretation. This interpretation in fact means that everyone, in a democratic society, is fully entitled to EXPRESS any opinion they might wish to share no matter how groundless that opinion might be. The right to express an opinion is very different from the right to hold an opinion. The right to express any old weird opinion is not in any way the same has the right to hold the opinion on the grounds that it is also true. But this is not what people mean when they appeal to any opinion rights – they don’t mean to say “Yeah, I know my opinion is obviously false but none the less I like to exercise my democratic right to express any old nonsense uninhibited, if you don’t mind”. What they normally mean, confusedly, is that since they have the right to express any old opinion no matter how absurd their every opinion might be they anyhow therefore should be considered equally as valid as any other.
In the second sense of the word “entitlement” in the expression “I am entitled to my opinion” it has an epistemic interpretation in that because the opinion is a justified true belief supported by argument and evidence the entitlement is like a right to boast which depends on having done something worth boasting about which can only be conferred upon you by your antagonist if he or she is persuaded.
Here is a syllogistic illustration of this confusion by unwitting equivocation…
1. If someone is entitled to an opinion then her opinion is well-supported by evidence and argument.
2. I am entitled to (express) my opinion (as is everyone in a democratic society).
3. Therefore my opinion is well-supported by evidence and argument.
The syllogistic argument above is in fact no better than this syllogistic argument…
1. Hot dogs are better than nothing.
2. Nothing is better than a life of eternal happiness.
3. Therefore hot dogs are better than a life of eternal happiness.
People therefore appealing to any right to hold their opinions, just when a possibly inconsistency is being highlighted for scrutiny, are unwittingly equivocating – they are confusing the political sense of the word with the epistemic sense of the word and thereby effectively changing the subject to a topic utterly irrelevant to the matter at hand. It would be cruel to diagnose them as suffering from ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), but it would be in order to request that they stay focused on the topic at hand.