Phrases and declarations such as, “I have a right to my opinion!” or “I’m entitled to my opinion!” are deeply problematic. This is because the valorization of, and defensiveness toward, opinion – mere opinion – has become so over-inflated that it seems at times to border upon the pathological. We are expected to guard and cherish peoples’ opinions as though these were the most precious of things, when in reality opinion by itself is the most tedious, commonplace, and uninteresting stuff imaginable. Now, a bit of care needs to be exercised here, as I am using the term “opinion” in a somewhat specific sense. But the specificity of my use here is not a violation of the core meaning of the term. Meanwhile, as thinking beings – even if we only think poorly &/or occasionally – we should be aiming higher than just and only opinion.
To name just a few of the inter-related problems with opinion, as already noted above, (1) opinions are cheap throw away items of no particular interest in themselves. (2) Indeed, as thinking persons we ought to care very little about opinions, qua opinions. This “ought” is both logical and moral in its import. (3) This general disregard in no way threatens or impinges upon anyone else’s “right” to their own opinion. But rights come with responsibilities, and in this case it is the responsibility to move beyond mere opinion into the realm of reasoned argument and cogent understanding of the world. It often seems to pass that those who most ardently defend their supposedly threatened right to their opinion are more often objecting because they implicitly do not wish to take responsibility for that opinion. Let’s look at these points in turn.
Per #1, far from the precious treasures we are sometimes asked to respect without qualification, opinions have all the virtues of body odor in a tornado: intrinsically unpleasant on their own account, they are utter nonentities in the swirling maelstrom of all the other opinions that surround them. As more than one person has observed, opinions are like lower bodily orifices – everybody has one, so what justifies waving yours around in public? Opinions, qua opinion, are cognitively vacuous. One might perhaps argue that the emotional associations that linger miasma-like around an opinion are such as should make that opinion a matter of a little more tenderness on our part. But such a claim is an argumentum ad misericordiam fallacy, an appeal to emotion, that we should skip over the opinion’s emptiness and respect it out of feeling alone. But even in the case of strong emotional attachments, these attachments are themselves not a necessary feature of the opinion held. And it is scarcely an argument that we ourselves should become enablers (in the negative sense) of someone else’s sloppy thinking on the account that we might hurt their feelings if we don’t.
It is worth noting that this ruthlessness toward opinion is most especially important with respect to our own. The Australian comic Tim Minchin has occasionally quipped that, while it may indeed be true that our opinions are akin to the above mentioned orifice, one respect in which they are different is that our own opinions should be carefully and repeatedly examined. If we are impatient of others’ opinions, we should be absolutely unmerciful with respect to our own.
The reasons for this come out most clearly when we turn to item #2, the logical and moral imperative (the “ought”) behind our justified lack of regard for mere opinion. The reader will likely have noticed that I’ve slid somewhat back-and-forth between speaking of “opinion” and of “mere opinion.” The two terms, I would argue, are coeval, with the redundant “mere” making its occasional appearance strictly for purposes of rhetorical emphasis. But the emphasis is necessary. Some people will treat their mere opinion as though it had the same standing as a reasoned conclusion, on no other grounds than that they hold it as an opinion. On the other hand, some folks will refer to a product of rational inquiry as just an opinion that they hold. The first position has already been dealt with in item #1, but the usage in the second case is especially pernicious since it seems to justify the item #1 position. But, while “a product of rational inquiry,” or “a reasoned conclusion,” need not be correct – various errors and inadequacies may be uncovered in further inquiry – such products and conclusions have “legs” which are entirely missing from opinion as such. These reasoned products and conclusions have been developed through inquiry, using logic, principles, evidence, and facts, and thus have a claim on our attention that stems from processes with which they were achieved.
The logical and moral imperative here, the reason why thinking persons ought to disdain opinion, is because opinion is not the same as rational inquiry, nor is opinion the product of such inquiry. It is a sloppy use of language to conflate the two ideas.
I might finally add to this point that, if one simply must express an opinion, the correct way of doing so is by saying what you believe. If, however, the statement you’re about to make is itself a product of rational inquiry (however partial or incomplete) then (and only then) it is appropriate to speak about what you think. Thinking, and its resultant conclusions, is an engagement with, and expression of, logic, principles, evidence and facts. An opinion, on the other hand, is nothing more than a belief devoid of any other ground than one’s own personal feelings. Thus, I believe that chocolate pudding is superior to tapioca (and so there!) However, I think that anthropogenic global warming is a significant problem that needs to be addressed with considerable urgency.
With regard, then, to point #3: Demanding intellectual rigor of others in no way infringes upon their “right” to their opinion. Such opinions remain theirs, without let or hindrance. What is different, however, is the unabashed demand for responsibility as public persons – because, at the end of the day (and the beginning, for all of that) we are all, always, public persons. To be genuinely “private” would entail exiting all community and communication, and thus forgoing any pretense of engaging others in discourse or interaction. In our genuinely private selves, we have no responsibilities other than those we perhaps owe to ourselves, insofar as we regard that self as meriting any attention or honor whatsoever.
But when we step into the public and express our “beliefs” and “opinions,” then we have legitimately opened ourselves up to the most singularly unmerciful attention that our fellow humans may bestow upon us. The term “unmerciful” in the previous sentence was selected on purpose: it does not imply any particle of cruelty, but it does preclude any scintilla of pity. (Pity, by the bye, is not simply “unmerciful,” it is brutal, degrading, and utterly merciless. Help another person on account of they’re being a person, but do not degrade them with your pity.)
We – all of us – live under the “unmerciful” lash of responsibility when it comes to our public expressions. We have a responsibility to learn the facts; we have a responsibility to understand the facts; we have a responsibility to accurately report the facts. This only happens when we forgo the nonsense we coddle as our “opinions,” and seek instead to apply (without prejudice) logic and principles in our collection, organization, and interpretation of evidence and facts. Finally, it is in examining the reasoned conclusions of others that we find one of the best ways of testing those reasoned conclusions we call our own.