No, you are not entitled to your own opinion (the Pebble)

Happy Valentine’s Day, all! Nothing spells romance like public philosophy and especially public philosophy concerning whether one is entitled to their own opinion. In our latest entry, Peter Gildenhuys, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Lafayette College, administers some tough love and denies that we are. Here he is now.

We should get one thing straight upfront: you are legally entitled to your own opinion, at least in liberal states. Freedom of conscience is an important civil right: people should not be subject to state coercion merely for holding beliefs, no matter how awful. But even in the best legal regimes, there are plenty of actions that are legal that you nevertheless may not do: cheat on your spouse (in a monogamous relationship), falsely promise to drive your friend to the airport at 6am for the express purpose or causing them to miss their flight, reveal your friends’ secrets to their enemies, etc….What you are legally entitled to do, and what you are entitled to do tout court, are different things.

Holding an opinion about, or having a belief about, the state of the universe (or some part of it) means having a belief that you think everyone should share. Descriptive belief X implies that everyone ought to believe that X. There is, after all, only one universe. If you believe that your universe is thus and so, and your universe is my universe (hi there!), then you must (MUST!) think that I, too, should believe that our universe, the universe, is thus and so. If you encounter someone who thinks otherwise than you do, who believes not-X, then you must regard them as making a mistake. It is nonsense to say to someone who holds a descriptive belief incompatible with your own, “well, everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” You should instead tell them that they’re wrong. It is helpful to be polite about it.

You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts,” said President Obama. Facts have nothing to do with it. A commitment to the universe being thus and so is a commitment to everyone should think that the universe is thus and so even for false commitments. Taking the view of Cardinal Bellarmine, that the sun orbits the Earth, means taking the view that everyone, Galileo included, should think so, too. With Bellarmine, as is so often the case, one mistake led to another. Bellarmine was wrong about two things: he was wrong that the universe was geocentric and he was wrong that everyone should think so, too.
The point about the irrelevance of the facts, of how things actually are, is a subtle one. You might think that someone’s opinions have to be true for it to be the case that everyone should believe them. But the point is about allegations. Alleging that the universe is thus and so means alleging that everyone should think so. The universe is the sort of thing that is the same for everyone. Saying of this sort of thing, a thing that is the same for everyone, that it has some feature means saying what everyone should think. It doesn’t matter whether you are right or wrong.

Another objection: Ice cream is good, but surely it is not the case that everyone must believe as much. That’s right, but only because ice cream is good is really a statement of preference. It just means, I like ice cream. You are entitled to your own preferences. It’s not like you think that eating ice cream is a moral imperative or anything; we’re not talking about that kind of good. The rules for descriptive claims differ from the rules for preferences (likes, desires, interests …): having a preference does not mean thinking everyone should share it, but having a belief does.

What about morality? Surely people are entitled to their own personal moral beliefs. You have not understood what morality is if you think this is so. The difference between a statement of preference and a moral claim lies precisely in the claimant’s wish to impose the moral constraint on other people. “Abortion is wrong” does not mean, “I don’t like to have abortions”. Personal moral belief is a contradiction in terms; if it’s really personal, it’s a preference and not a moral at all. Among our values, it is important to distinguish those that are just for us (no snacking after dinner), and those which are for everyone (no sex with children). Call the former preferences and the latter morals. Moral commitments are the ones that are just like descriptive commitments: they commit you to what everyone ought to believe. And you do believe that no one should have sex with children, and that everyone should recognize that it is wrong; no hiding behind some blanket subjectivism.

But don’t we have our own right roles, our own right responsibilities, our own right choices? No. Instead, there are moral hypotheticals that everyone should endorse, but which have practical relevance only to some people. If someone is a college professor, then they should teach their assigned courses is true for everyone, but it matters to the practical decision-making of only a few.

What about religion? Religions involve commitments about what the universe is like, what is morally good conduct, and what is preferable. The last of these is indeed personal, but beliefs about the content, features, and layout of the universe are in no way special just because they are religious. A belief is hardly exempt from the official rules about beliefs just because it comes with the label “religious” attached to it. If you think the number of gods in the universe is one (or zero, or seventeen, or whatever), then you must think that everyone ought to think so, too. There is your interlocutor, sitting across the table from you, in a universe with exactly one God in it, going on and on about how is there no God, all the while a God looks down upon them! If you think that’s what going on when you are talking to an atheist, what else can you rationally believe but that your atheist friend is wrong?

What about the opinion section of the newspaper? The bulk of the newspaper is dedicated to descriptive issues, reporting about what the universe is like. In the opinion section, authors take stands on normative issues. Surely these are labeled opinions precisely to distinguish them from the “facts” reported in the other sections on the newspaper. But equally obvious is that the opinion columnists think you should think the same way they do about the issues they discuss. Why else would they publish them in a newspaper? “Opinion” is just an awful label for “normative” used in journalism, and we’ve seen that normative commitments are just like descriptive ones: endorse a normative claim and you commit yourself to what everyone should believe.

It is important to recognize that some of the things we believe, we believe with moral certainty. These are cases where the risk of error is more or less infinitesimal, a risk which John Herschel tells us we can “make up our minds to disregard”: there have been black dogs, at least seven people have worn pants, the surface of the moon is not a pleasant place to safari …. There are other beliefs, not morally certain ones, to which we assign an intermediate degrees of confidence. These we should not seek to impose on other people, since our counterparts may have different, and better, evidence than we do. Being morally certain that the universe is thus and so means thinking everyone ought to think so, too; believing that the universe is probably thus and so does not.

Aren’t all our beliefs really ones to which we attach intermediate levels of confidence? No. Moral certainty is a real thing. There have been black dogs!

Sometimes, coming across someone with incompatible beliefs immediately causes us to lessen our confidence in our own views. This can be healthy. But we do each other no favors when we say that we are each entitled to our own opinions. Instead, you’ve got a date to have it out with anyone whose morally certain beliefs are incompatible with your own. Sure, you might need to just get through dinner, but there’s a bone to pick when you are done. Indeed, refusing to treat an interlocutor as wrongheaded amounts to demeaning their character, treating them as though they are incapable of having a civil argument, incapable of attending rationally to whatever reasons you and they may have for your incompatible stances. It makes you look bad as well; you act too proud or too scared to change your mind when you refuse to argue and instead cower behind the claim that everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

11 Replies to “No, you are not entitled to your own opinion (the Pebble)

  1. So, what exactly are you claiming here?

    1. We ought to believe P iff it is true.
    2. We ought to believe P only if it is true.
    3. We ought/are entitled to believe P iff it is rational.
    4. We ought/are entitled to believe P only if it is rational.

    Mutatis mutandis for assertion

    Also do you think that a belief is rational only if true?
    Can people with the same evidence rationally disagree?

  2. At issue here is what is it like to have “beliefs” or what is it like to have a “morality.” It would seem that a necessary condition for the having a belief (as defined by the author) is an intersubjective reality, a reality that is sharable. If I treat beliefs as something everyone must share (if they are to not be mistaken in some sense), then my belief must be sharable with others. Language is generally (but not always and only) the vehicle of such sharing. Something similar must be true of morality. If others cannot recognize the moral situation and context that I apperceive, I ought not expect that they could possibly share the same moral judgment as I.

    There is, however, another aspect of beliefs and morality that doesn’t directly implicate others. Beliefs, as well as morality, impose something on me. Something I believe imposes certain constraints and behaviors upon me. We can’t, we are told, believe at the same time and in the same way contrary things. I can’t both believe my wife is faithful and act contrary to that belief. If I do, I don’t really believe it.

    A similar situation prevails in the case of morality. Morality and their associated judgments are not only for others, they are for me most especially. They must be over me. I am not free to modify or amend them for the sake of convenience or the like. If I do just that, I have no morality, but instead some kind of preference or inclination. In actuality, such behavior reflects a “higher” morality, one perhaps concealed, one that is inviolable, perhaps some measure of convenience.

  3. Hello Peter,

    Thanks for a thoughtful piece!

    I was hoping you could help me understand this claim better: “Holding an opinion about, or having a belief about, the state of the universe (or some part of it) means having a belief that you think everyone should share. Descriptive belief X implies that everyone ought to believe that X.”

    Is it a conceptual claim about belief? A normative or aspirational claim? Something else? And what is the evidence for it? I see that you respond to several objections to the claim. But what is the positive evidence for accepting it?

    I just formed a belief: there is a yellow toy car on the corner of the rug in my basement. Not only do I not think everyone should share that belief, I think that just about every single person alive right now should not even bother themselves with forming an opinion on the matter. Am I doing belief wrong?

  4. I am sorry, but not only do I fail to see the point of this attack, on “everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” I strongly suspect that that is because it has no point. I realize that it must have a point: Peter is no fool. So I face a dilemma. But I shall take the bull by the horns, and describe my failure. Who says “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” in response to anything like “there are no black dogs”? Maybe a few maniacs and philosophers have said “there are no black dogs,” and the former may well not be entitled to be insane. But surely such philosophers are entitled to such strange metaphysical views, because of the nature of their philosophical discourse. And surely in ordinary discourse, people do not say anything like “there are no black dogs.” Surely there everything is intermediate. Saying “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” there is usually appropriate and philosophical. So as I say, I am simply failing to see the point of Peter’s attack. Can anyone clarify what the point is for me?

  5. I suspect that Peter actually agrees with what Obama was actually saying, incidentally. Was Obama not saying that, while we can agree to disagree about morally uncertain matters, we cannot do that with morally certain matters? (Do we not usually call the latter “matters of fact”?)

  6. Martin,
    Admittedly, while Peter could do more to clarify his target, there is something to the following sort of phenomenon: Two people disagree about something, and then agree to disagree when they discover their disagreement is (either actually or ideally) intractable. According to my best interpretation, Peter is taking aim at this phenomenon of agreeing to disagree and wishes to make the claim that something is not right with agreeing to disagree. This, I think, is clear enough.
    What is unclear is his exact diagnosis about what is wrong with this phenomenon. The best interpretation of his argument would be something like the following

    1. When I assert/believe that P, I mean that P is true (premise)
    2. The correct norm of assertion/belief is that everyone ought to assert/believe that P only if P is true (premise)
    3. Either P, or not-P is true. Not both (LEM)
    4. If P is true, then people ought not to assert/believe that not-P (from 2 and 3)

    Conclusion: The following combination of states is impermissible: I assert/believe that P and also assert/believe that others permissibly assert/believe that not-P (from 1 and 4)

    This, I think, is the best interpretation of his argument. The argument, as far as it goes, seems valid. The conclusion has a wide scope. When you find yourself asserting/believing that P and also asserting/believing that other people can permissibly assert not-P, then either you should not assert/believe P or not assert/believe that it is permissible for others to assert/believe not-P. Agreeing to disagree (or claiming that everyone is entitled to their own opinion) just amounts to being in such an impermissible combination of states.

    The most contentious premise, presumably, is 2. One significant alternative to 2 is something like:

    2*. The correct norm of assertion/belief is that everyone ought to assert/believe that P only if P is rational/justified (premise)

    Given 2*, no version of the argument can go through unless justification entails truth. While some people like Clayton Littlejohn have argued for just this last point, most would not find it plausible.

    One argument for 2 is to move from the way we talk about oughts and objective reasons in the practical realm (e.g. we ought not to drink the cup of petrol even if we don’t know it contains petrol) to how we talk about the epistemic realm (we really ought to believe P even if our evidence supports otherwise because P is in fact true).

    I am not fully convinced that our reason talk in the epistemic realm is analogous to our reason in the epistemic realm. It could be that in the moral realm, the reasons we care about are actual, fact-given reasons while in the epistemic realm the reasons we care about are evidence-relative. Plausibly, this is because in the moral realm, we care about directly holding eachother to objective interpersonal standards while in the epistemic realm, we care about whether people have reasoned well. The latter itself might be subject to objective standards (so we can’t agree to disagree about competing standards of rationality) but caring about whether people have reasoned well means we have to take into account what prior information those others might have (i.e. their evidence).

  7. Sorry, premise 3 is the law of non-contradiction, not the law of excluded middle. I think he needs both laws for the argument to go through.

  8. An opinion is a proposition that we currently believe to be true. But, as a critical rationalist, I think it is always possible that it is not true (we never know what we might have overlooked, misperceived, or misunderstood) or that other people are in possession of relevant information unknown to me. Therefore, I don’t think other people should share my opinion. I think we should debate it in the hope of making progress towards the truth.

    An opinion can be changed by arguments, criticism, and evidence whether we like it or not. So, if ought implies can, we can’t have a right to (continue to sincerely hold) our opinion.

  9. Murali asks, “So, what exactly are you claiming here?” I am claiming that believing that the universe is thus and so means believing that others ought to think so, too. John Turri makes the excellent point that this is too strong a principle, since it will require that people think that other people should believe things that they shouldn’t bother to believe. A better principle might be this one: Believing that the universe is thus and so means believing that no one may think otherwise. This principle would preserve the implication that people are not entitled to their own opinions.
    Murali asks a difficult question: Can people with the same evidence rationally disagree? We lack an algorithm for computing the extent of confidence it is appropriate to have in some proposition given what else is believed, making it hard to say how we should respond to individuals whose confidence in some proposition differs from our own, despite their holding relevantly similar beliefs about probative matters. The gulf between the predictive capacities of superpredictors and those of the rest of us suggests that nearly everyone is nowhere near optimal performance in making intermediate confidence assignments. We probably shouldn’t even treat our own confidence assignments as rational!
    I agree with Bill Powers that morality imposes constraints on oneself, involving how one acts and what else one believes. I don’t think it is right, though, that there must be an intersubjective reality that some belief is about in order for it to be appropriate to impose the belief on others. An intersubjective reality is no doubt sufficient, however. Still, a community can have the practice of having moral constraints without its members being convinced of moral realism. I don’t think I am referring to an intersubjective moral reality when I claim that it is wrong to torture innocent strangers for amusement, but I do think that anyone who disagrees with me on this point is wrong and ought to change their mind.
    Martin Cooke asks about the point of the attack. I haven’t any proper scientific investigations on which to base the claim that many people think that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but most of my students in Introduction to Philosophy seem to think this; indeed, they do so rather stubbornly, often maintaining the commitment despite my discouragement. Students are especially inclined toward “opinionism” about moral and religious matters; they remaing firm in their faith, while also taking the view that those who do not share their religious views are entitled to their own opinion. I suspect that opinionism is much less widespread among professional philosophers, however.
    John Turri and Murali are both interested in the question of why one might endorse the principle I defend. Murali offers an argument for the better principle, if the universe is thus and so, then people ought not believe that it is not thus and so (I have quite deliberately avoided the language of truth). Perhaps the following would do as a slight elaboration of the argument from the text:

    If someone believes that the universe is not thus and so when really it is, they are believing wrongly (“making a mistake”), and one ought not do wrong and so is not entitled to do it.

    It is plausible that one may rationally believe that the universe is different from how it is, and this might disincline people from saying that such misguided beliefs are wrong, but it remains the case that to believe that the universe is thus and so when it is not is to do something bad (Be incorrect? Be misguided? Something else?), and however that badness is understood, it is a type of badness in which one is not entitled to engage.

    Jan writes about the importance of debate and how it fosters progress towards the truth. I am in favor of debate, too. Debate should be provoked, for ideal interlocutors at least, when they come to recognize that they differ on some point. Believing that the universe is thus and so does not require refusing to debate the point. That others might have relevant information, and that I might have made a mistake, are good reasons to engage in a debate, but they are not good reasons to refuse to believe things. And unless my argument is flawed, then I fail to see how the attitude of thinking other people need not share one’s opinion (or at least may think otherwise) is compatible with believing descriptive or normative claims.

  10. Thanks everyone for your comments! I appreciate the feedback. Hopefully we can reconcile our differences on the matters at hand.

  11. “Ice cream is good is really a statement of preference. It just means, I like ice cream.” I wonder about that. Certainly in the other direction, “Ice cream is bad” increasingly seems to me to be shown by the evidence to be objectively true. The evidence is mounting that all dairy products are bad for human health; the evidence is clear that dairy cattle are for the most part treated with horrendous cruelty; and there is clear evidence as well that animal agriculture generally (very much including dairy farming) is a significant contributor both to old-fashioned pollution of the environment and to global warming.

    Vegan ice cream is of course a different story–but in most jurisdictions the makers aren’t allowed to call it ice cream.

    As a non-philosopher, I’m honestly not sure if this says anything affecting the argument one way or the other!

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