A reader stumbled upon, and liked, a post of mine from three years ago. I reread it this morning and as it relates to the post below, I thought it deserved a repeat. If there are any people still reading this blog, I hope you enjoy it.
An excerpt from Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists and Other Serial Offenders by Jamie Whyte (2003)
Chapter One: The Right To Your Opinion
Rights and Duties
To see that there is really nothing at all to this idea that we have a right to our opinions we need only understand one basic point about rights, namely, that rights entail duties. I don’t mean to endorse the fashionable slogan, “No rights without responsibilities,” which is supposed to justify policies whereby the government imposes good behavior conditions on the receipt of social welfare. I mean something much more fundamental about rights: they are defined by the duties to which they give rise.
The law gives all citizens a right to life. Your right to life means that everyone else has a duty not to kill you. This is not something that a government may or may not decide to associate with your right to life; it is that right. A law that did not impose on others a duty not to kill you would fail to establish your right to life. Does your right to life mean that others have a duty to feed you, to house you, or to provide you with medical care? These are hotly debated questions, but no one doubts that the answers to these questions about others’ duties are what define and delimit the right to life.
So when anyone claims a right, first ask which duties does this right impose on others; that will tell you what the right is supposed to be. And it also provides a good test for whether there is, or should be, any such right. It will often be clear that no one really has implied the duties, or that it would be preposterous to claim they should.
What then are the duties that the right to your opinions might entail? What am I obliged to do respect this right? Let’s start from the boldest possible demands and work down to the more humble.
Does your right to your opinion oblige me to agree with you?
No. If only because that would be impossible to square with the universality of the right to an opinion. I, too, am entitled to my opinion which might contradict yours. Then we can’t both do our duty toward each other. And think of the practical implications. Everyone would have to change his mind every time he met someone with a different opinion, changing his religion, his politics, his car, his eating habits. Foreign vacations would become as life-changing as the brochures claim.
Does your right to your opinion oblige me to listen to you?
No. I haven’t the time. Many people have many opinions on many matters. You cannot walk through the West End of London without hearing some enthusiast declaring his opinions on our savior Jesus or on the Zionist conspiracy or some other topic of pressing concern. Listening to them all is practically impossible and therefore not a duty.
Does your right to your opinion oblige me to let you keep it?
This is the closest to what I think most mean when they claim a right to their opinion. They do so at just that point in an argument when they would otherwise be forced to admit error and change their position. And this is also the weakest possible interpretation of the right and thus the most likely to pass the test.
Yet, it is still too strong. We have no duty to let others keep their opinions. On the contrary, we often have a duty to try to change them. Take an obvious example. You are about to cross the street with a friend. A car is coming yet your friend still takes a stride into the road. Knowing that she is not suicidal, you infer that she is of the opinion that no cars are coming. Are you obliged to let her keep this opinion?
I say no. You ought to take every reasonable measure to change her opinion, perhaps by drawing her attention to the oncoming car, saying something like, “Look out, a car is coming.” By so doing, you have not violated her rights. Indeed, she will probably thank you. On matters like whether or not a car is about to crush them, everybody is interested in believing the truth; they will take the corrections as a favor. The same goes for any other topic. If someone is interested in believing the truth, then she will not take the presentation of contrary evidence and argument as some kind of injury.
It’s just that, on some topics, many people are not really interested in believing the truth. They might prefer if their opinion turns out to be true – that would be the icing on the cake – but truth is not too important. Most of my friends, though subscribing to no familiar religion, claim to believe in a “superior intelligence” or “something higher than us.” Yet they will also cheerfully admit the absence of even a shred of evidence. Never mind. There is no cost in error, because the claim is so vague that is has no implications for action (unlike the case of the oncoming car). They just like believing it, perhaps because it would be nice if it were true, or because it helps them to get along with their religious parents, or for some other reason.
But truth really is not the point, and it is most annoying to be pressed on the matter. And to register this, to make it clear that truth is neither here nor there, they declare, “I am entitled to my opinion.” Once you hear these words it is simple rudeness to persist with the matter. You may be interested in whether or not their opinion is true, but take the hint, they aren’t.