The Basics of Critical Thinking Part 1: You Don’t Always Have A Right To Your Opinion

A number of years ago I taught the critical thinking section of my introduction to philosophy course from a small book:  Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders. What follows is a brief discussion of the preface and introductory chapter of this good book. (Quotes from the book are followed by the page number from which they’re taken.)

Bad thinking bothers the author, and he suffers when he hears it expressed. “If anyone cared about our suffering, talk radio and op-ed pages would be censored. Even Congress is now broadcast, as if no torment were too great.” (x) To spot bad reasoning we must learn good reasoning, for without it we are left with “a nation of suckers, unable to resist the bogus reasoning of those who want something from them, such as votes or money or devotion.” (xi)

Let’s begin by asking:  Are you always entitled to your own opinion? Consider, for example, that you claim evolution is “just” a theory. I point out that the word theory has a very special meaning in science—it means what normal people means by “a fact beyond dispute.” I show you that the “theory” of gravity or relativity or the atom are theories in the scientific sense. I explain that multiple branches of science converge on evolution—zoology, botany, genetics, molecular biology, geology, chemistry, anthropology, etc. I show you that there is virtually no legitimate biologist denies evolution. Now suppose your respond, “well I disagree, and I have a right to my opinion.” This is irrelevant. In this case I wasn’t claiming that you didn’t have a right to an opinion, I was showing you that your opinion is wrong. Being entitled to your opinion doesn’t show your opinion corresponds to the facts, it just shows that you believe something.

You could say that all of your opinions are true, but this is problematic. If we both have rights to our opinions which are always true, and our opinions differ, then one of us must be having their rights violated because we can’t both be right . But to know whose rights are being violated we need to know whose belief is false. And that depends on the facts. So even if we say that all of our opinions are true this is irrelevant to what’s really true.

Now you do have a right to believe anything you want, no matter how groundless, if by entitled you mean the political or legal interpretation of rights. But you don’t have a right to believe anything if by entitled you mean an epistemic (knowledge, concerned with truth) right. In that sense you are entitled to believe something only if you have good evidence, sound arguments, and so on. This is the distinction that causes difficulty. “Many people seem to feel that their opinions are somehow sacred, so that everyone else is obliged to handle them with great care. When confronted with counterarguments, they do not pause and wonder if they might be wrong after all. They take offense.” (5)

To understand why you don’t have an epistemic right to your opinion ask what duty I have that corresponds to your right to hold some opinion. Do I have the obligation to agree with you? Surely not, since supposedly I have a right to my opinion which might be different from yours. Do I have the obligation to listen to you? No, since I can’t listen to everyone. Do I have the obligation to let you keep your opinion? Not always. If you don’t see an oncoming car as you start to cross the street, then I ought to try to change your mind about crossing that street, assuming that you don’t want to hit by a car. And if someone is really interested in what’s true, they won’t take the presentation of counter evidence as an injury.

Of course many persons aren’t interested in what’s true; they just like believing certain things. If pressed about their opinions, they find it annoying and say: “I have a right to my opinions.” If someone says this, you can be assured of one thing—they aren’t interested in whether their opinion is true or not.

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