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 mean 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 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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4 thoughts on “The Basics of Critical Thinking Part 1: You Don’t Always Have A Right To Your Opinion

  1. Perhaps the best line of attack against not thinking critically and scientifically (when science is called for) is to point out the two throng dangers that may arise from such thinking. They are;

    1. The great danger arising from acquiring the habit of not thinking critically. If one lets in one opinion, which one refuses to examine critically, to build its nest in one’s mind then it would also make it easier for another uncritically thought opinion to come in and build another nest and so on until a colony of such opinions build up, thrive and procreate more bad opinions until the whole mind is filled with dangerous, bad and useless opinions.

    2. The specific harm upon oneself, family and society at large arising from the one specific uncritically thought opinion such as dismissing Darwin’s theory of evolution and speaking publicly against it.

  2. I really couldn’t put this any better than you do Alhazen. I really like your image of ideas nesting in and colonizing the mind. JGM

  3. I’m a student majoring in religious and philosophical studies and stumbled across your website. This is a very interesting post. However, I believe that everyone has a right to their opinion even an epistemic right to your own opinion whether your opinion is true or false. Yes theories in science are well thought out and other scientist may agree with the theory but that doesn’t change the fact that a theory is not a fact and may be wrong. For example, you mention gravity, a theory I do not agree with at all. I do not believe there is any such thing as gravity and scientist do often have a hard time explaining certain aspects of the theory. In my opinion, and what my good ol’ common sense tells me, gravity is not real. When something is heavier than air it will fall until something stops it. Its rather simple actually. If you hold a pen up and drop it it will fall rather fast and continue to fall until it hits what ever object may stop it. Now if you take a pen and drop it into a bucket of some type of slimy substance it will still sink to the bottom of the bucket eventually but slower than if you were to drop it in thin air. This is because the slime substance is heavier than the air thus it takes the pen longer to reach the bottom. In space, the air is more than likely very heavy and dense which is why we would float if we were in space. We are lighter than the air. This is why we cannot say that theories are always right. We do always have a right to our opinion though whether or not others choose to agree with it or not.

  4. i’m glad you are thinking. If you want to learn to think better about gravity take an introductory course in physics.As for theories and facts the word theory has a very different meaning in science than in ordinary parlance. A theory in science is much better than a fact. A scientific theory puts together thousand or millions of facts into a comprehensive understanding of the natural world. But yes you can believe the earth is flat if you want to but you have no epistemic right to do so because …the world is NOT FLAT. For more you should take a course in critical thinking if you’re really interested in believing what is most likely to be true rather than just believing what you want to believe. And that will really help your life go better. Good luck.

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