(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, December 13, 2016.)
Trump: “I believe that cows can jump over the moon.”
Question: “Is that really true?”
Pence: “He has a right to his opinion.”
Conway: “He is presenting an alternative fact.”
Donald Trump recently tweeted: “In addition to winning the electoral college in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Mike Pence defended this false statement by saying: “He’s entitled to express his opinion on that.” (Here is the video.) As someone who has devoted his life to a search for truth, such lying, obfuscation, and bad thinking is painful to watch. I honestly believe that lying is the original source of most human suffering.
This exchange and the recent piece, “A philosophy professor explains why you’re not entitled to your opinion,” reminded me that about two years ago I wrote a five-part entry on this blog about critical thinking. The first part was titled: “The Basics of Critical Thinking Part 1: You Don’t Always Have A Right To Your Opinion.” Given the new post-truth world we inhabit, I thought it might be wise to post an excerpt from that post. Here it is.
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 “true beyond any reasonable doubt.” I explain to you that the “theory” of gravity or relativity or the atom are theories in the scientific sense, and that they bring together millions of observations. I then 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.” Is that relevant? No it isn’t! 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.
… 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. Free speech allows you to ignorantly profess: “the earth is flat,” or “the moon is made of green cheese.” 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. As a result, many people believe that their opinions are sacred and others must handle them with care. And, when confronted with counterarguments, they don’t consider that they might be wrong, instead they take offense.
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. (Having a right, implies that others have a duty to respect it. If you have a right to free speech, I do have the duty to let you speak.) Do I have the obligation to agree with you? Surely not, since supposedly I have a right to my opinion which may be different from yours. Do I have the obligation to listen to you? No, since I can’t listen to everyone, and some people, for example, are just scientifically illiterate. I don’t consult them about physics. 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. O,r if you don’t see the rise of an authoritarian regime, I ought to try to change your mind about supporting it. 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.” There are many reasons for this. Their false belief may be part of their group identity, or they may find it painful to change their minds, or they may be ignorant of other opinions, or they may profit from holding their opinion, etc.
But if someone continues to defend themselves with “I have a right to my opinion,” you can be assured of one thing—they aren’t interested in whether their opinion is true or not.