The  Right  to  Your  Opinion  

(from  Crimes  Against  Logic  by  Jamie  Whyte)  

“Know  your  rights!”   So  we  are  advised  by  all  sorts  of  well-­‐meaners.    When  I  was  an   undergraduate  student,  activists  warned  me  to  know  the  rights  that  protected  me   against  police  harassment.    Having  dutifully  learned  them,  I  was  disappointed  never   to  encounter  the  expected  harassment.    Now  I  receive  pamphlets  telling  me  that  I   may  have  a  right  to  various  kinds  of  government  assistance,  including  money.    Alas,   the  result  of  inquiry  is  always  the  discovery  that  I  don’t  qualify.    As  with  cheap   flights,  conditions  apply,  and  it  seems  that  I  am  the  citizen’s  equivalent  of  someone   who  wants  to  fly  to  Sydney  at  Christmas.  

My  poor  return  from  knowing  my  rights  shouldn’t  put  you  off.    Knowing  your   rights  is  usually  useful  and  we  could  all  do  better  at  it.    How  many  British  citizens   are  aware,  for  example,  that  they  have  a  right  to  a  good  night’s  sleep?    Well,  they  do.1     In  a  few  years,  when  my  newborn  daughter  has  finally  got  herself  a  decent  job,  I   plan  legal  action  against  her.    

Learning  your  rights  can  also  mean  discovering  that  you  do  not  really  have   the  rights  you  think  you  do.    This  can  also  be  useful.    Suppose,  for  example,  that  you   thought  you  had  a  right  to  do  to  your  body  whatever  you  like,  provided  you  injure   no  one  else.    Such  a  delusion  could  well  land  you  in  prison  convicted  of  drug  use  or   assault.2  

In  this  spirit,  my  purpose  here  is  to  stop  you  from  believing  in  another  right   you  do  not  really  have,  namely  the  right  to  your  own  opinions.  

Perhaps  you  don’t  believe  you  have  this  right;  then  I  am  sorry  for  being   presumptuous.    But,  you  would  be  the  first  person  I  have  me  who  doesn’t  believe  it.     The  slogan  “You  are  entitled  to  you  opinion”  is  so  often  repeated  that  it  is  near   impossible  for  the  brain  of  a  modern  Westerner  not  to  have  absorbed  it.  

Like  many  other  views  that  have  at  times  enjoyed  universal  assent,  however,   it  isn’t  true.    You  don’t  really  have  a  right  to  your  own  opinions.    And  the  idea  that   you  do,  besides  being  false,  is  forever  being  invoked  when  it  would  be  irrelevant   even  if  it  were  true.  

      _____  

1. The  right  was  confirmed  by  the  European  Court  of  Human  Rights  in  October  2001.    The  court  

upheld  the  claim  of  people  living  in  the  flight  path  of  Heathrow  airport  that  early-­‐morning   flights  violated  this  right  to  a  good  night’s  sleep.   2. In  December  1990  a  group  of  men  who,  for  the  sake  of  pleasure,  volunteered  to  have  each  

other  cut  their  genitals  were  convicted  of  various  crimes,  including  actual  bodily  harm.  


The  Irrelevant  Right         Before  showing  that  this  cliché  is  false,  let’s  first  be  clear  that  its  common  use   in  discussion  or  debate  really  does  amount  to  a  fallacy.    It  is  often  used   preemptively,  when  an  assertion  is  prefaced  with  the  acknowledgment  that  “Of   course,  you  are  entitled  to  your  opinion,  but...”    Yet  its  more  basic  use,  which  the   above  acknowledgment  is  intended  to  preempt,  is  defensive.          Jack  has  offered  some  opinion—that  President  Bush  invaded  Iraq  to  steal  its   oil,  let’s  say—with  which  his  friend  Jill  disagrees.    Jill  offers  some  reasons  why  Jack’s   opinion  is  wrong  and  after  a  few  unsuccessful  attempts  at  answering  them,  Jack   petulantly  reports  that  he  is  entitled  to  his  opinion.      The  fallacy  lies  in  Jack’s  assumption  that  this  retort  is  somehow  a  satisfactory   reply  to  Jill’s  objections,  while,  in  fact,  it  is  completely  irrelevant.    Jack  and  Jill   disagreed  about  Bush’s  motivation  for  invading  Iraq,  and  Jill  gave  reasons  to  believe   that  Jack  was  mistaken.    She  did  not  claim  that  he  had  no  right  to  this  mistaken  view.     By  pointing  out  that  he  is  entitled  to  his  view,  Jack  has  simply  changed  the  subject   from  the  original  topic,  the  reason  Iraq  was  invaded,  to  a  discussion  of  his  rights.     For  all  it  contributes  to  the  invasion  question,  he  may  as  well  have  pointed  out  that   whales  are  warm-­‐blooded  or  that  in  Spain  it  rains  mainly  on  the  plain.      As  with  most  of  our  fallacies,  once  seen,  it  is  obvious.    Here  is  a  simple  way  of   putting  it.    If  the  opinions  to  which  we  are  entitled  might  nevertheless  be  false,  the   entitlement  cannot  properly  be  invoked  to  settle  a  dispute.    It  adds  no  new   information  on  the  original  matter;  it  does  nothing  to  show  that  the  opinion  in   question  is  true.      Interpreting  the  cliché  to  exclude  the  possibility  of  falsity—that  is,  to  mean   that  we  are  entitled  to  have  all  our  opinions  be  true—has  two  problems.    First,  it  is   ridiculous.    Second,  it  does  not  in  fact  make  the  entitlement  to  an  opinion  relevant  in   deciding  who  is  correct  in  any  dispute.    If  Jack  has  a  right  to  his  true  opinion  then   presumably  Jill  has  a  right  to  hers  too.    But  then,  since  Jack  and  Jill  disagree,  one  of   them  must  be  suffering  a  rights  violation;  one  of  them  has  a  false  belief.    So,  even  if   we  had  the  right  to  true  beliefs,  that  would  only  show  that  it  is  a  right  that  is  violated   all  the  time,  on  precisely  those  occasions  when  our  opinions  are  in  fact  false.    In  any   dispute,  to  know  whose  right  to  a  true  belief  is  being  violated  we  would  first  need  to   work  out  whose  belief  is  false.    That  is,  we  would  need  to  settle  the  original   dispute—in  the  case  of  Jack  and  Jill,  about  President  Bush’s  reason  for  invading  Iraq.     And  a  diversion  on  the  matter  of  rights  gets  no  one  any  closer  to  answering  that   question.      So,  even  on  the  strongest,  and  utterly  incredible,  interpretation  of  our   opinion  entitlement,  it  is  irrelevant  to  anything  else  we  might  be  debating.    Why   then  is  insisting  on  one’s  right  to  an  opinion  such  a  popular  argumentative  ploy?      In  part,  it  is  encouraged  by  an  ambiguity  in  the  word  entitlement.    It  has  a   political  or  legal  interpretation,  by  which  we  are  all  entitled  to  any  opinion  we  might   have,  however  groundless.    But  it  also  has  an  epistemic  interpretation,  that  is,  one   related  to,  or  concerned  with,  truth  or  knowledge.    You  are  entitled  to  an  opinion,  in   this  epistemic  sense,  only  when  you  have  good  reasons  for  holding  it:  evidence,   sound  arguments,  and  so  on.    Far  from  being  universal,  this  epistemic  entitlement  is  


the  kind  you  earn.    It  is  like  being  entitled  to  a  boast,  which  depends  on  having  done   something  worth  boasting  about.      So,  the  two  senses  of  entitlement  could  not  be  further  from  each  other.    Yet  it   is  too  tempting  to  muddle  them.    The  implied  argument  of  the  muddler  runs  as   follows:  

1. If  someone  is  entitled  to  an  opinion  then  her  opinion  is  well-­‐supported  by   evidence.    (This  is  precisely  what  it  means  to  be  entitled  to  an  opinion.)   2. I  am  entitled  to  my  opinion  (as  is  everyone  in  a  democratic  society).   3. Therefore,  my  opinion  is  well-­‐supported  by  evidence.      This  is  a  beautiful  example  of  the  fallacy  of  equivocation,  i.e.,  slipping   between  different  meanings  of  a  word  in  an  argument  that  would  be  valid  only  if  the   word  were  used  with  the  same  meaning  throughout.  

Once  pointed  out,  it’s  easy  to  see  that  this  confusion  of  the  political  with  the   epistemic  notion  of  entitlement  is  a  mistake.    And  though,  strictly,  that  will  do  for   the  purposes  of  this  book,  I  don’t  want  to  leave  the  matter  here.    Even  if  the  cliché   that  we  are  entitled  to  our  opinions  is  not  employed  in  the  truly  egregious  way  so   far  discussed,  it  is  part  of  a  mindset  that  increasingly  impedes  the  flow  of  ideas  and   their  robust  assessment.    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.  

The  culture  of  caution  this  attitude  generates  is  a  serious  obstacle  to  those   who  wish  to  get  at  the  truth.    So  it  is  important  to  strip  away  any  bogus  ideas  that   support  the  attitude,  such  as  the  idea  that  we  all  have  a  right  to  our  own  opinions.  

   Rights  and  Duties         To  see  that  there  is  really  nothing  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.3      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.   _________      3.  For  those  interested  in  a  fuller  discussion  of  the  connection  between  rights           and  duties,  see  P.  Jones,  Rights  (Basingstoke,  McMillan,  1994).  


   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  the  implied  duties,  or  that  it  would  be  preposterous  to  claim  they   should.      Mary  Robinson,  in  her  former  role  as  United  Nations  High  Commissioner  for   Human  Rights,  claimed  that  we  have  a  human  right  to  be  healthy.    Yet,  without   qualification  it  is  difficult  to  know  what  she  could  have  possibly  meant.    According  to   the  World  Health  Organization:            Health  is  a  state  of  complete  physical,  mental  and  social  well-­‐being         and  not  merely  the  absence  of  disease  and  infirmity.         Yet  everyone  ages  and  dies.    And  when  they  do,  their  physical,  mental,  and   social  well-­‐being  are  less  than  complete.    So  the  simple  fact  of  human  mortality   means  that  everyone’s  right  to  be  healthy  is  ultimately  violated,  and  someone  has   failed  to  do  his  duty.    But  what  could  that  duty  be?      To  find  a  remedy  for  human   mortality,  presumably.    But  who  could  possibly  bear  this  burden?    Surely  not  each  of   us,  who  mostly  know  so  little  about  the  mechanics  of  human  aging.      There  is,  of  course,  no  unqualified  human  right  to  good  health,  any  more  than   there  is  a  human  right  to  all  those  other  things  that  it  would  be  nice  to  have—such   as  long  eyelashes  and  silk  sheets—but  which  no  one  has  the  duty  to  provide.    If  she   wanted  to  make  sense  of  her  claim,  Mary  Robinson  should  have  started  with  the   duties  rather  than  the  right.    What  duties  does  each  of  us  have  with  respect  to   others’  health  or  governments  with  respect  to  the  health  of  their  citizens?    Then  we   would  know  what  this  right  to  good  health  is  supposed  to  amount  to.      Opinion  Duties         What  then  are  the  duties  that  the  right  to  your  opinions  might  entail?    What   am  I  obliged  to  do  to  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  impossible  to  square  with  the  universality  of   the  right  to  an  opinion.    I,  too,  am  entitled  to  my  own  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  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  an  opinion  oblige  me  to  let  you  keep  it?  


   This  is  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   her  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  correction  of  their   errors  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  it  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  it  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  get  along  with  their  religious  parents,  or  for   some  other  reason.      But  truth  is  really  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,  you  should   realize  that  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.