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Background

There is an article in The Conversation that attempts to disprove the notion that people are "entitled to their opinions." That is, people have a right to believe whatever they wish. I think this article is interesting and worth a read. However, I have trouble accepting the strength of its argument. I think this passage sums it up:

But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.

This makes sense to me. If we define "entitled to an opinion" in this way, then it is trivial that not everyone has the expertise necessary to form an opinion that is a serious candidate for the truth. A vaccines-cause-autism promoter with no medical credentials is not a candidate for the truth like a doctor is.


The problem

However, how can I disprove that there exists an inherent privilege (an entitlement) to believe whatever you want? It would be an argument from ignorance to say that you cannot prove that there exists such a privilege, so such a privilege does not exist.

My approach was to use an indisputable example: 1+1=2.

(0) Let us assume that anyone has the right to have any opinion.

(1) If it is permissible to have any opinion, then anything can be debated.

(2) It is impossible to dispute 1+1=2 because it has been proven.

(3) Things that are indisputably true––that simply are––cannot be debated, so there cannot be differing opinions on them.

(4) This is a contradiction of (0) and (1) (which follows from (0)).

This proof feels flimsy, but I cannot pin point exactly where the weak link is.

Where is the weak link in my argument? Does an alternative, stronger argument exist?


I am new to this site, so any recommendations (especially for tags) would be much appreciated!

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    The ethics of belief is an actively researched subject that deals with the question you are asking, that article will probably be worth reading. – Not_Here Dec 12 '18 at 4:05
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    Also, you probably want to change "any opinion is valid" to "it is permissible to have any opinion", because you're talking about ethics and whether it is right or wrong to have an opinion, not logic and whether or not the opinions are syntactically well formed arguments. Validity is a formal concept in logic, we often misuse it in every day speech when talking about arguments, but in this case what you are saying could be confused with it's formal definition. – Not_Here Dec 12 '18 at 4:40
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    And the problem is probably with (1). Why is it the case that you are allowed to move to everything being debatable from it being permissible for people to have whatever opinion they want? The point is there is a hidden assumption in there, and I think it's something like "whether or not something is debatable depends on whether or not two people hold conflicting beliefs on it" and I think that is rejectable. In place of it, someone could argue that things are only debatable when there isn't a matter of fact about their truth. If that assumption is taken instead, (1) doesn't work. – Not_Here Dec 12 '18 at 4:51
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    Usually it is the proof that is in debate, once something is proven that usually ends the debate. So a more accurate formulation would be "you are not entitled to an opinion in conflict with proof. As for what constitutes sufficient proof: some would say it's a matter of opinion, some would say the earth is flat. – christo183 Dec 12 '18 at 8:09
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    A vaccines-cause-autism promoter with no medical credentials is not a candidate for the truth like a doctor is. This statement is an 'appeal to authority', without consideration of bias on the part of 'professionals' who are after all, corporate employees who stand to gain or profit from the commercial promotion of commodities or merchandise such as pharmaceuticals. – Bread Dec 12 '18 at 11:11
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Welcome to this SE, Daniel. I think the problem with the argument is what you are trying to prove:

how can I disprove that there exists an inherent privilege (an entitlement) to believe whatever you want?

Even Patrick Stokes agrees that people are entitled to their opinions. He writes:

If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial.

What Stokes argues against is something else:

But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false.

People will take their own views as "serious candidates for the truth", at least as far as they are concerned, or they wouldn't have those views.

What I understand Stokes to be arguing for could be paraphrased as people are entitled to their own opinions, but other people don't have to agree with them. That is, those other people don't have to consider those views "serious candidates for the truth".


Patrick Stokes, "No, you’re not entitled to your opinion", The Conversation https://theconversation.com/no-youre-not-entitled-to-your-opinion-9978

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  • Is your answer saying that there is no way to counter someone “I have a right to think whatever I want?” I would think that there does not exist such a right: what entity or set of rules would bestow a universal right for anyone to believe anything? – Daniel Dec 12 '18 at 17:43
  • @Daniel That is Stokes position. I suspect there may be some legal constraints to what we may be permitted to say, but barring them, the entity that bestows this universal right is our ability to think and believe at all. We may disagree with someone else's opinion and not share it. We then have a right to our opinion, to think differently from that person. If we have that right, so does that other person. – Frank Hubeny Dec 12 '18 at 17:52
  • Does that mean that because people can do it, people have the right to do it? Anyone can murder, but most people do have that right. – Daniel Dec 12 '18 at 17:54
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    @Not_Here The problem is with downvotes without explanation, because: there is no indication of how the post might be improved and no way of being sure that a downvoter understood the post in the first place. So kudos for explaining your position. – christo183 Dec 14 '18 at 13:08
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    @Not_Here I guess it is peculiar to Philosophy SE. People are invested in not only improving their own faculties of reason and expression, but also in making sure they correctly understand the other, and are in return correctly understood. ;) – christo183 Dec 14 '18 at 13:33
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Welcome, Daniel!

When it comes to opinions (beliefs, perspectives, faiths, etc.), the issue isn't entitlement; it's boundaries. This distinction has bearing on whether a simple discussion of opinions will stick to words or come to blows.

There's no conflict as long as we:

(1) hold only ourselves to our opinions;

(2) respect others' rights to hold only themselves to their opinions; and

(3) consider identifying opinions as such: "In my opinion...", "I believe...", "From my perspective", "My chosen faith teaches me that...", etc. (See comments below for an alternative solution.)

However, if I try to hold you to my own belief, I'm effectively trespassing onto your private property.

All of the above presupposes that the statement in question is truly an opinion, etc. (i.e., unprovable and subject to boundaries) and not actually a fact (i.e, provable and not subject to boundaries).

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  • The issue w/ (3) is that for most mature adults it should be a 'given' that boundaries do exist w/ regard to opinions (vs. facts, which should always be referenced whenever they are not self-evident). It should be easily enough understood what is or is not, logically speaking, 'opinion' or 'belief'. Much of what most people assert online (even here, judging from the many differing schools of philosophical thought), is opinion. Therefore I see no practical use in littering our speech w/ redundant qualifiers to nearly every statement we make as individuals w/ the right to our own opinions. – Bread Dec 12 '18 at 10:45
  • One person's litter is another's protective padding. I agree that "for most mature adults it should be a 'given'...", but there are a very vocal few for whom it isn't. I include (3) for those whose voices assail the rest of us. – user34765 Dec 12 '18 at 11:17
  • That's understandable. It hurts though, if you're trying to raise rather than lower standards of social or scholastic conduct. Some people would call it, 'stooping to their level'. For example, as a parent I wouldn't raise my children that way or expect my close family members to talk that way. I would teach them that there is an allowable kind of understanding that may be purely tacit. For ease of communication. – Bread Dec 12 '18 at 12:02
  • Psychologically and socially speaking, demanding qualifiers for every opinion which ought to be understood to be opinion, is an unnecessary pressure which may be taken as a violation of personal boundaries and a hindrance to the basic human right to free speech. I wouldn't treat people I care about in that manner. Instead, I would allow them to voice their opinions, and if they should happen to become too overbearing with their opinions, such as not allowing me to disagree with them -- then and only then would I politely but assertively remind them that their statements are just opinions. – Bread Dec 12 '18 at 12:15
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    I have edited (3) based on your comments, Bread. Please note that my answer contains no demands, rules, or expectations of any kind. I included (3) to address the surprising difficulty in conversing with people who express opposition to coexistence with those having different beliefs (e.g., religious). The method I cited has worked very well for me on multiple occasions on various sites. I admire how easily your way of handling this situation works for you. Unfortunately, for personal psychological reasons, it would not work for me; bummer. – user34765 Dec 12 '18 at 13:11
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Just to add a slightly different slant. The colloquial words need looking at.

An "opinion" by itself does not imply an action, a claim to truth, or even an expressed opinion. Nor is it a proper object of any claims to "entitlement." It is not something that can be owned, no more than we can grant someone a positive entitlement to daydream, breathe, or believe that 1 + 1 = 2.

One may always form and express an opinion, and thus it enters into the realm of public claims and beliefs. There it will meet with many levels and types of adjudication, depending very much on the circumstances and context. Typically, an expressed opinion will be judged by its consequences.

In the pragmatic tradition of William James we might say that truth is the "belief one is willing to act upon." This would be good simple test of opinion as well. Can and will the opinionated subject act on that opinion? Can she convey the opinion in a way that persuades others to act on it?

Anyone's expressed opinion is free, roughly to the extent that it is inconsequential, as Mark Twain noted. But the consequences of acting upon an opinion, especially a misguided opinion, quite obviously deserve no general entitlement. Recent news has made that pretty clear.

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I think we can analyse the issue more efficiently as a political issue, in the noble non partisan acceptation of the word (I.e. How to rule the polis) rather than ethical.

Simply put, everybody can have any opinion, however baseless, but nobody can enforce or ignore a common rule only on the ground of their opinion.

The issue can be split into 3 separate problems:

  1. Being entitled to have an opinion
  2. Being entitled to voice and share said opinion
  3. Being entitled to act on the base of said opinion

At first approach your question is about the point 1, but I think we can easily argue that it is linked to 2 and 3 so strongly that, even if each point can be discussed separately, we have to cover the 3 in order to have a complete view of the problem.

Point 3 is, after all, what people who claim to be "entitled to their opinion" are really asking for. Anti-vaxxers don't just claim the right to think whatever they want about vaccines, they want to cancel mandatory vaccination policies or the funding of vaccination campaigns based on their opinion. Creationists and flat earthers don't only want to think the earth is young or flat, they want their views introduced in education programs. Even if they want to abaide by the rules of society, they at least want the issue to be discussed on the public place to, eventually, convince people and change the rules, which is related to point 2.

Point 1: The right to have an opinion does in fact not make a lot of sense, since nobody can actually control the way we think (Brainwashing comes to mind, but I hope we can all agree on a right to not be brainwashed). What people actually want is the right to share their opinion and the right to act on it.

Point 2: As far as sharing is concerned, there is no shortage of philosophers defending the merits and limits of free speech (Spinoza, Diderot, Kant, Locke come to mind). It is difficult to argue against all those cases for a right to voice any opinion in the public place, if only because it is through exposition to wrong ideas that we can make our good ideas more robust.

Point 3: The issue really comes when considering acting on an opinion. Most opinions have political implications, as explained above, that sometimes impinge on private behavior. For example, anti-vaxxers want to prevent their kids from being vaccinated, yet because vaccination is only effective if a vast majority of the population is treated, people who actually want to be protected need to force the anti-vaxxers to comply with the policy. The issue becomes, are the anti-vaxxers entitled to derail a vaccination effort on the ground of their fringe opinion on vaccines? Or are the creationists entitled to compromise the education level of the children on the ground of their fringe opinion ?

This is something you can argue for depending on a political framework. For example libertarians might argue that the general will has no right to enforce vaccination, or that people should be able to create their own schools where whatever they want is taught. More authoritarian (for the lack of a better term, suggestions welcome) minded people might argue that we need to guarantee a certain standard of education.

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I do think people can believe what they want but not every opinion is worthy of respect. There are some opinions that are ignorant. i always say an opinion that is knowledgeable is more valuable than an opinion that is ignorant and foolish. I may respect the person depending on their personality and their right to have the opinion but if the opinion sounds biased, stupid, misinformed, and etc... I dont have to honor and take the opinion seriously. I ONLY RESPECT OPINIONS THAT ARE LOGICAL AND REASONABLE. We dont have to force our opinions on people but we cant for anybody to respect our beliefs. Respect is earned not forced.

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