Let's Stop Hating on the Fact / Opinion Distinction

A few years back, I came across this really good essay by Justin McBrayer. My reaction to it was...disorienting. 

I grew up in a conservative Catholic household during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict. These guys railed relentlessly against what they took to be destructive patterns and trends in contemporary culture (naming and denouncing a dizzying array if "isms" that were apparently to blame for a general state of moral decay), so I was used to the charicatured critique of "relativism."

"No one cares about truth anymore."

"Everyone's convinced that what's true for them may not be true for me."

"There are absolute truths, no matter what anyone wants to believe..." 

Etc, etc. 

In college, I came to think that these denunciations were a bit too simplistic. Sure, there are college freshmen who will assent to whatever form of moral relativism their professor hands them in the course of an argumentative exchange, but there was something deeper underlying positions that Catholics dismissed as "mere relativism" or "hedonistic secular humanism" (yeah, it got pretty intense) -- or so I came to be convinced. 

Which is why I've always sort of recoiled when people say things like this. When a TA claims that his students are all relativists, I always suspect maybe he didn't frame the issue quite right. When someone comes out with an op-ed -- especially in a national newspaper, and from a non-conservative perspective -- in which such a claim is prominently featured, well, I just don't know quite what to do.

Anyways, it seems like the argument in pieces like this is something like this: 

  1. The distinction between fact / opinion isn't principled
  2. The distinction has pernicious effects (for instance, it leads to the tacit view that claims in certain domains aren't factive or objective) 
  3. So we should abandon the fact / opinion distinction

Why think (1) is true? Well, let's look at what the distinction is supposed to amount to. A fact is an objectively true proposition, something we can all agree on -- something that is supposed to serve as the basis of agreement, something that informs our debate. What's an opinion then? For whatever reason, we tend to think of it as the opposite of a fact: something that's subjective, unproveable, unchallengeable -- something that we can't disagree about. 

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It probably doesn't help that the examples we get of things on which you can have opinions are things that aren't clearly truth evaluable.  That there are four people in this room, that's a fact. That this Picasso painting is beautiful, well, that's just, like, your opinion.

Now, I agree that if this is the way the distinction is spelled out, we're heading in the wrong direction. Especially if we start thinking that broad realms (i.e. "Morality" ) is domain in which we can all only have opinions (and in which we are all entitled to an opinion).

But to dismiss the distinction because it's been poorly understood and articulated is to miss something crucial regarding the reason why we have the distinction in the first place. 

We need to have some way of separating out those claims which are meant to serve as the basis of our disagreements -- the core consensus upon which our discussions can take place -- and those which aren't. This is because, in throwing out the fact / opinion distinction, we're actually more likely to elevate opinions to facts than we are to reduce facts to mere opinion. You can see this confusion playing out in the extremely clouded mediascape everyday. The sorts of "news outlets" we have cropping up like weeds all over the internet (horrendous quasi-bloglike things with no clear organizational principle and no obvious qualifications beyond hosting prose that sounds like the sort of thing a large segment of the population is pre-disposed to believe)  can be used to illustrate. "Opinion" pieces are no longer labeled as such, and it's not because we all just assume that mindless rambling on the internet is all basically opinion (I see the self-undermining features of this post -- I take full responsibility), but because we often think that such rants are so blatantly obvious, so self-evident that we're not really even sure what sort of support such information would need (or where, in principle, to look for it).

This is why, whenever you see someone post something you disagree with, a rebuttal is just a few clicks away. No explanation, no attempt to motivate it, just the appropriate slice of one's worldview served up in a 400 word summary -- clear as day so that idiot can read it and weep.

My point is that getting rid of the fact / opinion distinction leaves us without the conceptual tools to combat this. We've been so focused on rampant relativism, that we've missed the creeping absolutism. I don't care if we don't use the terms (perhaps "opinion" -- antiquated and tainted, as it is, by the smell of print journalism), but we need to regain some sense of the argumentative tools that are necessary to live in a society that essentially depends on discursive interactions for its stability and social order. We've got to conceptualize our commitments in a way that leaves room for disagreement, that encourages us to take such disagreement into account in the way we process information.

Or at least, that's what I think. For what it's worth, that my opinion.