Are We All Entitled to Our Own Opinions?

A couple days ago, I wrote a bit about the fact / opinion distinction. This distinction, I argued, can be attacked from two different directions. First, we might emphasize the the truth-evaluative nature of beliefs, and so see no use for the category of "opinion." This is especially common for those reacting to a tendency amongst college freshmen (and other targets of unwanted intellectual pressure) to retreat into the domain of "opinion," as if it were some safe-zone where considerations of truth (or, perhaps, absolute truth) don't apply. From this direction, it seems like getting rid of "opinion" talk might help us get traction on issues involving the common good. "You don't get to have whatever opinion you want on climate change, it's happening and it's harming millions. Those are the facts, and your opinions can't insulate you from them." 

On the other hand, we might want to ease up on the "fact" talk. It's certainly true that such talk is often wielded like a weapon. "Biology is a fact," someone might say, "It doesn't matter how you feel. You're a [man, woman, intersex (?)] individual and you've got to come to terms with that fact." 

In the piece I wrote a few days ago, I suggested that clearly distinguishing between "facts" and "opinions" -- even if we explicitly acknowledge the distinction to be a heuristic -- can go some distance toward answering these worries.

There's actually some historical basis for all this.

Saint Augustine often divided up the epistemic landscape into those things about which one can permissibly have an opinion, those things about which we ought to have beliefs, and those things about which we can have true understanding. Simple matters of empirical fact fall into the first category ("You were born in 354 A.D."), more complex political matters fall into the second ("The fall of Rome was exacerbated by moral decay"), and theological truths fall into the last ("That God is a Trinity").

Anyways, I want to add a couple things to what I said the other day.

First, I want to add some substance to the categories I offered. Then I want to offer a sense in which it is clearly true that "we are all entitled to our opinions," but then qualify that entitlement in a way that might help us get around some of the difficulties raise above (difficulties for which some might want to do away with the category of "opinion," or reject the principle that we are ever "entitled" to opinions at all).

I think the categories are most helpfully thought of as ways of qualifying assertions, or -- perhaps alternatively -- clarifying the conversational import one believes a particular assertion ought to have.

Consider a particular assertion, i.e. "Climate change is real." When uttered in a debate, or in a conversation aimed at convincing a peer of the truth of this claim, my assertion may well be characterized (by me) as a fact. Alternatively, it might be characterized as an opinion. I can say, "It's a fact: climate change is real," or "In my opinion, climate change is real."

It seems silly to think that such modifications are meant to impact the truth-evaluative nature of the claim. As in, it doesn't seem plausible that qualifying an assertion with "In my opinion..." is supposed to mean something like, "Subjectively speaking..." or "Though I'm not claiming that what I'm about to say is true (or universally or absolutely true, or true for anyone other than myself)..." Speakers will sometimes retreat to such views (i.e. Terrified college freshmen, relativists whose minds have been corrupted by theory), but it seems far more plausible that that this qualification means something more like: "It seems to me, though I do not take myself to have decisively settled the matter" or "Though I'm not in a position to fully and explicitly justify or prove this claim..."

And, fair enough. There are tons of things that seem plausible to me, things that I assent to (and perhaps even believe -- though I'm not going to get into that issue here), that are appropriate to share in conversation even if I can't argumentatively establish them on the spot, or even if I don't take myself to have decisive reason for my attraction to the truth of that claim.

Indeed, it seems like this is the way the term opinion gets used in more formal / institutional contexts.

An op-ed is an expression of a view that: (a) is relevant to some issue at hand (possibly because failing to have a view on this issue will result in the loss of some great good, and taking a stand is no more risky than losing this good), and (b) goes beyond well-established "facts" into interpretative territory. I can't justify or rationalize my view completely in 750 words, such a writer might say, since it reflects values that I realize my audience may not share, judgments on less than certain evidence, and other "subjective" elements that I'm not able or willing to fully defend -- but it's important to share with you nonetheless.

And that seems totally reasonable.

So, to firm it up a bit, I think an "opinion" is a belief one asserts in an exchange with the intention of revealing some information about one's own take on an issue of mutual importance, without the implication that one's audience should take such an assertion on faith, or expect the one asserting to be in a position to fully defend it. A "fact," on the other hand, is an assertion that one takes to be the sort of things that everyone in one's audience ought to assent to -- either because they all have similar commitments and information on the matter, or because it's so basic (or obvious or self-evident) that one could not refuse to acknowledge it without irrationality.

Are there "facts" in this sense? Surely. 2 + 2 = 4, the world is sphere-shaped, etc. But there's also some point in asserting something "as fact," even when it goes beyond such easy cases. "The advisor took a bribe from Russia," is uttered as a statement of fact -- one intended to be assented to by one's audience (though, of course, one's audience may object, "I don't trust you," "I think you're mistaken about what you think you saw").

And, again, I think these are vitally important categories in maintaining the health of our epistemic ecosystem (or economy, or whatever social-epistemic metaphor you please).

Are we all entitled to our opinions?

Of course. Indeed, we may all be entitled to our beliefs (or at least, to whatever beliefs we don't have any sort of control over). "Opinions," in the minimal sense I've articulated, are just seemings -- claims about how the world appears from a particular point of view. Perhaps we're not always entitled to express our opinions (there may be good reasons for keeping one's thoughts to oneself in certain contexts), but the opinion itself seems to be something we just have.

Ironically, this entitlement ought -- I think -- to inspire the very reaction those most averse to "opinion" talk want to elicit. To categorize one's assertion as an "opinion" is, implicitly, to recognize the subjective limitations of it as a view -- to admit that one is not in a maximally good epistemic position with respect to it. So the attitude one should take towards one's opinions ought to be one of humility -- "In my opinion, X" should be seen not as a way of ending discussion or rational inquiry on the issue of X for oneself, but as an invitation to explore the basis of that opinion more fully. Exploring an opinion with an interlocutor, though, is something very different than "Being educated" or "Being shown the facts" or "Being proved wrong."

In this way, I think there are more or less appropriate ways for both parties to treat opinions, and I think we'd do well to recognize this.