Sometimes I hear people say “all opinions are equal, we should respect all opinions, and no opinion can be incorrect.” They then try to make a point about moral opinions. Unfortunately, these claims are false and believing these claims is a barrier to thinking logically and clearly. The purpose of this video is to clarify the meaning of opinion and correct these misconceptions.
Part I: Why I don’t respect my opinions (some of them)
I have the opinion that the universe is expanding because I hear the majority of scientists in the field say it is. I also know some basic facts like the red shift, background radiation, and so on. However, I do not respect my opinion because I have not thoroughly researched this issue. If I don’t respect all of my opinions, why would people demand I respect their opinions? If I have not researched thoroughly or if I do not have much relevant experience supporting my opinion, then I do not respect my opinion… and I will give you the same courtesy for the same sorts of reasons.
Another example: I have deeply researched the cosmological argument from contingency (see Cosmological Argument from Contingency, YouTube, Teachphilosophy). I respect my opinion on that issue but I do not respect the opinions of most people on this argument. For example, I don’t respect Dawkins’ opinion on the Cosmological Argument as he described it in his book The God Delusion. It is my reasoned opinion (not a mere opinion) that they reject the cosmological argument for the wrong reasons. Again, I respect some of my opinions, but not all of them and I will give you the same courtesy.
One final example: The Pythagorean Theorem. When I was young, I memorized it and did not understand it. When I was in my twenties, I came to understand the proof for it. I respect my current opinion that the Pythagorean Theorem is true more than I respect my past opinion that the Pythagorean Theorem is true because I now have better reasons for believing it true. Furthermore, I respect a mathematician’s opinion even more because they study and teach maths all day and, therefore, probably have a much deeper understanding.
The bottom line is that it is ok to not respect opinions, including your own. One can respect the right to have an opinion without respecting the particular opinion.
If you are a student in my class, I will respect your opinion even if I disagree with it as long as you are thinking critically and discovering good reasons for that opinion. However, if you simply argue “I believe x and that’s my opinion…. respect it”, then we have a problem. I respect you and want you to do well in life, but I don’t respect the way you formed your opinion on that 51393issue. It makes me want to cry.
The reason I am writing about this basic issue is because it comes up a lot when students begin studying philosophy. They say things like, “it’s all opinion and everyone disagrees” as if that is a profound statement and I am supposed to infer that truth is relative or, at least, that all opinions are equal and equally deserving of respect. But, that doesn’t follow Now, much of the confusion on this basic issue arises because some people are using a very narrow definition of opinion. With that in mind, let’s explore the definitions of opinions more deeply, especially moral opinions.
Part 2: Opinions can be incorrect, reasoned vs. mere opinions, and moral opinions
Ok First, let’s briefly explore where these misconceptions originate. In elementary school, most children learn opinions are about “how a person feels about an issue” while facts are “what is true and proven.” For example, children learn that it is a fact that “green beans are on the table” and it is an opinion that “green beans taste good.” This is a useful distinction to teach children, but it presents a superficial view of opinion.
To understand why, let’s explore two definitions of opinion from the Oxford Dictionary.
- A) “A view or judgment of something, not necessarily based on facts or knowledge.” Notice this definition of opinion says “not necessarily,” which means opinions can be based on facts or knowledge. For example, physicists disagree about string theory. Intelligent physicists have different opinions about whether string theory is true or false, but their opinions are based on a deep reasoning and understanding of the facts whereas my opinion that green beans taste is not based on deep reasoning. So, the opinions of the physicists are not simply based on how they feel, their opinions are based on evidence, arguments, and hard thinking. So, we need to move beyond the elementary school definition of opinion. Opinions are more than how one feels.
Notice too that the opinions of physicists are either true or false, even if we cannot yet prove them true or false. This is because Truth is what is the case, not what we believe, want, or can prove it to be the case. Perhaps scientists in the future will determine that the opinions of the 21st Century string theorists were false.
To summarize, opinions are judgments and some opinions will eventually be proven true or false. Also, some opinions are much more than how a person feels about an issue. This is enough to deepen and correct the elementary school understanding of opinions. But let’s consider the second definition of opinion as well.
- B) “A statement of advice.” Notice this definition of opinion does not distinguish between expert advice and novice advice. For example, an experienced dentist has the opinion that you should brush your teeth to keep them healthy. This is expert advice or expert opinion. A young child may have the opinion that you should not brush your teeth because there is no point. This is novice advice or novice opinion. If all opinions are equal, then these two opinions are equal, which is ridiculous. Therefore, not all opinions are equal and we should not respect all opinions.
If opinions are “statements of advice,” then I will respect the opinions of experts in every field more than I respect the opinions of nonexperts. I will respect the expert opinion of my mechanic over my child’s opinion when the child says “it might be the flux capacitor.”
I should also emphasize that I don’t highly respect my own opinion on some issues. For example, I have the opinion that investing in mutual funds is a good long term strategy for retirement. However, I don’t respect my opinion on that issue as much as I respect my opinion on some epistemological issues. This is because I have not thoroughly researched finance, but I have thoroughly researched epistemology. The point is that I don’t even respect all of my own opinions, so why should I respect all of your opinions? Shouldn’t I only respect your opinion if you have good reasons for it? I should respect your opinion about a factual matter if it is based on facts, good reasoning, and experience. But if it isn’t, I shouldn’t respect your opinion.
So, please don’t cut off discussion by arguing with an elementary school understanding of opinion.
But what about moral opinions? Well, consider these two moral opinions.
- Bob morally believes women should not have the right to vote because they are intellectually inferior, and we should not let intellectually inferior people vote.
- Jim disagrees and believes women should have the right to vote because they are not intellectually inferior.
Do you really believe these two moral opinions are equal? I hope not.
In this case, Bob is incorrect primarily because his premise is false. It is false that women are intellectually inferior, and scientists can now prove it. This again shows that not all opinions are equal. Some opinions are based on facts and good reasoning and some aren’t. This is true of moral opinions as well as many other types of opinion.
So, I am now going to make a judgment. I respect Bob’s right to have an opinion, but it doesn’t follow I respect his opinion. He has a right to his opinion, but he doesn’t have a right to be right. And I don’t care what time period or culture Bob is from because that does not change the fact that his moral opinion is based on a scientifically false claim about the innate intellectual capacity of women. I also respect Bob’s right to be a racist, but it doesn’t follow that I respect his opinion that some races are superior. His moral opinion is not based on facts, logical reasoning, or consistent principles.
By the way, I might not think Bob is blameworthy because he was raised to have that opinion. But it still doesn’t follow that I respect the content of his opinion. I may understand very well the causes of his opinion (e.g. upbringing), but it doesn’t follow that I respect the reasons or attempted justification of his opinion (e.g women are not smart, other races are inferior).
This simple example illustrates the fact that not all moral opinions are completely subjective or mere expressions of emotion. Some are, but not all are. As you learn about ethics, you will see that some moral opinions are reasoned, tested, based on facts and/or experience, and are logically consistent with fundamental principles and facts. And, of course, some are not. Furthermore, some moral opinions identify moral rules (e.g. the Golden Rule, do not cause unnecessary suffering) that better promote human flourishing than other moral rules (e.g. kill, cheat and steal whenever you know you can get away with it or try to believe every moral opinion is equally valid). So, please do not shut down your mind just because it is an opinion about a moral issue.
In your essays, please do not write, “everyone has different opinions about morals, so they are all equal or relative.” If you write that, it is clear that you do not understand opinions or the most basic arguments in the relativism unit. If relativism is true, it’s not true because people have opinions or morality is about opinions. Even the relativistic philosophers recognize this.
And be careful about saying one shouldn’t judge. My opinion is we should judge opinions because they may be dangerous or based on false claims. Also, the claim that I shouldn’t judge is itself a judgment. You cannot escape judgment unless you are a rock or somehow unconscious. Sorry rocks. Even the Taoist judges that emptiness is a virtue.
If you aren’t judging ideas, you aren’t thinking well. Buddha judged the cause of suffering. Jesus judged that some things are sinful and some aren’t. I judge that there are better arguments against the morality of slavery than there are for the morality of slavery. I also just judged that there aren’t any really good reasons to go to war with Canada… yet.
Again, moral opinions are not mere expressions of feeling. Intelligent people form moral opinions by appealing to facts, good reasoning, and considering what will truly promote human welfare and flourishing. Intelligent people form moral systems that keep both their feelings and their culture in check.
On the other hand, people who haven’t thought much about ethics think that morality is completely dependent on social approval or individual feeling. Some may also think that morality is innate, no rationality required. These points will become clearer as we proceed through the course.
To summarize, opinions are much more than how you feel. Some opinions come from experts and some from novices. Some opinions should be respected and some should not be respected. Some opinions are about what is or is not factually the case. And some opinions are mere judgments instead of reasoned judgment.
There is much more to explore about opinions, facts, subjectivity, objectivity, and truth, but I hope this video will remind you to take opinions seriously and not dismiss them merely because they are opinions.
The four most important claims I defended in this video are:
1) Not all opinions are equal.
2) We should not respect all opinions. You have a right to an opinion, but you don’t have a right to have your opinion be true or respected.
3) We should judge moral opinions.
4) Some opinions are true and some are false, they are not the opposite of facts. We must deepen our elementary school understanding of opinions.
But, all of this is just my opinion.
- Identify 3 misconceptions people have about opinions.
- Give 2 examples of your own opinions that you should not respect and 2 that you should respect. Briefly explain.
- What do most children learn about facts and opinions in elementary school? Why is this incomplete?
- Give the two Oxford Dictionary Definitions of Opinion. How do they deepen your understanding of opinion?
- Explain why not all opinions are equal.
- Explain why one should not respect all opinions.
- Explain how one can judge moral opinions.
- Explain how an opinion can be objectively true or false.
- Explain why a moral opinion is not simply how you feel about something. 9. What does the Bob case show about moral opinions? Should I respect all moral opinions?
- Explain the difference between respecting a person’s opinion and respecting the person’s right to have an opinion. Why is this distinction relevant?
- Explain how rational people form moral opinions. How is this different from how children or less rational adults form opinions?
- Why might it be dangerous or lazy to think all opinions are equal?
- Let’s say you are a teacher and a student writes the following, “People are constantly arguing on this issue and everyone has different opinions. So, there is no truth and people just want to be right anyway. We just can’t know.” What kind of polite feedback would you give to help the student deepen their thinking?