Thursday, 12 December 2013

No One Should Be Entitled To Their Opinions

When I was a young boy my parents tried to instil some wisdom in me by telling me that while I might not agree with everything I hear or read, everyone is still entitled to their opinion. When I got a bit older and found out some of the absurd and preposterous things many people believe - young earth creationism, scientology, homeopathy, astrology, and most religions, to name but a few, I soon saw that my parents were wrong; not everyone is entitled to their opinion - in fact, no one is, and it is actually better for people if they have no sense of entitlement towards any opinions.

Here's why. Regarding our beliefs, there are two kinds of legitimate entitlements, which we'll call 'rights' - and by ‘our beliefs’ I mean propositions related to facts about how the world is, not, of course, personal tastes like food, music and books (of which more in a later Blog).The two kinds of legitimate entitlements are; the right to something binding, and the right to not be restricted to hold beliefs and express them. Naturally there are grey areas in both of those entitlements, but for simplicity's sake; in the case of binding rights, we'd say that if Jack fills up a trolley full of goods in Sainsbury's with the intention of taking them home then Sainsbury's is entitled to receive payment for those goods. And in the case of the right to not be restricted, we'd say that however absurd or untypical Jack's view is, he has the right to not be restricted in being able to hold that view - but that that right comes with the understanding that others have the right to challenge that view.

What underwrites this point is that we do not choose our beliefs, nor do we choose the force behind what those beliefs are. Opinions are based on beliefs, but beliefs come involuntarily from other people, and from personal experience of the world, so our opinions are, to the greatest extent, beyond our control and cannot be changed artificially. If I point a gun to your head and tell you that I will shoot you if you don't believe that Australia borders Mexico, you still would not be able to arrive at the belief that Australia borders Mexico, however hard you tried, because it is not factual, and we can't trick ourselves into holding views we don't honestly hold. You may lie in the hope that you don't get shot, but that's not the same as actually believing it.

When you change your mind or learn something new, it is because you have been given fresh information that, in your view, yields to reason, compelling argument and evidence-based rationale. In other words, all opinions are held because they are thought to be consistent with evidence and facts about the real world. It is precisely for this reason that no one should be entitled to their opinions, because a claim of entitlement to hold an opinion is, in fact, only a claim to retain an opinion and not have it shown to be wrong - which basically means it's an entitlement to retain opinions contrary to reason, compelling argument and evidence-based rationale .

If you really were entitled to your opinion you would be restricting others from improving that opinion by reasoned argument and evidence-based demonstrations - you would be like a man who has decided to imprison himself in his own home, turn off his electricity, and live a life of self-sufficiency, not allowing himself to even 'hear' of the alternatives. By not stepping outside his front door he doesn't just consign himself to eat, drink and wear only what currently resides in his house, he denies others the ability to bring competition to his ideas by offering new potential considerations and alternative perspectives. Of course, everyone is free to reject any idea if it doesn't make sense to them, but by staying at home and being self-sufficient they only deny themselves the opportunity to hear new ideas and opinions.

If you look at the two kinds of rights I mentioned a moment ago, you'll see that neither applies to entitlement to hold an opinion. You have no binding contract with anyone that disallows them from offering arguments against your views, and you have no business claiming a restriction on others by imposing a duty on them to let you retain your views. The idea that a person is entitled to their opinion is a bit like a self-sufficient hermit being entitled to have no competition for better goods. While we wouldn't want to restrict his ability to be a self-sufficient hermit, we'd be foolish to argue that to protect this man from new ideas and fresh options is best thing for him.

Remember, this is not an insistence that he should take advantage of these options offered to him - that would be as bad as restricting him from his choices - it is simply a claim that this man is no better for having closed himself off from the options. In fact, vindication for his self-sufficiency rests on, and is enhanced by, his having knowledge of the things he chose to reject in favour of his preferred choices. Similarly, beliefs, views and opinions are not stronger by being held from behind a wall that seeks to block out intellectual and epistemological expansion, they are made stronger when they have ran the gauntlet of rigour along with all competing beliefs, views and opinions and still come out on top. For those reasons, no one is entitled to a belief, anymore than a monopoly power is entitled to operate without any competition. If beliefs are held with a sense of entitlement they are held that way to put up a wall against competing ideas, just as a monopoly power operates to eliminate the competition, and thus denies people alternative choices.

Those who want to exclaim that everyone is entitled to their opinion don't actually mean that at all - they merely mean everyone is entitled to not be forced to depart from an opinion. Those who declare that they want to be entitled to hold an opinion are pretty much always those who hold opinions that are contrary to reason, compelling argument and evidence-based rationale - hence they are the people asking to be precluded from intellectual and epistemological expansion, which is no human entitlement or right at all. As I said earlier, just like a monopoly power trying to subjugate competition, in retaining the right to not be forced to depart from an opinion, they are claiming the right to protect their opinions from reason, compelling argument and evidence-based rationale, which, for the good of the human race is something we ought to resist. Given the extent to which people with absurd and preposterous views try to pass on those views by manipulation, distortion of facts, and suppression of contra-considerations, I would argue that the right to an open and honest enquiry is much more of a human entitlement than the right to believe nonsensical things that mislead people and cause pockets of human progression to atrophy.

Far from being a vehicle of merit, the notion that everyone is entitled to their own opinions is, to me, quite socially noxious, because it is an incubator for preposterous, repressive and manifestly false beliefs to survive with less of a challenge than is required. What this notion fosters is a pseudo-politeness whereby people believe that in the spirit of good manners it is favourable to build gilded cages into which people can keep their beliefs sacred, and not have those beliefs subjected to proper scrutiny. Just about all false and stultifying beliefs retain their endurance only because of the way their most influential exponents shield off the majority of adherents from an honest and open enquiry - be they cults, marginalised organisations or religio-political groups in developing countries that are able to repress and dominate their people.

Due to this general outward pseudo-politeness this means someone can live in another country for years, even doing a university degree, without having his or her often absurd beliefs challenged (I say 'outward' because inwardly those beliefs are often felt to be ridiculous, which only foments dishonesty). If there were a greater selection pressure on beliefs that are thought to be absurd it wouldn't be an outrage on the people believing ridiculous things - it would be a helpful, sometimes life-enhancing liberation, just as saving a drowning person or rescuing someone trapped in a mine is life-enhancing. The sooner we develop a much more naturally comfortable (and socially acceptable) way of entitlement to question and enquire rather than perpetuating this entitlement to belief we’ll find increased selection pressure on the more preposterous beliefs, views and onions in the world, and the potential liberation of those who adhere to them, and by extension, the human race.

 

* Photo courtesy of teenmentalhealth.org

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