Critical Thinking Clarifications Continued: Opinion vs. Opinion
In contemporary popular culture the art of argument and critical thinking seems to have become a sometimes forgotten art, if not a lost art. Moreover, lack of proficiency in this art seems due in part to a blurring of (at least) four important conceptual distinctions.
In a previous installment of Apologia we disentangled two of these blurred distinctions: judge vs. judge (damn vs. cognitive discernment), and argument vs. argument (quarrel vs. premises supporting a conclusion). This week we will disentangle a third blurred distinction: opinion vs. opinion.
The following claim often signals the end of what may have begun as an interesting conversation about an important topic: “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.” The idea is that all opinions are equal, and so we can’t go any further intellectually. In other words: please shut up.
Legally and politically, the claim that everyone is entitled to their opinion is true (at least in most Western countries). Logically and evidentially, however, the claim often is not true.
In other words, yes, we do have the right to hold any opinion, but that doesn’t automatically make the opinion right. I have the right to believe that the moon is made of cheese, but that doesn’t mean the moon is made of cheese. Members of the Heaven’s Gate religious cult have the right to believe that killing themselves will get them onto a spaceship behind a comet, but that doesn’t make this religious claim reasonable to believe.
Also, yes, we do have the right to hold any opinion, but that doesn’t automatically make the opinion wrong either. It could be that an opinion corresponds with the facts. In my opinion, the moon is made of some sort of rock. In my opinion, there’s no good evidence for thinking that suicide is a ticket to ride on a spaceship.
To avoid being bamboozled by everyone-is-entitled-to-their-opinion, careful thinkers should make a distinction between (a) mere opinion and (b) opinion as reasonable belief. Careful thinkers should also understand that these sorts of opinion are on opposite ends of a continuum.
On the mere opinion end of the continuum, an opinion is basically a guess or an ungrounded intellectual stab at getting something right. For example, in my (mere) opinion, when my car engine sputters it’s because of some moisture in the gas line. I confess: I am not mechanically inclined, so I’m guessing—and I’m probably mistaken. The sputtering is probably due to dirty spark plugs, or a plugged air filter, or a malfunctioning carburetor, or…. You get the picture. (And, yes, unscrupulous mechanics usually smile with dollar signs in their eyes when they see me walk into their garage.)
On the other end of the continuum, we have opinion as reasonable belief. Such an opinion is well supported by good arguments and evidence and so we are justified in our confidence in thinking the opinion is probably true. Such opinion verges on knowledge or perhaps even is knowledge.
For example, my son’s opinion that his BMW has more horsepower than Ma and Pa’s ancient Mazda is an opinion that’s supported not just by the wonderful (but all too short) drive I was allowed to have in the BMW, but also by various reports from automotive experts. My son’s opinion is not a mere opinion; it’s a reasonable belief.
Another example: Let’s say that you have five doctors’ opinions which say you have cancer. Surely, it would be reasonable to think that you do have cancer! (Hopefully you don’t have cancer, but you get the point.)
In between the two ends of the opinion continuum—i.e., between mere opinion and opinion as reasonable belief—we have opinions that are either weakly or strongly supported, depending on the quality of the evidence and arguments that have been mustered.
So, what should we do the next time we set out a claim backed up with some good reasons and then someone dismisses our view saying, “Well, that’s just your opinion” or “Everyone has a right to their opinion”? We can respond (politely), “Yes, this is my opinion, but it’s not a mere opinion; it’s a reasonable opinion. I’ve got some good reasons for it. So which of these reasons do you think are problematic, and what are your reasons for thinking this?”
Happily, having dispensed with the mind-numbing everyone-is-entitled-to-their-opinion mantra, we could now have a conversation that actually respects the mind of the person with whom we’re talking.
Next week: tolerance vs. tolerance.
(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)