The Right to Your Own Opinion

A very, very long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, during my undergraduate years, I had a professor who asked the class if we agreed that everyone has the right to their own opinion. We had a conversation and by the end he offered an alternate idea. No one, he said, has the right to one’s own opinion, but everyone has the right to seek the truth in her or his own way.

I suppose I better say right away that I think the statement, “you have the right to your opinion” is a true statement. You have that right. I have that right. But I do believe that my professor from yonder years was onto something. Hear (read) me out.

Consider the following ramblings.

If you hold an opinion about something, I assume that you believe your opinion to be the truth. An opinion, even if it misses the target, is aimed at truth. No one of sound mind holds an opinion one believes to be false. Such is contrary to the point of an opinion.

If you hold an opinion with which I disagree, that means I hold the opposite or something else to be true. A conversation might then ensue between us wherein I seek to persuade you of the truth of my opinion and the falsity of yours and vice versa. It could be that one of us is successful in persuading the other. In the interest of truth, the one who is persuaded changes her or his opinion because it is believed there is sufficient reason to do so.

 At least it would be nice if things went that way. I think our aim all too often is not to pursue the truth with one another, but to win the argument.

The point is that one cannot separate “opinion” from the desire and search for truth. There is no point to opinions without reference to truth. When my professor said, “Everyone has the right to seek for the truth in their own way,” he spoke with insight. I might rephrase his words in this way: “Everyone has the right to one’s own opinion and, therefore, the responsibility to seek the truth.”

In Book VI of Plato’s Republic, Glaucon was attempting to get Socrates to state his opinion on a matter of which Socrates said he did not have adequate knowledge. Glaucon pressed him and Socrates said, “Do you think it is right to talk about things one does not know as if one does know them?” Glaucon replied that even if one does not have knowledge, one should still be willing to state an opinion, nonetheless. To this Socrates exclaimed:

“What? Have you observed that opinions divorced from knowledge are ugly things?”

Here we get to the heart of the matter. Whether it is the right to an opinion or any right, we focus on our individual right while conveniently leaving out the corresponding responsibilities that accompany all rights.

Seriously. When was the last time you heard someone proclaiming, “It’s my right!!” who went on to speak of the duties the right carries with it and their commitment to fulfill those duties?

Yeah, me neither.

If our own times serve as any indication, Socrates was correct. Opinions divorced from knowledge are indeed ugly things.

Wisdom and Prudence

To Socrates, I add that opinions divorced from wisdom and prudential judgment are ugly as well. I may have the right to express my opinion, but I must ask myself whether it is wise to do so in any given circumstance. I ought to use good practical judgment whether now is the right time or the right place to exercise my right, or to the right people. In other words, it is good to exercise my right with virtue.

“It is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle…anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give and spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.” 

—Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter 9.

I’m with Aristotle on this. Anyone can have an opinion. But to have it with goodness is laudable and noble. Otherwise, it is as Socrates said—ugly.

“You have the right to your own opinion” is shorthand for you have the right to think for yourself; you have the right to struggle through a question or issue and form your viewpoint; you have the right not to be forced to think as someone else does. “You have the right to your own opinion” does not mean you should spout off whatever you want, wherever you want, to anyone you want without regard to truth (which is why you want to spend reasonable time seeking knowledge about something before opining a viewpoint about it).

The right to your own opinion also entails the responsibility to exercise it prudently and with a view toward the common good. The idea of rights, your individual rights, presupposes the exercise of said rights within a community. If there was only you, you could do what you wanted and there would be no cause to think about rights, right?

The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States says, for example, that citizens have the right to bear arms. Does that mean you can just carry around a gun with no training into a crowd of people and start shooting whoever you like? No, you must exercise your right responsibly and you cannot just injure or kill who you want to. Understand, there is no right that does not carry the weight of responsibility. And reason would dictate that the right to bear arms should be regulated. To what extent is another discussion, but given the harm guns can cause, it is only reasonable to regulate their use.

Now, it is not the case that the right to your own opinion should be regulated by law in the same way that guns should be. No doubt things such as hate speech or using an opinion to incite violence and harm are matters for regulation. Regardless, the principle that rights carry responsibilities still applies no matter to what extent those responsibilities should be regulated by law.

Understood in the light of what I have written here, I think my professor from days gone by was on track. Do you have the right to your own opinion? Sure, you do. Just don’t be foolish about it.

That is my opinion on the matter.

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