When is one entitled to an opinion?

Two commonly voiced claims:

  1. One is always entitled to an opinion.  Furthermore, it’s good to have an opinion on everything; it’s a way of expressing yourself, being engaged, etc.
  2. One is not entitled to an opinion unless one knows all the evidence, has mastered all the arguments, and is compelled by reason to come down on one side or another.

The first opinion is silly; the second is impractical.  It would condemn me to have no opinions except in the narrow range of my specialty.  On the other hand, the second view touches a valid point; surely there ought to be some prerequisites to taking a position on an issue.

I would say that opinions come in different weights, each with a different cost.  On the one hand, there are impressions, the less expensive but not free opinions.  A man may express an opinion at a party that life in the universe is common, that Christianity brought down the Roman Empire, that we should go back to the gold standard, or whatever.  I would expect such a man to be able to give me some reason why he holds this belief.  I would also expect him to be able to give me a reasonable account of the alternative views on the subject–what they are and why one might hold them.  If he couldn’t do that, I would consider that he had just made an ass of himself by mouthing off on a topic about which he obviously knows nothing.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t think less of him if he were unfamiliar with the specialized literature on the subject, or even if there were some major arguments on the subject with which he was unfamiliar.  Life is short; nobody has time to be an expert on everything.  If our man at the party can give some justification for his impressions, I think he’s entitled to them.

I have different expectations for the serious advocate–the man who writes books, gives lectures, or publicly debates on a certain topic.  I think it’s fair to expect such a man to know his stuff–all the major arguments both on his own side and on the others, the technicalities of his subject, its history, and so forth.  I think we’re entitled to expect advocates to have done their homework, and they should be embarrassed if it comes out that they haven’t.

This explains my respect for atheists and my contempt for today’s atheist polemicists.  I don’t think poorly of the average atheist who thinks religion is stupid but has no understanding (or gross misunderstandings) of the basic ideas of natural theology (divine simplicity, necessary vs. contingent being, eternity vs. perpetuity) or religious anthropology.  Life is short.  The atheist has done some little investigation that has led him to think that religion is nonsense and that further investigation would be a waste of time.  All of us do little calculations like that all the time.  I certainly haven’t epistemically earned my low opinions of alternative medicine, New Age religion, creationism, and Leo Strauss.  These things might have really top-notch arguments in their favor that I just haven’t bothered to find, because I’ve been assuming that they’re not there to find.  When somebody else puts my beliefs in that same box, I can only think “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”  The professional atheist, on the other hand, should do better.  I share Ed Feser’s exasperation that an atheist can think himself qualified to write books against religion without bothering to really understand the most central arguments in favor of the thing he’s attacking.  I don’t think my atheist readers should feel obliged to go out and take a course in Thomist metaphysics–unless they’re planning on writing a book about how stupid Catholic theology is.  Then I might think it reasonable to expect them to know what they’re talking about.

Here’s another of my opinions about opinions, one that might be less welcome to some of my readers.  It is said that the argument from authority is the weakest of arguments, but I say that the strength of this argument grows with one’s own ignorance.  If you don’t know anything about a subject, you’d better trust the experts.  “Because the experts say so” is a pretty strong reason, if the subject in question is one where there is real expertise (e.g. the hard sciences).  I hold people who doubt evolution, the big bang, or global warming to higher epistemic standards than I do people who accept the consensus opinion.  If you’re going to disagree with all the experts in a field, you’d better know your stuff, or you’re going to make a fool of yourself, and I don’t want to be standing next to you when it happens.

3 Responses

  1. In his Grammar of Assent , Bl John Henry Newman has one of the best discussions of opinion I know,.

    “Opinion denotes an assent, but an assent to a proposition, not as true, but as probably true, that is, to the probability of that which the proposition enunciates; and, as that probability may vary in strength without limit, so may the cogency and moment of the opinion.”


    “It is in this sense that Catholics speak of theological opinion, in contrast with faith in dogma. It is much more than an inferential act, but it is distinct from an act of certitude.”

    Thus, opinion is a notional assent, for the predicate of the proposition, on which it is exercised, is the abstract word “probable.” Opinion thus includes doubt, as where we think a proposition probably false.

    Of course, being an assent, it differs from inference, by being independent of premises, for inference is, by its nature conditional and uncertain. As Newman puts it, “To say that ‘we shall have a fine hay-harvest, if the present weather lasts,’ does not come of the same state of mind as, ‘I am of opinion that we shall have a fine hay-harvest this year.’ ”

    Very different this, to credence, where we assent to a proposition, positive or negative, as certainly true; a distinction insufficiently observed.

  2. Ah, yes, another book that I really do mean to get around to reading someday. It’s remarkable how you always have the right excerpt for any occasion.

  3. […] a previous post on the topic “When is one entitled to an opinion?“, I said I would say that opinions come in different weights, each with a different cost.  […]

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