Thursday, November 06, 2003

Opinions Aren't Always Just Opinions

Everyone has opinions, but we alone own ours. To a certain extent they define who we are, and while not all of our opinions are dear to us -- so far I haven't fought anyone to the death over my view that green is a nice colour -- some of them obviously are.

Not only do we hold certain opinions strongly, but we strongly believe in their sanctity. When I express my opinion it's not the same as me expressing a fact about the world, I'm just saying what I feel. How could anyone dispute my opinion - it is just my opinion!

Nobody would argue with that, except that right now I want to suggest that things aren't always so simple and it's not always completely true that opinions are beyond criticism.

One reason is that what gets passed off as 'opinion' is quite often not really an opinion. The ostensible meaning of 'opinion' is 'simply what I feel'. I'll call this 'pure' version of opinion. In the pure version, you've got things like "I like it, because it has qualities that are, purely in my subjective opinion, good". In the common version of opinion you're saying: "I like it because it's good". Often statements of opinion are veiled claims of fact.

But that still leaves the 'pure' version of opinion intact. What about some teenager who's really into one style of music, and who honestly doesn't like the sound of any other kind of music? This might be their honest and sincere opinion. They just don't like the sound of other kinds of music.

Is there anyway someone could be critical of this opinion? I want to suggest that there might be, though this will depend on certain details of that situation being the case. But before I explain, I just want to make clear that being critical doesn't necessarily mean being nasty or attacking someone.

OK, imagine if the person has never really tried listening to any other kind of music other than their favourite, and thus haven't had a chance to get used to another kind of music in its own terms? Perhaps their opinion is based more on lack of exposure than anything else? I think this is a reasonable way to be critical of an opinion - to be critical of its foundations.

There's a prevalent, though unstated, belief which is probably going to sound a bit strange when I say it: that opinions don't come from anywhere; they just are. Under this view, criticising an opinion is a bit like criticising the colour blue. You can't do it, because it's type of thing, like a colour, which the notion of criticism can't apply to.

But that view doesn't stand up to close examination. There's always something behind an opinion, some reason you feel that way. The reason doesn't have be a consciously chosen one, nor does it have to be significant, but this doesn't change the fact that it exists. I didn't choose to like the colour green, but no doubt my like of it arises from the structure of my brain or its chemistry, or perhaps it has to do with associations I made with the colour when I was younger.

And if we trace things back, we might discover things that we might not consider so reasonable. Should we consider that person's opinion to be just as reasonable as a well-informed one, with it being the result of not being informed? Or a more in-your-face case: should we consider someone's racist opinions expressing dislike for certain skin colours just as reasonable as anybody else's opinions on the matter?

There's another reason why opinions are more than "just opinions". They have a real impact on the world. Obviously, if someone holds an opinion, then this can effect their actions. If I like green then I might be inclined to buy a green t-shirt. While it is self-evidently true that opinions have consequences, people often talk about them as if they don't.

In Australia you'd have a hard time arguing that the average person's high-level of devotion to sport is a bad thing. You'd be told that it's just their opinion, that they're free to like what they want. That assumes that there are no consequences of them holding that opinion.

Consider this, then: we all have a limited amount of time, and time spent on one thing means less time for other things. Devotion to one thing can lead to underexposure to other things, things like making yourself informed about the way the world works, and the way things are at the moment -- remembering here that an intelligent, informed populous is important for successful democracy.

Or think about how the exultation of sporting heroes comes at the expense of exposure to other, perhaps more worthy, types of people. Anyway, I don't want to get bogged down in the details of arguing this point, but I hope I've gotten the basic point across - that opinions have an impact, for better or worse, on the world outside our heads.

At this point I'm going to try summarising things. There are three main points. First, though we tend to consider opinions to be opinions in the pure sense ("I like this movie"), most opinions are really expressions of what we think is really the case ("I think this movie is good"), that is, claims of fact. Second, I believe we can criticise the foundation of an opinion, even a pure opinion, and that by doing so, we may be able to say that it is less, or more, reasonable than other people's opinions on the topic. And finally, while it is often presumed that people are free to have opinions because that's just their own personal thing, free from any connection with the outer world, opinions can and do have an impact on the world and others.

So there you have it, my take on why opinions aren't always "just opinions". I can easily imagine some people reading this post and -- boom boom -- saying "yeah, but that's just your opinion". I just thought I'd get in first :-).

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