The180·The 180

Actually, you're not entitled to your opinion

"I'm entitled to my opinion" is a phrase you often hear about a favourite Christmas movie, the best pizza place in the city, whether climate change is real, or if vaccines are safe. But philosopher Patrick Stokes says opinion is NOT an entitlement.

Everybody is entitled to the opinion they can argue for.

And the key word here, is argue.

In an age when social media is anyone's soapbox, Australian philosopher Patrick Stokes says if you want to sound off on a topic, make sure you have done your homework.

The 180 spoke to Patrick Stokes. Below is a lightly edited and condensed version of his conversation with Jim Brown. 

What's wrong with having an opinion? 

There is nothing wrong with having an opinion. In fact, there are some things I think we all have to have opinions on as ethical agents and human citizens. The problem is having an opinion and thinking that's the end of it, that you don't have to justify it, or argue for it, or be open to the possibility of revising it. There are some kinds of opinions where there is no possibility of argument. If I think that chocolate is better than vanilla, that's not an opinion that I can be called upon to justify. It's just a brute fact. But if we are talking about climate change or vaccinations, it's not a simple matter of brute belief. Those are topics where evidence needs to come into play and  you need to be open to revisability.

Are there any kinds of opinions that we are entitled to have?

If you have put in the work to have them. Have you actually formed the view on the basis of evidence? Have you considered counter arguments? To have an opinion on certain topics, you need to be deeply immersed in it, such as having done  on the level of having done former education. If you want to say that this party is better than that party in politics, that's fine, you can form that on the basis of information that is available to any citizen. If you want to deny that climate change is happening, then really you need to be a part of the knowledge generation that does that. In other words if you are going to make that case- go and have it published in a scientific journal, have it peer-reviewed. Rather than just saying I have formed this view based on, what seems to me, as an amateur, to be a credible source of information.

It seems logical that opinions are more acceptable in fields that allow for subjectivity, than in fields of debate built on objective truths. So why do you think we confuse the two?

My sense is that a lot of it comes down to authority. When you look at a lot of these discussions where facts are contested, scientific facts for instance - and there is room for disagreement about scientific facts within the relevant scientific community for sure - look at those discussions and I think a lot of it comes down to a kind of background resentment that somebody else gets to determine what is true or false. People want to be able to determine for themselves what is actually true and not true. And the problem with that is there is a huge range of things where we just can't determine that for ourselves- we are forced to trust other people. I have never been to Iceland, but I know it exists. I know it exists because I have read it in books and seen it on TV and I have friends who have been there. I am radically dependent on other people for that amount of knowledge. In the same way that I am radically dependent on other people everytime I get on an airplane- I just assume they know how to get the thing to fly. We are hugely dependent on other ppl's knowledge all the time and some ppl resent that, they don't like that they have to defer to the knowledge of other ppl, or trust in that way.

As a philosopher, how do you interpret this apparent post-truth world we're living in? 

It's really disturbing and I don't know what comes on the other side of it. It's hard to see how that is going to play out. I look at it with a certain kind of despair, which sounds defeatist, but there it is.

So you don't see any kind of change? That we might start embracing the truth again?
Look, I may well. The question is what has to happen for that to happen? Does the whole Arctic Circle have to melt before we say oh look the scientists were right? There are questions around whether there is some kind of overt evidence that could change that. Part of the problem is that we are talking about the kinds of things where it is hard for people to determine whether the claims were right or wrong after the fact...What it comes down to is that for these kinds of discussions to work, you need to have agreement on what counts as evidence and what counts as success and failure and increasingly we don't even have that. We don't have standards about what counts as acceptable evidence in these conversations.

Any wisdom you can leave us with? 

Keep your head down and hibernate if you can. It's ok to be legitimately terrified sometime.



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