Tuesday, September 07, 2004

On the Right to Have Opinions

I don’t have the right to do anything I like – why then do I have the right to believe anything I like? Must not the ‘ethics of action’ be complemented by an ‘ethics of belief’? My right to have an opinion is limited by my obligation to form correct opinions. This assumes a sort of limited doxastic voluntarism according to which some beliefs are voluntarily formed and held. For only with respect to such beliefs does it make sense to speak of rights and obligations. Limited doxastic voluntarism strikes me as true.

We ought to distinguish between respecting a person’s right to have opinions, and respecting a person’s right to have a particular opinion. Surely, there are some opinions that no one has any right to hold, e.g., self-contradictory beliefs and ‘flat-earth’ beliefs. ‘Opinion’ is ambiguous as between the opining and the opined. The having of an opinion -- the opining -- cannot be divorced from its content, the opined. Necessarily, every opining is an opining about something. The nature of the content cannot be without influence on the rightness or wrongness of the opining. Analogously, the content of what is said on a given occasion cannot be without influence on the rightness or wrongness of saying it. The right to free speech does not give one the right to say just anything.

The right to hold opinions and to express them is an equal right: we all have this right. It does not follow, however, that each person’s opinion on a given topic is equal in value to every other person’s opinion on that topic. To be an egalitarian about the right to hold opinions is not to be an egalitarian about the opinions held. I take it that one ought to be an egalitarian in the first sense, but I would insist that one must not be an egalitarian in the second sense.

It is also important to realize that the right to express an opinion does not entail any right to the means of expressing it. I have the right to express my views on this weblog, but no right to be provided with a computer or an internet connection. If I had a right to the latter, someone would have the obligation to provide it for me, but who would that be?

Bill O’Reilly will often say ‘I respect your opinion’ to a guest whose opinions he is obviously contemptuous of. What he should say instead is, ‘I respect your right to have opinions, but I don’t respect the particular opinions you have just expressed.’