“Opinions are like assholes, everyone’s got one.” It’s the first thing to come up whenever I mention opinion, and often used to dismiss people’s views on things. It closes off all opportunity for discussion by undercutting any kind of arguments a person would make. What’s implied is “That’s your opinion, and your opinion doesn’t count for much.” I’ll be honest, opinion is practically a four letter word for me now. I’m very careful about how I use it, partly because I don’t want to dismiss people like that, even if they’re making a bad argument. Scratch that. Especially if they’re making a bad argument, because the only way to turn those into good arguments is to work together to make them that way. But what makes it a bad idea to do that? We’re all entitled to our opinions, after all. I want to spend a few weeks on this, because I think it’s important. Your opinion matters, but so do other considerations. But why?

First, what’s an opinion? We know that it’s an expression of belief, or a claim. All claims are opinions, and all opinions are claims about something. But let’s take a closer look about some different ways of expressing opinions about a fact.

  1. “Gravity is one of the four fundamental forces.”
  2. “I believe gravity is one of the four fundamental forces.”
  3. “In my opinion, gravity is one of the four fundamental forces.”
These are all equivalent, and they each make two identical claims, not one. They all say “I have the belief that gravity is one of the four fundamental forces” and “It is true that gravity is one of the four fundamental forces.” Each of these can be true, false, or otherwise independently. We can say we believe something when we don’t, or that something is true when we don’t believe it. That’s lying. Alternately, we can believe something that isn’t true, and be in error. When we dismiss something as “just an opinion”, it seems as though we’re acknowledging the first part but ignoring or even chastising a person about the second. Think about it in terms of a claim which seems trivially obvious, like “The sun is shining today.” If you tell me that, and I say “Well, that’s your opinion,” it seems like I’ve done your a disservice, whether the sun is shining or not.

But everyone’s got an opinion on something, right? On any issue of which they’re aware, they’re going to be able to muster some kind of opinion, and they’re entitled to that. A better way to frame this might be to say that despite the fact that we all have opinions, not all opinions are equal. We can demonstrate this pretty easily. Let’s take it to be true that all opinions are equal, or at the very least can’t be compared. Here are two opinions:

  1. “All opinions are equal.”
  2. “Not all opinions are equal.”
While it can be true that a person believes 1 and another person believes 2, it cannot be the case that both 1 and 2 are true. If they can’t both be true, then one of them must be not true, which means they’re not equal. Therefore it’s not true that all opinions are equal. We may be entitled to believe what we want (and I’m a bit dodgy about that), but that doesn’t imply that what we believe is true.

If they’re not equal, what makes one better than another? I talked about this at length back in June, so I’ll only dig into it briefly here. the short answer is justification. Despite there being two claims in an opinion, we can justify both of them with the same set of reasons. If we have good reasons to believe that a thing is true, then it seems as though we have good reasons to assert that a thing is true. We can compare those reasons, and that’s how we can compare opinions. My opinions on climate change aren’t as good as those of a climatologist, because they’re going to have better reasons to believe what they do about climate change than I do. This doesn’t make my opinions meaningless, but it does mean that, given the choice of listening to me or a climatologist when we’re talking about climate change, you’re better off with them. If you want to know about Descartes or D&D;, you might be better off with me.

So today I’ve broken down how opinions work, and given the reasons why I think that’s the case. In the next few weeks I want to talk about how we think about our opinions, and how they operate in different realms. This is all my opinion of course, but by now you know that also means that I think I have good reasons to think that it’s true. What do you think?

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