I Do Not Have a Right to My Own Opinion, and Neither Do You

The act of choosing a viewpoint based simply on preference is a contradiction of our duty to pursue the truth.

Circle of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), “Ecce Homo”
Circle of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), “Ecce Homo” (photo: dorofotograf2 / Public Domain)

When, in the course of a conversation or argument, the parties reach a disagreement, one way of bringing it all to a screeching halt is to call forth the inimitable defense: “I have a right to my own opinion.” These words effectively mean that there is no use in carrying on. They communicate an unwillingness to change the opinion in question, whether good reason is demonstrated against it or not, and the speaker implicitly admits that he will no longer try to convince the other. Most importantly, though, they appeal to a right. Whether this is a civil right, a fundamental right, or a right grounded in some other system of being or behavior is not specified, but the right has been invoked and the conversation is at an end. 

Since the invocation of the right to opinion is often the last grasp of a frustrated verbal combatant, it would not be advisable in most situations, for the sake of charity, to push the envelope further, as the expression has it. If the proper situation were somehow to arise, it is worth it to ask why: why do they have a right to their own opinion? What kind of right is it, and how do they know that they have that right?

This article will take advantage of the fact that this is not such a conversation, and no one has spoken the words to end all words, so that we can explore, in the abstract, those questions about the so-called right to an opinion.

First of all, what is an opinion? It is simply an idea that someone thinks is true without hard evidence or proof. If someone can give a good argument for an idea, then he can be said to know that idea. If someone thinks, but doesn’t really know, then he has an opinion.

Let us be clear that an opinion is not a statement that is neither true nor false. It is not a statement about preference. In the end, every statement is either true or false, either matches with reality or not. An opinion is also not a feeling or an emotion. It is a thing of the mind. An opinion is only a statement that someone thinks but does not know to be true.

Next to be considered is the nature of a right. Some rights are given to us by our social structures like traffic laws (right of way of pedestrians) and governments (right to a fair trial). According to the order of the structure in place, rights are processes or privileges owed to you. Since you have those rights, the organizations in power have a duty to fulfill your rights. If traffic laws and the government did not exist, then those rights would not exist and no one would have any duty to fulfill them. Those rights depend on the existence of roads and courts.

But there is another kind of right sometimes invoked: a fundamental or natural right. These rights are what are owed to an individual based on the common human essence we all share and the nature of the relationships we have according to that human essence. Justice involves giving to each his due, and fundamental rights are the things due to us based on the relationships of our human nature. If there are rights, then there are also duties: the duties are what we owe to others based on human nature to fulfill our right relationships.

For example, humans have minds, and it is the mind, our rational nature, that defines us as human beings. As Aristotle famously said, “Man by nature desires to know.” So, we all have a fundamental right to an education, and parents have the fundamental duty to educate their children, not because of any governmental dictum but because of the very nature of what it means to be a human.

Since it is the nature of the mind to know and seek truth, we also have a duty: to seek truth, a duty we owe ourselves. Therefore, we do not have the right to form whatever opinion we want. As a matter of fact, the act of choosing a viewpoint or opinion based simply on preference is a contradiction of our duty to pursue the truth, especially about the most important matters in life, i.e. the Big Questions. Indeed, we have a duty to form an opinion on important and relevant matters, but no one has a right to merely hold an opinion. Over time, we have the duty of informing our opinions so that we can turn them into knowledge based on our investigation of reality.

Again, how you wield your knowledge that we do not have a right to our own opinion, simply stated, is up to you and should be informed by prudence and charity. The most important thing for us, in light of this knowledge, is to take seriously our own pursuit of truth.

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