Saturday, April 29, 2006

A Right to One's Opinion

“Everybody has a right to their opinion.”

Right?

Wrong.

Not even close.

This is a cliché that people like to use to avoid a confrontation. One simply says, ‘everybody has a right to their opinion,’ and the disputants torn and walk away. It is falls in the same category as ‘we agree to disagree.’

Yet, clearly, there are a number of opinions that people do not have a right to have.

Consider this opinion. “I should put a bullet through your head.”

Do I have a right to that opinion?

The response I usually get to this example is, “Yes, you have a right to that opinion. You just don’t have a right to act on it.”

Well then, in my opinion, I DO have a right to act on the former opinion. Do I have a right to THIS opinion?

Clearly, I do not.

Actually, the second opinion is embedded in the first. The opinion, “I should put a bullet through your head,” is an opinion that I should perform a particular action. It is a contradiction for a person to say that he should do something that he has no right to do. This is no different than saying that he should do something that he should not do.

The principle here is that a person has no right to the opinion that one or more other people should suffer harm.

Nor do we have a right to any opinion that contributes to harming others, even if it is not an opinion that others should suffer harm. Consider the case of a rapist who says, “In my opinion, I did her a favor.” This is not an opinion that another should suffer harm. This is an opinion that one’s own actions were beneficial to another, when it was not. People do not have a right to these types of opinions either.

There are a number of areas where we recognize that a person does not have a right to an opinion. In the case of a trial, members of the jury have no right to the opinion that the accused is guilty. They are to assume that the accused is innocent, unless guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt. That is to say, the opinion that no harm may be done is free. The opinion that harm may be done has to be earned.

I would argue that this obligation to presume innocence unless guilt is proved is binding on the public as well. A person’s life can be ruined simply by accusing him of a crime, because the public thinks that they have a right to presume that any person who is accused of a crime must be guilty.

The opinion that one may blow oneself up in a crowded restaurant, fly airplanes into skyscrapers, execute cartoonists, execute somebody who converts to another religion, execute anybody for that matter, pass anti-gay legislation, take away another person’s right to decide what to do with their own body, teach children that classmates who do not share their religion are not true Americans . . . these examples follow the first rule. These are examples of opinions that a person must earn a right to have, and not have by default.

Furthermore, if religion is a sufficient foundation for any of these opinions, then it is sufficient foundation for all of them. If there is one opinion in this list that religion does not justify, then it does not justify any of them. We are either justified in permitting all harm to others justified by religious commandment, or no harms can be so justified. Religion is either ‘proof beyond a reasonable doubt’ that another be harmed, or it is not.

However, this essay concerns far more than religious disputes. It concerns all matters of political disputes where a person says, “everybody has a right to their opinion,” or “let’s just agree to disagree.”

In these cases, look for who has the opinion that others may be harmed in some way. Look for the person who is denigrating another, taking away their freedom, destroying their property, damaging their health, or killing others.

When a person advocating harm finds himself on the defensive, and he tries to block an attack by saying, ‘everybody has a right to his opinion,’

Say, “No way! No person has a right to an opinion, if it is the opinion that others may be harmed, or an opinion that one may do things that cause harm to others.”

Bring up the example of the person who has the opinion that he may shoot the speaker, or the rapist whose opinion is that he does his victim a favor. Then ask him again if he thinks that everybody has a right to his opinion.

When he says ‘no,’ tell him, as the person who is advocating harm to others, that it is now his turn to earn his right to his opinion. And, if applicable, religious commandments earn him nothing.

12 comments:

vjack said...

I don't know about this. I don't feel the need to defend my atheist credentials, but I do support freedom of thought. A Christian does have a right to his opinion that I am evil, will burn in hell, should be killed, etc. There is simply no way to control such opinions. I may disagree with them, and they are clearly not in my interest. However, I must accept that they occur. Beliefs, attitudes, and values are not the same thing as actions or behavior.

Sexy Sadie said...

I'm going to have to disagree with you on this one, Alonzo. I too support freedom of thought.

For example, one opinion that absoultely baffles me is the right-to-life/anti-choice opinion. I simply cannot fathom how any rational, intelligent person could come to this conclusion, yet I totally support their right to hold this opinion. Just as the immortal quote of indeterminate authorship goes, "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Beliefs, attitudes, and values are not the same thing as actions or behavior.

This is false.

A "belief that P" for any proposition P is a disposition to act as if P is true.

A "desire that P" for any proposition P is a disposition to bring about or preserve a state of affairs in which P is true.

It is no more possible to divorce action from beliefs and desires than it is to divorce the movement of a planet through space from the effects of gravity.

Austin Cline said...

Perhaps the disconnect between you ("people don't always have a right to any old opinion") and others ("I support freedom of thought") is that, at least in my opinion, your essay is too ambiguous.

The most problematic ambiguity is right at the beginning: what do you mean to say that someone does or does not have a "right" to an opinion? Are you talking about a *legal* right or a *moral* right (or perhaps some other right, but these two seem like the best candidates for such a discussion). Granted, a person making the assertion you are critiquing isn't being completely clear, either, but I think that a critique would tell us more if we separate out some of the like connotations which might be meant and/or received.

If you are talking about a "moral right," such that "you have no moral right to hold just any old opinion," then your argument is on stronger ground. It's not difficult to see how a person wouldn't have a moral right to believe that blasphemous cartoonists should be killed. It shouldn't be too difficult to see how the statements like “everybody has a right to their opinion,” or “let’s just agree to disagree” may be little more than excuses to avoid actually defending the opinions in question.

If you are talking about a "legal right," such that "you have no legal right to hold just any old opinion," then I think that your argument is a lot shakier. If nothing else, the absence of such a legal right would seem to commit you to the government having the legal authority to suppress certain opinions. This, I think, may lie at the heart of people objecting that "there should be freedom of thought." There are a lot of problems inherent in justifying such state authority and I think you would have your hands full justifying them. Ironically, given the level of potential harm such authority could cause, perhaps you are putting yourself in precisely the position you say others are in: expressing an opinion that you have to earn a right to have. :-)

As you note, there are cases where there are legal constraints on what sort of opinion can be held, but they are rare - and including them, I fear, encourages confusion about what sort of "right" you have in mind. Jurors have a legal obligation not to form the opinion that an accused defendant is guilty until a particular point in time. If the general public has any sort of analogous obligation, it's not a legal one - and arguing from one to the other will, again, blur a distinction which I think should be maintained.

Regardless of which position you old, and even if you hold both, the arguments for each will differ.

LBBP said...

Sorry, I also disagree with your conclusions on this. This is really no different than the ACLU supporting a neo-Nazi group's right to protest. Racial bigotry is clearly a behavior that society needs to rid itself of, yet to restrict peoples right to think what they will, even if it is terribly offensive, is clearly contrary to a free society. Society has a right, and even a duty, to try and dissuade, discourage, or otherwise deter these types of hate thought/actions, but there must be a line between thoughts and actions. To use your rapist example, if he has fantasies about rape, but for whatever reason does not act on those impulses, we can hardly justify incarceration for a desire.

More importantly, you can't really change what people think. In your jury example, they may be instructed to be impartial, they may even act impartially by handing down a verdict based only on the evidence and advice of the judge, but they still may walk out of the court saying, "In my opinion he was guilty, but the prosecution didn't have enough evidence to convict."

Anonymous said...

Not only would Nietzsche dusagree, but He'd probably kick you in the face if he were still around. ;-) Nietzsche was the only honest athiest ethicist.

decrepitoldfool said...

I reserve the right to contain contradictions and simply to draw a line in the air if I wish. Where I choose to draw that line is: you are free to think whatever you wish, but try to harm me and there will be a different story.

Micromanaging what goes on in other people's heads leads to a society where you can't think outside the box - little progress is made.

For example: suppose I believe that all drugs should be legalized. Some harm would inarguably ensue from that opinion, but without the freedom to hold it, I cannot even argue for the balance of its harm against the harm caused by the current drug enforcement model.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Austin Cline

Point taken

I used to repeatedly put near the top of my posts that this blog concerns morality, not law. I am not concerned with whether something is or is not illegal -- but with whether it right or wrong.

However, I hold that the question, "should this be illegal?" is a moral question. It is certainly not the type of question that one can answer by appeal to statute. The difference between just law and unjust law is determined by whether the law conforms to or violates moral principles.

Note: Even though morality dictates the difference between just and unjust law, not everything that is wrong should be illegal. If I said that I was going to meet an old acquaintance for lunch, and decide to blow her off so that I could go with somebody I like better, I have done something wrong. However, it would be a mistake to make that a criminal offense.

Saying that one does not have a right to a particular opinion is like saying that he does not have a right to promise to meet somebody and then break it. Saying that he has a moral right to do something means that it is morally permissible -- which it is not.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

In light of so many weighty comments, I have decided to supplement today's piece with another posting:

Freedom of Thought

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Now that I have written the longer response, I would like to focus on some smaller points.

vjack: A Christian does have a right to his opinion that I am evil, will burn in hell, should be killed, etc. There is simply no way to control such opinions. I may disagree with them, and they are clearly not in my interest. However, I must accept that they occur.

Rape, murder, and theft also occur. The fact that a particular state exists does not imply that there is no legitimacy in condemning it. Now, as long as the Christian confines himself to the belief that i will burn in hell in the afterlife, I have less reason to be concerned or to waste energy in condemnation. However, those who think that I should be killed in this life are going to get the full measure of whatever condemnation (and, to whatever degree I can muster, punishment -- the instant he starts to plan more than words) that I can muster.

sexy sadie: "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

I hope I have made clear that I am opposed to responding to words with anything other than words. Yet, it is quite appropriate that those words of response include words of moral condemnation of any too easily arrive at the conclusion that others are to be harmed -- and by more than words if the speaker chooses to do more than talk about doing harm.

ibbp: Racial bigotry is clearly a behavior that society needs to rid itself of, yet to restrict peoples right to think what they will, even if it is terribly offensive, is clearly contrary to a free society.

I defended the Nazis right to march in Toledo last year, and condemned those who responded to their march with violence. Yet, in defending their right to march, I still hold that they are morally contemptable individuals and that they deserve this condemnation because of the beliefs they have decided to embrace.

The two are not mutually exclusive. We still have moral duties and obligations even to morally contemptible individuals -- including an obligation to a proporational response to wrongdoing. In this case, it means responding to words with words (moral condemnation) and harmful actions with criminal penalties.

ibbp: More importantly, you can't really change what people think.

Yes, you can. The reason that people in a particular region tend to dress alike and like the same food and adopt relatively similar values -- the reason that Catholics tend to have children who grow up Catholic and Muslims have children who tend to grow up Muslim -- is because we can influence what people think.

A culture that condemns those who arrive at the conclusion that others may be harmed too easily -- that condemns those who do not earn that belief -- will be a culture in which fewer people too easily arrive at the conclusion that others may be harmed.

Anonymous said...

I think you guys are sort of taking this over the top. I would actually have to agree with the author, and even if you don't, I think you sort of interpret what he wrote a bit too literally...

Anonymous said...

oh my god, youŕe so thick it hurts. of course people have a right to any opinion, how can you prevent them from having an opinion? IT IS IN THEIR MIND. do you favour mind-control? how else can you prevent people from thinking bad thoughts? What kind of little Hitler are you? are you white with loads of swastikas tattooed over your body? are you going to kill a jew tonight? after all, they hold opinions. can´t be having that now, can we.