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You’re entitled to your opinion … sort of

You’re entitled to your opinion … sort of

Eight years after publishing his article “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion” on The Conversation, ADI member and Associate Professor of Philosophy, Professor Patrick Stokes, revisited this question with Anna Vidot on ABC Radio Canberra.

In The Conversation piece, Professor Stokes wrote that he raised the question of a “right to one’s opinion” with his philosophy students every year, because “philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible.” Today, it is clear that many of our politicians and commentators have never seen the inside of a philosophy classroom and the question of whether we are entitled to our opinion is more pertinent than ever before.

Telling Anna Vidot about the origins of the article amid a strong anti-vaccination movement, Professor Stokes said, “It almost feels a bit quaint now. At the time, I thought ‘Oh there’s these people denying expertise – what a horrible thing. Surely that will be a short-lived problem and we’ll all move on from that’… if anything things got drastically worse!”

Professor Stokes told ABC Canberra that in matters of taste or personal preference, of course, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and indeed as informed citizens, we should all have opinions. The problem, Stokes says, is that in some realms, expertise or training is necessary for an opinion to have any weight. Professor Stokes said in opinion-formation, it is important to gather knowledge from appropriate places. In medicine and science, for example, one cannot just have an opinion without an evidence base. But in a culture that tells us that everyone’s opinion matters, some mistake this idea as meaning that everyone’s opinion matters all the time, even if it is uninformed or misinformed.

During the Age of Enlightenment, Professor Stokes explained, philosophers such as Immanuel Kant encouraged critical thinking and questioning of what we are told. But an important part of thinking for oneself is having intellectual humility – knowing when we don’t have enough knowledge on a topic.

When asked if the idea of “my opinion matters” is a modern concept, Professor Stokes said, “I suspect this is a relatively modern thing. I couldn’t tell you when it starts but I do think the ‘attention economy’ and the way our media is set up, very often is geared towards the idea that everyone’s opinion really, really matters. Because we like being told that what we think matters.  And it does matter and it’s good to interrogate your beliefs…but it’s very easy to get flattered into thinking ‘I can work it all out for myself’.”

Contrary to romantic ideas of new knowledge being formed by “individuals who are striking out against mediocrity of conformity and opinion and creating great truths,” Professor Stokes says most knowledge is created “by communities of inquiry…it’s done by teams, it’s done by groups of people and it’s done in conversation.”

Although Professor Stokes concedes that there can be a problem when forming opinions on something where the facts are contested, he says often facts may appear to be contested, but it’s usually more to do with the echo chamber most of us are stuck in, choosing media outlets and other sources of information that reinforce our ideas.

Professor Stokes also made the case that there is a moral obligation to get opinions “right”. If an opinion is ungrounded people can get hurt. For example, an uninformed opinion may lead to an accusation being made against an innocent, or, in the case of misinformed climate change opinions, denial will lead to untold devastation for people, animals and the planet.  “Making sure that your opinion is properly grounded does have a moral dimension to it.”

But in this age of post-truth, perhaps the most worrying opinions are those of people “who don’t actually care about being right, they just care about being believed or winning an argument, [they] don’t care about the rules of the game.”

Listen here to the Patrick Stokes’ appearance on ABC Radio.

Patrick Stokes is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Deakin University and a member of the Alfred Deakin Institute.


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