ethics of opinion

I think there is a class of beliefs that are not only not well justified, but which the believer is aware are not well justified. The beliefs I have in mind are called opinions, although I don’t mean to say that all opinions are in the class of beliefs I’m talking about. My conjecture is that we say things like “That’s just my opinion” to call attention to the fact that a belief of ours is in this category. We do not want to be held socially responsible for it. To say it’s just an opinion is to alert the hearer not to take it as a piece of information and not to expect me to justify it the way I would other beliefs. That gets me off the hook up to a point, but only up to a point.

My question is this. Why isn’t it wrong to have opinions? I assume one shouldn’t have unjustified beliefs, certainly not beliefs whose lack of justification is something about which I myself am aware. So why should I have any opinions at all? We do routinely say that people have a right to their opinions, but that might mean they have a political right– a right to non-interference. It doesn’t follow from that that they are RIGHT to have these opinions.

Are we morally or epistemically wrong to have opinions of the kind I describe?


ethics of opinion — 2 Comments

  1. Linda–a couple of quick thoughts here. When people say, “that’s just my opinion,” sometimes they intend only to express politeness. Another option is that they mean to block the usual implicature that is conveyed when a person asserts something–on the usual view, to assert something is to represent oneself as knowing. One might have a viewpoint that one was unwilling to represent as knowledge. That’s compatible with it being justified, though.

    That leaves open that there are other uses of the phrase that have the character you describe. I’m not sure, though. At least, I don’t think that’s what I mean when I describe something as merely my opinion. Maybe others do, though.

  2. It doesn’t seem possible not to have opinions, if an opinion is just a proposition one believes to some degree. I am aware that I have some evidence for p, so I believe it in an appropriate degree. Given that we do often have some, but not adequate, evidence, it seems that sort of case cannot be avoided by even the most conscientious. Presumably your question is not about that sort of case.

    But perhaps the question is about passionately held opinions, which seem to be “fully believed,” but on, one is aware, inadequate evidence. There seems to be something defective there. But if one announces it with the qualification “This is my opinion” or “I think…” then it doesn’t seem wrong to say it. (And of course the qualifications are often understood, given reasonable assumptions in the context — e.g. a political blog.) If knowledge is a requirement for assertion, then one satisfies the requirement since one knows what one’s opinion is, and one hasn’t asserted that p (but only that one holds the opinion that p).

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