Critical Thinking Note 22: You have a right to your opinion

Of course, you have a right to your opinion. It’s not clear what it might mean to assert this as a right, since no one could possibly force a person to give up an opinion they are attached to. But when people feel the need to claim they have a right to their opinion, they are often asserting that it is perfectly OK for them to believe whatever they like. Rights don’t work like this. Rights generally come with responsibilities. If you have a valid drivers licence, you have a legal right to drive a car. But if you do so recklessly, you will be responsible for the consequences and you will likely be held accountable. Similarly, a homeowner has property rights. But it doesn’t follow that he can do whatever he likes with his property. If he lets his deck rot, he will be responsible when the wood gives way and someone gets hurt. The responsibility here is attached to the rights.

Our beliefs and opinions have consequences. They lead us to act and speak in various ways that have effects on others. We can’t avoid responsibility for the consequences of our opinions merely by asserting a right to our opinion. We can be morally responsible for irresponsibly formed and held belief or opinion just as much as we can be morally responsible for the consequences of irresponsible driving.

The degree to which we are morally responsible for the consequences of our beliefs or actions is generally taken to hinge on the degree of control we have over them. When we hold people accountable for bad actions, we generally do so on the presupposition that the action was in some way up to them. We typically can’t simply choose to believe one thing rather than another. But then we can voluntarily do things that will result in changing or not changing our beliefs. Willful ignorance works like this. When people are attached to a certain opinion, say climate change denial, they will often take care not to expose themselves to information that might challenge their view.

Being willfully unreasonable allows people to do bad things without the burden of a bad conscience. The Jewish-German philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the expression “the banality of evil” to capture this very idea. Arendt covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat responsible for the logistics of Nazi death camps, and was struck by how earnestly Eichmann asserted his innocence on the grounds that he believed in the Nazi cause and was simply following orders in service to that cause. The system of belief that rationalized his actions is just what made it possible for him to do terrible things, still feel good about himself, and sleep well. This is the banal, ordinary face of evil. It is rare for a person to knowingly do bad things on the basis of bad intentions. It is commonplace for people to do bad things under the veil of unreasonable but self-reassuring systems of belief.

According to 19th century philosopher William Clifford, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.” Clifford is probably over reaching here. Slightly irrational optimism, for instance, seems not only permissible, but sometimes helpful and inspiring. The coach who believes his players have a somewhat better chance of winning than he has reason to may thereby helpfully increase his players odds. But a strong case can be made for the more modest thesis that it is often wrong to ignore good evidence and reasoning in an effort to cling to a dubious opinion.

Many of us who lead high carbon lifestyles have put ourselves in this kind of morally dubious position. The banality of our evil makes it hard for us to recognize the bad things we are doing. We construct elaborate systems of belief to rationalize the excusable. But some have clearer vision. The young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has gained a global audience for her blunt moral clarity concerning our complacency in the face of the climate crisis. Today, September 20, 2012, children and young people around the world are holding adults to account for their complacency or denial about the climate crisis. Here’s to hoping these young people put some rips in the the self-protective veils of belief so many adults have adopted to rationalize inaction. Do these adults have a right to their opinions? Of course they do. And this is exactly what makes them responsible for the consequences of those opinions.