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Posted on March 21, 2019 at 11:52 AM

Written by Stephen Rainey

It is often claimed, especially in heated Twitter debates, that one or other participant is entitled to their opinion. Sometimes, if someone encounters a challenge to their picture of the world, they will retort that they are entitled to their opinion. Or, maybe in an attempt to avoid confrontation, disagreement is sometimes brushed over by stating that whatever else may be going on, everyone is entitled to their opinion. This use of the phrase is highlighted in a recent piece in The Conversation. There, Patrick Stokes writes,

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful.

I think this is right, and a problem well identified. Nevertheless, it’s not like no one, ever, is entitled to an opinion. So when are you, am I, are we, entitled to our opinion? What does it take to be entitled to an opinion?

Another way of saying that I’m entitled to my opinion might be to claim a special right to a particular point of view. The metaphorical content of this way of saying things maybe helps clarify a bit. If I have a right to a point of view, it’s because I have gained that perspective via some route. That route, in being one taken by me, appears to be cause enough to privilege the end point to which it leads. My take on things, my perspective, my point of view, is mine through the pains I’ve taken to reach it.

But the metaphor conceals as much as it reveals. Perspective isn’t something that entitles us to something. At best it’s something that explains why I take something to be as it is. For example, if we sit opposite one another at a table I may say ‘the bottle is to the left of the glass’. You may say, ‘the bottle is to the right of the glass’. We understand enough about the world at large to know what’s happening here, so we don’t need to disagree. We can each say, ‘From where you’re sitting…’ and flip our appraisal of things, left to right and vice versa.

But if we don’t want to be too penned in by the perspective metaphor, might experience in a larger sense entitle us to our opinions? Lived experience might be said to entitle someone to their opinion in the sense that having lived that very life the opinion they have formed is as a result. It seems a more usual use of entitlement like this: ‘My life experience, the life I’ve led, entitles me to my opinion.’ But we still need to ask whatentitles the person to their opinion here. Not the life lived, which could serve as a basis for any number of opinions, but rather the experiences that teach (rightly or wrongly) to understand x as y, or to value z.

The teachings of experience, in the sense used here, are such that they stand as reasons for holding something true or false, or to evaluate things in particular ways. The entitlement to the opinion is a shorthand way of saying something like, ‘as far as I know, in my experience, x tends to be y, and z is usually worthwhile.’

If being entitled to an opinion is really more like saying I have reasons for holding an opinion, this has implications for the kinds of ways entitlement to opinion arises. As a shorthand, entitlement to opinions ought to mean ‘I have reasons for my opinion.’ But surely we don’t think of entitlement as covering reasons. I am not entitled to reasons.

I am not entitled to reasons (and neither are you) because these are things that come about through specific efforts. Reasons aren’t given as part of the fabric of the universe. For instance, (with apologies to Donald Davidson), let’s imagine a burglar is startled mid-theft by a light switching on. I have no idea I am being burgled, but have woken with a thirst and visit the kitchen to get a glass of water. I turn on the light to find a glass. The burglar, sensing he’s been rumbled, flees and leaves my things unmolested. What is the reason for the burglar fleeing? His being startled? The light coming on? My thirst? The burglar’s lack of commitment to the job?

We don’t have to decide on what’s the best explanation here. We just need to see that however we want to explain things, a story must be told that comes from the various reasons we think of as most relevant to the situation. The better the reasons are put together, the better they resist scrutiny perhaps, the more the story they tell entitles me to my opinion on what happened with the burglar. I am entitled to the opinion by way of the reasons I can muster about it.

If I claim the reason for the burglar being startled is my thirst – that’s what got me up after all – then I am committed to just that. If I later recount the story with reference to my heroism in startling the burglar, something’s gone awry. There’s no glory in thirst. I’m not entitled to the tale of heroism because I’m committed to the story of thirst. Entitlement, rather than a kind of license to say whatever I want or to dissolve disagreement, seems more like a justificatory constraint on accounting for my rational commitments. I’ve claimed my need for water caused the burglar to be startled, by way of that prompting my rising and turning on the light. Not being entitled to speak of heroism is a way of articulating my commitment to the bland story of thirst.

Where you discover that you don’t have the entitlements you think you do, you really ought to revisit your rational commitments with a critical eye. This is why I agree with Stokes’ concern over I’m entitled to my opinion being used to shelter beliefs that ought to be abandoned. You gain entitlement through rational labour. It’s not yours to begin with. If you are entitled to your opinion in some matter, it ought to be because you’re consistently committed to a rational story about that matter. Where you can’t produce the story, or if you produce a rationally iffy one, you may not be entitled to the opinion after all. I can’t be a burglar-vanquishing hero through being parched. Someone else might be entitled to their opinion, in the case I claim so to be, that I ought to adjust my view. Put this way, it seems clearly possible that in some matter an interlocutor can assert you aren’t entitled to your opinion, and they can be right about that.

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