That’s Your Opinion!

We are fond of saying “everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion.” In a sense that’s true. But in another sense it is absurd. As George Berkeley once said, all opinions should be tolerated for what they are worth. Why would one be entitled to hold an opinion that is blatantly false? For example, why should a person be entitled to hold the opinion that the earth is flat or that dinosaurs and humans walked the earth at the same time — as an alarming number of high school biology teachers in a recent Texas poll apparently believe? I mean, obviously a person can hold such an opinion, but why on earth would they want to? As Plato noted long ago, there is such a thing as right opinion — and such a thing as wrong opinion. One would think that we would want to jettison the latter and develop the former. I take it that “right” opinions are those that have intellectual support: they are reasonable. At some point right opinions become facts and dispute at that point is out of the question for reasonable people, though Congress will continue to debate their truth.

In the case of the shape of the earth or the time when humans lived on earth vis-a-vis the dinosaurs, opinions can be argued sensibly and evidence can be brought forward. But in the case of art and ethics, it is widely believed, it is open season on opinions: anything goes. I would contend that this is a wrong opinion. In ethics and art there are sound and unsound opinions: some claims can be supported by evidence and argument while others cannot. And like opinions about the shape of the earth, our job is to jettison the unsound opinions and develop the sound ones. Let’s take a couple of examples.

In ethics I might claim that the skin-heads are right to stand up for white supremacy. This is a value judgment and it is clearly unsound. There is no evidence whatever to support this claim: no evidence that whites are “superior” to any other race of humans. We have a value judgment based on a biological falsehood.  In any event, we have an example of an ethical claim that can be argued, defended, rejected, or accepted on the grounds of support and evidence. It’s not JUST an opinion.

In art a case can be made that some works are better than others because of the remarkable craftsmanship and lively imagination they exhibit. But after the case has been made, we can still like the inferior work. No matter how strong a case I make that Vermeer’s “Maiden With A Pearl” is a better work than Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover with the family bowing their heads over a Thanksgiving meal, one might still prefer the latter to the former. In that sense there’s no disputing taste. But experts can make strong cases for some works of art simply being truly remarkable and in some sense of that word “great,” whether we like them or not. The same can be said in literature, poetry, sculpture, and dance. Some works are good and some are really quite bad — again, whether we like them or not. In a word, some opinions are simply stronger than others. The evidence can be brought forward and reasons mustered on one side or the other.

In the realm of ethics and the fine arts opinions never reach the realm of facts, strictly speaking. There will always be room for debate because even though we might see the point of the evidence and argument that supports a claim — that Vermeer’s painting is better than Rockwell’s, for example — we might still prefer Rockwell, as mentioned above. The mind might assent, but the heart may be slow to follow. But the point I want to make is that discussion and rational argument have a place at the table of ethics and the fine arts just as do claims made about the shape of the earth, the desirability of certain types of treatment for illness, or the question of climate change. There are facts and there are sound or reasonable opinions and they need to be separated from the trash of half-truths, weak opinions, and absolute nonsense. This reasoning applies to the determination of who would make the better President as well.

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