Friday, July 31, 2015

What's Your Opinion?

"Everyone has a right to his or her own opinion." So says my eight year old daughter whenever she is asked to arbitrate a dispute between two people. My wife calls her the ACLU of the family. So strong and sincere is her conviction,  I don't have the heart to pose the question, "but what if that opinion is wrong?" The question at the center of all contemporary discourse I'm afraid will have to wait until she gets a little older and her judgement, more critical. By then she will come to realize on her own the hard truth that believing something, doesn't necessarily make it right.

Every fifth grader, (my daughter still has two years to go thank God) is taught there is a distinction between a fact and an opinion. It goes something like this:

A fact is something that can be proven.
An opinion is something that does not require proof.

Saying that Abraham Lincoln was the tallest US president is a fact. Saying that Abraham Lincoln was the most eloquent of all the US presidents, is an opinion.

Are you with me so far? OK how about this opinion: 

George W. Bush was not the most eloquent president.

Not to single out our 43rd president, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but facility with language was not one of Dubya's strong points, so according to most definitions of the word, he could not be considered the most eloquent president. Therefore by any reasonable standard, that opinion would also be a fact. Furthermore the opposite opinion, that Bush II was the most eloquent president, would be a falsehood.

Please note the operative words, "reasonable standard." This is certainly not a case of proof beyond doubt. One could make the argument that President Bush, despite his penchant for spouting off malapropisms like fireworks on the Fourth of July, was better at communicating what was on his mind than the current president, who may use the right words but also has a tendency of talking in circles and sometimes fails to get his point across. Since communication is the heart of writing and speaking, Bush may have been a more effective communicator than Obama, perhaps even eloquent in his own (to some) charming, unique way. It may not be a compelling argument but it's a valid point just the same.

So maybe it's not as simple as our grade school teacher would have us think; there is not a clear dichotomy between facts and opinions. Taking the point further, could there be truths that cannot be universally proven? I believe the answer is yes. They are our moral and ethical principles, the guideposts of our culture. This is a hotly debated topic, there are those who believe that morality is completely subjective, as moral and ethical principles vary from culture to culture. Truth on the other hand is purely objective, therefore as this line of reasoning goes, there can be no such thing as a moral truth.

This concept of moral relativism has been around for a long time, but gained steam since the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th century, the so called "Age of Reason", when the traditional doctrines of church and state were brought under close philosophical scrutiny. Moral relativism essentially states there are no universal rights and wrongs, as those things are determined by the culture in which you find yourself. Some go so far as to claim that moral principals have no more universal relevance than local customs such as whether to address your uncle in the familiar or how much to tip a waiter.

Living as we do in a pluralistic society, we need to give some credence to moral relativism as I touched upon in my post on gay marriage. But can we honestly say that all right and wrong is purely subjective?

Here's a test; is the following statement fact or opinion?

Slavery is wrong.

If you believe that morality is purely subjective, you would be forced to admit that the statement "slavery is wrong", is merely an opinion as there are cultures that exist to this day who still accept and practice human bondage.

Furthermore, one cannot make a definitive argument against slavery without using established moral principles, which the moral relativists would have us believe, are not universally agreed upon. One of these principles, a cornerstone of our society, is the idea that all people are created equal.

Like moral relativism, this idea has been around since antiquity, but came to fruition during the Enlightenment, and was spelled out by Thomas Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence. As we all know, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and his words explicitly left out women and implicitly excluded all but white men who could own property. Those very words however were used as a springboard for subsequent generations to be inclusive enough to include all people regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, or creed.

Interestingly enough, Jefferson did not preface his most memorable words by saying: "We hold these opinions to be self evident..."

Those "inalienable" rights  that Jefferson enumerates, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", constitute what some philosophers would argue are universally recognizable rights inherent in human nature. This "Natural Law" as it has been dubbed, should not be confused with the law of nature, which does not concern itself in the least with values or individual rights, has no distinction between right and wrong, or reserves any place for the concepts of justice or ethics. Nature simply adapts. As inhabitants of nature, we are subject to its laws; we all need air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat and shelter from the elements. We all die. These are facts, universal to all life. But we humans also live in communities where we pool our resources, divide our labor and look out for one another. In order for this to work, we are also subject to the laws of the community. Morals and ethics are human constructs designed to enable human societies to survive; as such they are built around a very simple idea, that you should treat other people as you would want to be treated yourself. This idea, often erroneously attributed to Jesus, has been around for as long as humans gave up being exclusively hunter gatherers. The foundations of every legal system, be it religious or secular, are based upon this "Golden Rule", which comes as close to being a universal value system as any we have.

I would argue that by any reasonable standard, the basic moral standards and responsibilities we (hopefully) hold ourselves to as defined by the Golden Rule, are universal and must be regarded as moral truths. Anything less I'm afraid would result in the collapse of civilization as we know it.

But just as we need to understand the limits of moral relativism, we need to guard against absolutism of any color. We all know about the religious zealots, be they bible thumpers or jihadists, whose slogan might just as well be "my way or the highway." Political ideology has stepped in and now gives religion a run for its money as one of the most significant propagators of intolerance in our society.

A case in point is this article that has been making the rounds on social media. Its author makes some valid points about the problem of hiding behind falsehoods wrapped in the guise of opinions. In the end however, the tone of the article suggests its real motive is to present a forum for the author to air out his own ideological agenda. It's title leaves little doubt about the author's feelings about anyone who may disagree with him: "No, It's Not Your Opinion, You're Just Wrong."

Given the reaction to this article, I'm afraid the piece will only contribute to the demise of intelligent discourse between un-like-minded folks, emboldening them to preach the "correctness" of their own points of view while further encouraging intolerance for the points of view of others.

The glory of modern technology is that it has opened up the world and given us exposure to cultures and ideas literally at our fingertips. Ironically, or perhaps because of that, we seem to have become more entrenched in our own intellectual ghettos, distancing ourselves from any thought or opinion that might challenge or offend us.

Intellectual discourse involving as many points of view as possible is the means by which we progress as a society. It is not something to shy away from but something to welcome and embrace. We may not always like what we're hearing, but to put it tritely, no pain, no gain.

It's true that we have no business hiding behind opinions that support falsehoods, but at the same time we must allow others the room to err, and hopefully they will do the same for us.

In the end, the best we can hope for is that reasonable judgement will sort out it all out.

After all that stewing, I can't help but believe that my daughter's belief in allowing everyone his or her opinion is pretty spot on. Ah the pure wisdom of an eight year old; perhaps they should be the ones running the show.

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