Benjamin Bestgen: The right to my opinion (Free Speech I)

Benjamin Bestgen

Benjamin Bestgen takes a timeous look at freedom of expression. See his last primer, on marriage, here.

Evelyn Hall, the author of The Life of Voltaire, famously acquainted us with a summary of Voltaire’s belief in freedom of speech: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire’s apparent willingness to become a martyr for free speech represents the social and political atmosphere he lived in: speaking one’s mind without fearing religious censorship or political and judicial consequences was even trickier in his time than it is today.

Freedom of speech, more accurately, freedom of expression, is an important right that tells us plenty about the society we live in: it informs about a society’s taboos and sensitivities, its liberties and standards of education and discourse. It also indicates who in that society gets to have a voice and what topics are pushed to particular prominence – and who is being silenced, marginalised or excluded.

In this and two further primers, we will consider points that come up repeatedly in the climate of our current debates:

  • The right to your opinion
  • The right (not) to be offended
  • Power and public discourse

The right to your opinion

We probably all know somebody who has terminated a conversation by saying “let’s agree to disagree” or “I’m entitled to my opinion”. This is usually an unsatisfying response: leaving an issue in a state of disagreement doesn’t resolve it. Likewise, your perceived entitlement to an opinion is irrelevant when considering the truth or falsity of an argument or assertion.

But what is an opinion? And what does it mean to be entitled to one?

Philosopher Patrick Stokes notes with reference to Plato that we can distinguish ordinary, everyday beliefs from more certain knowledge, scientific theory or expert opinion. For example “Most men look good in suits” is a different statement than “The earth isn’t flat” or “Viruses and bacteria are different things”.

Our ordinary opinions contain a fair degree of subjectivity, guesswork and uncertainty. For some situations that’s fine: if you like cheese and I don’t, it makes no sense trying to argue about whose taste is better.

But such a lack of epistemic standards won’t do for matters which require technical expertise (like medicine or climate change science) or at least a degree of knowledge and prudent judgement, like politics or economics.

“Just having opinions” isn’t good enough for doing law or philosophy either. Insisting on offering valid reasons, sound arguments and credible evidence for one’s opinion is important for any meaningful, constructive discourse that goes beyond uneducated speculation or personal taste and prejudice.

Stokes therefore clarifies for his students that in his classroom they are not entitled to their opinion. They are only entitled to what they can reasonably argue for.

Respectable opinions

Legally we are entitled to have all kinds of opinions, including believing clearly disproven things like, for example, that the earth is flat or that vaccines cause autism. But Stokes notes that “being entitled to my opinion” is true but trivial if it only means that nobody can stop me thinking or saying whatever I please.

The problem is when people with little or no expertise demand that their opinion should be just as legitimate and acceptable as an expert’s or the view of somebody who is offering evidence and proper arguments. Author Isaac Asimov complained that thanks to a streak of anti-intellectualism in US-American public life, the right to one’s opinion seems to mean that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”.

But if we want our opinions to be considered candidates for serious analysis and truth, we need to make them respectable. Offering credible evidence, sound arguments, debating with intellectual honesty and in good faith helps generate trust and respect for expertise, distinguishing it from “just my opinion”.

Right to argue

Having the right to argue is not the same as having a right to have one’s opinion respected: some opinions are plainly nonsensical, false or made in bad faith and therefore unworthy of respect or consideration. But of course you are still allowed to hold them.

Our time, attention and platforms from which to debate important matters are precious public resources. So is public education and access to the best-supported arguments we know which should not be drowned out by bullshit.

Having a keen interest or strong feelings about a topic does not make one an expert and does not entitle that person to have their views placed on the same platform as an expert’s. A known former actress’ views on female health and hygiene does not make her a gynaecologist. A politician believing climate change is a hoax is not a climate scientist.

Michael Gove MP famously claimed that people had enough of experts. But if we take any opinion to be just as good as the next, we end up with people in powerful positions who can force their opinions on us, without the necessity of having to give reasons, being right or having their views subjected to expert scrutiny.

So maybe Mr Stokes’ classroom rule should be extended to our wider public sphere? Imagine we are not entitled to advocate just any opinion – at a minimum it must be one we can reasonably argue for.

Benjamin Bestgen is a solicitor and notary public (qualified in Scotland). He also holds a Master of Arts degree in philosophy and tutored in practical philosophy and jurisprudence at the Goethe Universität Frankfurt am Main and the University of Edinburgh.

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