Ethics Matters: Knowledge and Opinion

“I’m entitled to my opinion.” 

We hear it all the time and perhaps even more frequently, nowadays.  But, it is not always clear what is meant when someone says this.  Are they invoking their First Amendment right to free speech?  And, if so, fair enough . . . but, we all understand that the right to freedom of speech, like most rights, is not an absolute right, and that it must accommodate reasonable exceptions and limitations, like libel, slander, lying, or the classic example of not yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.  Or, instead perhaps, in expressing an opinion, they are suggesting that what they are saying is right.  On the other hand, perhaps they are suggesting that what they are right in what they are saying.  Or, maybe they mean that they can hold any view that they want, if they think that it’s true.  They are entitled to “their own truth,” so to speak.

Roman Ciapalo, Ph.D.

Some people might be even inclined to believe that everything is a matter of opinion, and that there are no objective truths or anything that we can genuinely know.  This is the position generally called skepticism, which in its pure form, maintains that nothing is either true or false.  But, ultimately, such a view is untenable because it is self-destructive and not useful.  (In other words, one can easily see that the statement “nothing is true or false” is itself either true or false.  If it is false, it is irrelevant, and if it is true, it is self-contradictory.)  But, if one were to say that “everything is a matter of opinion,” they would not find themselves in such a dilemma, because that statement could itself be an opinion and, hence, its opposite could be an opinion, as well.

So, we’re back to wondering what exactly constitutes an opinion and whether one might argue, as common sense seems to suggest, that there is a difference between opinion and knowledge.  But, if that is so, what exactly is the difference?

Opinion appears to have three basic features.  First, opinions are statements that can legitimately be subjected to doubt or can be disputed (e.g., “math is difficult” or “baseball is boring”).  Second, opinions do not express certainties, but merely probabilities (e.g., “most people are compassionate” or “Cubs fans are loyal”).  And, thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, when confronted with two conflicting opinions, reasonable people can legitimately disagree about which one is more secure or reliable (e.g., “geometry is difficult; no, it’s not” or “hockey is a violent sport; no, it’s not”).

Both Plato and Aristotle offer the following helpful advice: those who have knowledge are not merely asserting something to be true; they have adequate reasons for doing so.  Thus, mere opinion, since it is not supported with good reasons, is not only unstable, but it is also unteachable.  It is unteachable, or unpersuasive, because the opinion holders are not able satisfactorily to explain why they hold the views that they do. 

As Mortimer Adler wisely once said, “it is knowledge when the object that we are thinking about compels us to think of it in a certain way [the existence of gravity, for example].  What we think then is not our personal opinion.  But, when the object of our thought leaves us free to make up our mind about it, one way or the other, then what we think is only an opinion – our personal opinion, voluntarily formed.  Here other rational persons can differ with us.”  And it is no mere coincidence that this is consistent with the classical definition of truth as the conformity of the intellect to the thing.  In other words, we know something truly – we have hold of the truth – when what is in our mind (my idea of a horse) is an accurate replica of the thing which is outside our mind (the actually existing horse).  

Interestingly enough, when the difference between knowledge and opinion is understood in this way, we realize that much of what we think or say is probably merely opinion, rather than knowledge. And this realization should perhaps inspire caution when sharing our opinions with others.  Furthermore, it may be helpful to consider that opinions often differ in terms of their foundation.  As Adler points out, “some are based on considerable evidence or reasons which, while not conclusive, make them highly probable.  Others are ill-founded, and others have no foundation at all but are simply willful prejudices on our part.”  And, it is these latter kinds of opinions, especially when expressed about matters which are serious and consequential, that must be offered sparingly or not at all. 

So, are we entitled to our opinions?  Yes, of course we are.  But, they should always be shared with restraint and perhaps even a dollop of humility, if we are to have any hope of advancing the search for truth by means of civil and productive discourse.  And, if there should be disagreement, as is the case sometimes, then the ensuing discussion should strive to focus not only on the opinions themselves, but also and especially on the reasons we have for holding them.  A genuine and hopefully productive argument should consist of an exchange and evaluation of the reasons for the conflicting positions, rather than merely a contest to see who can assert their position more loudly, repeatedly, and stridently.  The not-so-mysterious secret to progress is what it has always been: mutual understanding.

Roman Ciapalo, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and the Andrew P. Studdert Chair of Business Ethics and Crisis Leadership at Loras College.