I said it again the other day, but then I had second thoughts. “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion,” I said, but is that really true? Have you ever thought about the full range of opinions we’re implicitly endorsing by saying everyone is entitled to believe whatever they believe?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that arguments should be settled by force, or that we ought to have some kind of thought police arresting people for believing the wrong thing. But let’s face it, some things that people believe are exactly that: wrong. They’re wrong factually, they’re wrong socially, and they’re wrong morally. To say that everyone is entitled to their opinion is to reinforce the mistaken perception that all opinions are equally valid, and that a firmly-held opinion outweighs any number of contrary opinions and even any contrary facts.

Think about it. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” In other words, sexists are entitled to believe that women were put here on earth for the sole purpose of serving and pleasing men. Racists are entitled to believe that having a darker skin makes you lazier, less intelligent, and more criminal than paler people. Adolf Hitler was entitled to believe that Jews were a subhuman parasite we’d all be better off without. We say everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but do we really mean these opinions are all equally valid?

Not all opinions are created equal. Some are ignorant, bigoted, and superstitious. Some are factually incorrect, delusional or deliberately dishonest. Some are downright malignant and destructive. We don’t want to implicitly endorse evil opinions by declaring them to be just as good as opinions based on facts, social justice, and sound moral principles. We need to remind people that opinions also carry moral, social, and practical values that need to be carefully weighed and judged on their real-world merits (or lack of merits).

I’m going to stop saying that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I’m going to start saying, “Everyone is entitled to their own preferences. Everyone is entitled to freely express their opinions. But not all opinions are good and not all opinions are valid, and you deserved to be judged according to the quality of the opinions you advance.” Say what you mean, and think about what you say, but expect to end up with the reputation your opinions deserve.


  1. maddog1129 says

    In the law, it is sometimes said of an issue that it is a matter upon which reasonable people may differ.

  2. Bruce says

    Every individual is entitled to be sane or insane. Every society is entitled to lock up insane people if they pose a significant danger to the health or safety of themselves or others.
    Of course, there are lots of conditions in between sane and insane. And there are lots of possible responses that are short of locking someone up. The point is that just because someone is entitled to think something, and usually entitled to say what they want, that doesn’t mean they can do so without consequences.
    If you write with chalk on the public sidewalk in San Diego, what does the court have the right to do to you? If one writes a comment on a blog, others may write responses there or elsewhere, or the blog owners may take further actions.
    The right to speak is not the right to speak and have ones words preserved unchallenged.

  3. says

    If you can’t prevent something, why get all upset?

    Of course everyone is entitled to believe anything they wish to believe. They’re also entitled to express their beliefs. However, the right to free speech does not include any obligation for others to listen. It does allow listeners to express their beliefs/opinions about what has been said. I’m fond of replying, “That’s silly shit!”

    None of the above suggests that the content of beliefs/opinions/whatever is equal.

  4. RWT48 says

    Opinions are difficult things. Everyone has one on issues even if they have no basis for that opinion. They only become a problem when someone tries to impose their opinion on others. Most rational people will discount an opinion that is obviously uninformed or based on false information but unfortunately there are a large number of people in the country who are not rational and not well informed.

  5. Aaron says

    I’m with Jenny. Everyone’s entitled to think what they want to think. The job of society is to keep the people who believe terrible things from acting on those beliefs, not to enforce a mode of thought.

  6. smrnda says

    My take is that only informed, well-thought out opinions should be respected. Ignorant, bigoted people will have opinions, and their opinions should be dismissed, refuted and mocked.

    The problem with the ‘everybody is entitled to their opinions’ is that it’s often used as a rhetorical way of pretending that all opinions are equal and deserve equal respect. This is something that the news media does very well (or badly) these days, mostly since too many people just don’t seem to get things like *facts.* We see this with faux controversies over government mandated death panels, churches being forced to performs same sex marriage and the ‘debate’ over evolution.

    Another issue is that enough people with shitty opinions (for lack of a more eloquent term) feel that ‘freedom of speech’ implies that others are obliged not just to permit, but have to respect what they’re saying. That is not what it means. If the social consequences for expressing your opinions are high, that comes with the territory.

  7. says

    Consider it this way: an opinion is a loose claim to knowledge – or, if it’s a matter of aesthetics then it’s a claim to knowledge about oneself. In this manner, opinions are suitable targets for epistemological exploration: If I say “I do not like Justin Beiber’s performances” I am stating a fact. A reasonable rejoinder is not “well, that’s your opinion” it’s “how did you form that opinion?” This is especially handy when dealing with racists or authoritarians who have never explored how they formed their beliefs, or whose beliefs are too repugnant to themselves to bear scrutiny. It’s harder with opinions that are purely matters of taste because they’re going to deal more with intangibles.

  8. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    But not all opinions are good and not all opinions are valid, and you deserve to be judged according to the quality of the opinions you advance.

    Well, you’re entitled to that opinion.
    Let’s agree to disagree.
    Now I’ll preferentially hang around people who aren’t meanies, who never criticise my opinion that wish-fulfillment is a valid form of epistemology, or that I definitely saw homeopathic deadly nightshade treatment work.

  9. Aaroninmelbourne says

    In the road rules, people often talk of “Who has the right of way?” whereas in the actual law, nobody has a right of way; rather there are those who have a responsibility to “give way”. In the criminal code, there are those actions which are not legal, but are “decriminalized”, in that such an action remains unlawful but is not punishable. Perhaps the concept that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” fits into such discussions also?
    The core of the problem seems to be that criminalizing or philosophizing that people are not “entitled’ to their own opinion is akin to thought crime. This would imply that an individual would be prohibited from being wrong or incorrect. This is plainly immoral as well as unworkable. However the expression of “entitlement” suggests a positive, whereas a more appropriate expression may be described in the negative: an individual’s opinions do not need to conform, but opinions are not justified or correct merely by virtue of occupying a person’s mind.
    The question may better be expressed not in terms of what is within, but how that opinion is expressed; and the focus should be on responsibilities, and how they affect rights. Opinions should be formed at the end of consideration, not at the beginning. It is perfectly acceptable to “not have an opinion”. We should not expect others to have an opinion on something they know little to nothing about. An opinion must be more than a “first impression” or a concluding judgement formed with no information. We have a responsibility to ensure that our opinions are justified, especially where those opinions impact upon others. We have a right to express our opinions but not to have our opinions accepted by others. We have a right to dismiss others’ opinions but not to expect others to change their opinions based on our dismissal of those opinions.
    In such an approach, it is not the incorrectness of an opinion that would be shunned, but the failure of the person to accept their responsibility to ensure it is justifiable with evidence that is the focus.
    Perhaps an example would be helpful. A white supremacist may have a personal opinion that they are intellectually or physically superior to others on the basis of the lack of melanin in their skin. Such a thought is plainly wrong. To criminalize that thought is problematic and immoral. However, they do not have a right to express that thought, or to act upon that thought. If they do, they do not have a right to have it go unchallenged, or to expect others to accept it. They can be shunned for their failure to accept responsibility to critically and thoroughly question their own opinions before acting upon them.
    For such a person to attempt to justify their position as their “being entitled to their own opinion” does nothing towards their failure to know the difference between an impression and a well-formed opinion; or their failure to accept their responsibilities; while disrespecting those who have expressed their opinions responsibly. You can be “entitled” to your own opinion in much the same way you are “entitled” to be wrong: “entitlement” is not a synonym for “correct”. Perhaps that is the best retort.

  10. wholething says

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but most people should steal one from someone smarter than they are.

  11. Kimpatsu says

    I don’t agree that you are entitled to an opinion. You are entitled to an INFORMED opinion.
    Adjectives matter, people.

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