The Problem of Opinions

Stating one’s opinion on any subject, from the most mundane to the most profound issues, is a risky business; whether in speaking or writing any method of putting forth one’s thoughts into the world involves taking deep and grave risks. Beyond the obvious danger of finding oneself in deep disagreement with one’s fellows, be they colleagues, friends, relatives, lovers, or mere fellow interlocutors; there is a graver risk. For while disagreement can sometimes lead to unpleasantness, if handled correctly it can also lead to mutual learning, understanding, and interesting discussion; whereas, the graver risk of stating opinions has no real potential for benefit, at least at first brush.

The danger of stating opinions is that once stated there are two option one has, either to become rooted in this position, or one day to admit one was incorrect and state one’s new opinion. The first option leads on into a deep and unsettling intellectual position of either refusing to accept new information an arguments that go against one’s previously stated opinion (stagnation of opinion, obstinateness) or performing twists in thinking to make new arguments fit old positions (mental gymnastics). In short, this is intellectual dishonesty and a refusal of growth. Let me be clear, it is perfectly acceptable and intellectually honest to have strong opinions that one defends in the face of all new arguments; however, this is only commendable to the point that well principle stand firm there is still change. Having firm principles is honest and commendably, being an obstinate dogmatist that refuses to engage with other, different arguments is neither commendable or decent, intellectual behavior. Again, to be clear, I want to point out that there will be times that even the best will fail to not slip into heatedness, unnecessary fervor, and/or inflective dogmatism; however, I cannot stress enough, it is out of these failures that we must arise, do better, and be better, though we will fail time and time again, each failure must serve as a reminder to do and be better.

The other path in this option is no less odious and no less common. It is often called “mental gymnastics,” a term which though tending to be used negatively, gives a fairly accurate idea of what goes on. A new argument presents itself, one that would seem to require a change in opinion, but instead one just works around it, in a dishonest way. Often this takes the form of accepting premises but reforming conclusion by sneaking in new premises. This is dishonest; the honest answer to new arguments is either to find a reasonable challenge and critique of them, or let the new arguments shape one’s opinion. I want to be clear, one should not change their opinion based off the last argument they have heard, this is as dishonest as dogmatism; however, one must open their beliefs to round criticism and robust counterarguments, not necessarily accepting or rejecting criticisms; but countering with reformed, better-honed, more robust arguments. In creating more robust arguments one’s opinions necessarily change, if only slightly, for it is impossible to robustly respond to counterarguments from a place of mere dogmatism and poorly thought out principles. This is why every ‘school of thought,’ in any field, is a place to start, never a place to end.

In all this the second option for action after stating an opinion has shown through, namely to admit one was incorrect and state one’s new opinion. This is difficult and rare, for it is much easier, much more comfortable to remain stagnate, to stop at the point of first thinking and never push forward. At least in that case one runs no risk of people finding old statements of opinions and taking that as current statements of opinions. This is a real danger, especially of stating opinions in the public form; however, this should not prevent one from either stating one’s opinions publicly or changing one’s opinions publicly. For as Cicero wrote: “if we are not ashamed to think it, we should not be ashamed to say it.” Furthermore, any honest person will admit that continued thinking about any subject will often lead to some changes in opinions, slight to major; there is one simple illustration of this: since all thinking on subjects is essentially a conversation (cf. Richard Rorty; this is why, for example, the Platonic dialogues are dialogues), it is understandable that as one hears more voices in the conversation, one’s opinions will change; it is also understandable that one has not, at any one time, heard all the voices that have spoken, are speaking, on a subject. For example, if opinions were formed purely from reading, it would be nearly impossible to never be encouraging new voices with new arguments, given that millions of books are published, have been published, since the advent of printing. Thus, though it is dangerous to share one’s opinions at one time, it is worthwhile; it is also worthwhile, in fact, perhaps noble in some cases, to publicly changes one’s opinions based on new arguments, so long as one is always changing their opinions (this is empty-mindedness, not thinking). It is difficult to place oneself in this uncomfortable position, but as Spinoza says at the end of Ethics: “Everything excellent is as difficult as it is rare.”