Sunday, June 02, 2019

Evening Note for Sunday, June 2

Thought for the Evening: Titles of Opinion

We live in an opinion nation. But as I tell my students, your opinion on its own is useless; since any idiot can come up with an opinion on anything, if you have an opinion, all that means is that you are not more stupid than the most stupid person. Ideally, of course, we would all have good reasons for all of our opinions -- reasons, as I tell them, unlike opinions, are valuable to other people -- but in practice, this is unattainable. Practical necessity, if nothing else, will lead us to have opinions for only limited reasons, or for nothing that can serve as a reason for the content of the opinion at all, as when people pick up opinions under the force of peer pressure. It's worth asking, then, what the legitimate answers are to the question, "Why do you hold that opinion?" What answers can be given and still be reasonable answers to this question?

There are probably many different ways to approach this, but if we take as an analogy, even if only a loose one, possession of other things (physical objects, incorporeal hereditaments), four kinds of answers, loosely resembling four titles of possession, stand out as providing you reasonable answers.

(1) possessive title: I hold this opinion for such-and-such reasons that lead to it as a rational (even if defeasible) conclusion. Obviously, specific relevant reasons are the primary titles by which one can say that you have some kind of right to have a particular opinion. If reasons do not give title to opinions, nothing does.

(2) successive title: I hold this opinion because I have received it from someone who, at least as far as my reasons suggest, had some kind of possessive title to it. We cannot practically get by without depending on the testimony of others; that means some of the opinions we have, we have only because other people have them, not because we ourselves have any direct reasons for them.

(3) accessive title: I hold this opinion because it is accommodated well by my other opinions, for at least some of which I have some kind of non-accessive title. As I've noted before, there is a kind of doxastic synousia, a hanging-together of things like beliefs, suppositions, and opinions, that does not seem to be strictly reducible to reason-relations; one belief can accommodate another without necessarily being any genuine reason for it. For instance, peoples' opinions about the universe are sometimes clearly influenced by their politics; people with very democratic views of politics are often uncomfortable with very hierarchical views of the universe. It's not that your political views provide any reason for thinking the universe itself works a certain way; it's just that your habits of political thought make some other kinds of structural thinking about the world easier. There are many subtler kinds of cases. One of the reasons we have opinions is that they fit the way we already think.

(4) prescriptive title: I hold this opinion because, however I got it to begin with, I have held it a long time without finding reason to reject it. People sometimes don't want to admit something like this title, but in fact many of our strongest opinions are likely to be opinions that are too fundamental for relatively weak titles like (2) and (3), but for which we can't pin down any definite possessive title, because we've held it so long, and though we might be able to make up an argument for it on the spot, that's precisely what we'd be doing -- not giving our reason for why we hold it but making up a reason out of thin air for why someone could hold it.

Perhaps there are others, but as they get progressively weaker as we move from (1) to (4), if you have an opinion without one of these titles, the chances that you are unreasonable in holding it seem very high. And we could probably say, in some sense, that you have no right to hold it, that you have no right to have that opinion. From the other side, it's important to grasp that all of this is about reasonableness -- the point is that all of these are reasonable answers to the question, "Why do you have that opinion?" None of these titles mean that your opinion is right, nor do any of them even imply that your opinion is one that can be rationally defended as superior to other opinions. They just are the kinds of answers a reasonable person might honestly give to the question; they are answers that rule out the possibility that you just made up the opinion just to have one, or that you are really trolling, or anything else like that.

This approach to opinions is opposed to a number of other approaches you could find.

(i) The above approach assumes you have to have a 'right' (in some sense) to a particular opinion. You could deny this, and simply say that you can have whatever opinion you have, whatever the explanation for your having it might be. You do find people saying things like this, but I think nobody consistently holds it when you press them.

(ii) You could have an approach that restricts the number of titles. For instance, there is certainly a view, we can call it evidentialism (although perhaps not all forms of evidentialism in epistemology strictly require it), that the only legitimate titles for an opinion are (1) and (2), or even (1) and a restricted form of (2). You do find people stating this view. What you don't find, I think, are people actually living in a manner consistent with it. It doesn't really give us an account of being reasonable about opinion-holding, because it holds a standard people cannot live up to, and therefore is making an unreasonable demand.

(iii) Perhaps you could deny that possessive title is the fundamental title. I don't know any widely respected view that doesn't take theoretical or practical reasons to be the most basic kind of justification for having an opinion, but people do sometimes do strange things that minimize the value of possessive title. Take Bulverism, for instance: this is when people deny that an opinion with possessive title, i.e., backed by at least some o kind of reasons, can be reasonably held because some feature of the person nullifies that title. So, for instance, in the famous sexist remark: 'You only say that because you are a woman'. This is generally considered an illegitimate line of reasoning because (a) it is always or virtually always question-begging and (b) it attempts to bypass all reasons whatsoever, or else to sort out reasons that will be accepted and reasons that won't according to something that has nothing to do with the reasons themselves.

Various Links of Interest

* Gregory Stackpole looks at Isidore of Seville on Secular Rule and Rulers

* Deborah Savage, Adam's Gift: Man in the Order of Creation

* Alexander Zubatov, The Case for Confucianism in America: How an Ancient Chinese Philosophical Tradition Could Save Our Fraying Democracy

* Sabine Hossenfelder summarizes the basics of black holes

* Astrid Lindgren, Pomperipossa in Monismania, a fairy tale about the evil of excessive taxation. Lindgren is most famous for the Pippi Longstocking books; she wrote this little story as a protest over the fact that, under Swedish law at the time, she was being taxed at a marginal tax rate of 102%, because the law required self-employed individuals to pay taxes both as individuals and as employers. The story struck a chord, and started a huge debate about the goals of taxation; it is often credited with being one reason why the Swedish Social Democrats lost the 1976 election.

* Geri Walton, Voltaire's Coffee Obessions in the 18th Century

* The Optimizer's Curse and Wrong-Way Reductions notes some problems for common forms of Effective Altruism.

* John McCoy and Tomer Ullman, Judgments of effort for magical violations of intuitive physics. If you give people a list of fantastic things (conjure something out of thin air, make it cease to exist, make it levitate, make it invisible), which do they think would be hardest to accomplish?

* I don't generally like Cass Sunstein's work, but I do like his suggestion for a word that means "what happens when a group of people, outraged by some real or imagined transgression, responds in a way that is disproportionate to the occasion, thus ruining the transgressor’s day, month, year or life": lapidation.

* St. Ambrose and Baptism of Desire

* Singing Homer's Odyssey

* Lisa Song on the problems with carbon credits

Currently Reading

Fanny Burney, Evelina
David Papineau, Philosophical Devices
E. M. Dadlez, ed., Jane Austen's Emma: Philosophical Perspectives
Michael Pakaluk, The Memoirs of St. Peter: A New Translation of the Gospel According to Mark

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