Respect for Opinions and the Lack Thereof
By: Barry Belmont

I had a brief encounter with Mike (the new president) just the other day where he reminisced about the “good ol’ days” where debate at the SFL meetings were more about presenting arguments and respecting people’s opinions and less about a “what I am presenting is objectively right, and you are quantifiably wrong if you believe otherwise” type of discussion the club seems to have moved into. He pointed out that I had a heavy handed role in this transformation — I am the chief culprit in this crime of believing in the objectivity of political philosophy.

But I feel it is a crime worth committing.

Questions on political philosophy from taxes and militaries to the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage all have answers. Not only do they have answers, but they have right and wrong answers (assuming that the whole point of political philosophy is to better the human condition*). And though these answers may be hard to come by or hard to understand, they do exist and the weight of their evidence should convince us above all else.

This is why the art of argumentation is one whose techniques I never cared to learn. It shouldn’t really matter how well you follow the decorum of some kind of archetypical debating pattern, nor should it really matter how eloquently you make your point: all that should convince any of us of anything at the end of the day is how well the claims of a person stand up against reality.

And hence, respecting someone’s (what we call) “opinion” is often the last thing we should do. Let me qualify that: I do not mean to suggest that certain matters of taste (real instances of “opinion”) don’t exist, they do. People can legitimately hold completely different views of music, art, food, sport teams, etc. There isn’t a “right” favorite television station anymore than there is a “wrong” choice of cooked eggs. This is because these opinions are real matters of subjectivity, experienced uniquely by a single individual. Political opinions are quite different, however, as they make claims about the nature of the world around us. When someone says Law A will do X and someone else says Law A will not do X, one of them must necessarily be wrong, there is no subjectivity on the matter.

And this applies to practically every question of political interest. Can there be any doubt that taxes either are beneficial (under a certain set of circumstances) or they are not? Can there be any real ambivalence as to whether or not to treat homosexuals or blacks or women the way we treat upperclass white males? Can we really believe that issues of liberty and freedom are merely matters of taste? These questions have answers. And these answers matter.

So yes. I believe that many of the most important questions we can ask of political philosophy do indeed have correct and incorrect answers. And you should too.

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8 Comments Posted in Libertarianism
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  • Nathan

    I’m glad you agree with me that there is an objective right or wrong. OR, at the very least, there is a “more right” and a “more wrong.” However Mike and Travis disagree with me on this point, but relativity is unaccepted by most truly refined and respected philosophers–it’s considered 90′s era “liberal” pseudo-intellectualism.

    On the other hand, I’ve always felt we should most definitely present arguments with the most respect and positive frame possible, which I think has been improved in recent meetings.

    (Nathan)

  • Nathan
    • Barry Belmont

      Excellent. Hadn’t read that Asmiov piece before.

      Good way to start the morning.

  • Nathan

    I keep thinking of more stuff to add…

    The problem with political debate is that politics exists in regimes of paradigms, combination of paradigms, and underlying premises. The most important foundation of any political thought or debate is to determine the underlying paradigms and assumptions that are most applicable, just, “right” etc. Much of the disagreement comes either from ignorance–of the justifications for “better” assumptions or of the paradigms themselves–or from legitimate disagreement in the foundations of the argument, from which there is usually no compromise in either person’s opinion.

    Anyway, lots more could be said about this and I could go on longer about these considerations, but I need to get back to studying for finals and I’m sure several of us will discuss this in detail during the trip. :)

  • Keeban3

    There is two problems with your point of view. One is that two people may want different things. For example, person A may want his religion to grow, whereas person B may want people to live in peace. Person A may be right under his definition of benefit that what will benefit us most is to kill anyone that believes differently. Of course these are extremes, but the same can be said of disagreements in smaller degrees.

    The second problem is that while there may be an objective answer it may not be knowable. In an example Harris brought up out of your mouth, there is a certain number of birds flying at this very moment. We do not know what this number is (aside from setting a wide range on it), but it is in fact an actual number. Anyone who says to know this number precisely is wrong, or right purely by coincidence. This same argument works for the precise effects of Law A or whether freedom increases happiness or almost any subject we are likely to get into in our discussions. Despite a lot of thought and discussion I still am unclear on whether deficit spending has a short-term benefit to the economy or whether pharmaceutical companies would spend a decent amount on research without the five year monopoly they are given.

    So while we probably agree for the most part on what we consider benefit, we cannot determine who is correct on most unknowables. Through discussion we may come onto a better idea of such things, but if there is something I have learned from talking to people, only those willing to admit the possibility of error can ever hope to increase their understanding of anything.

    You seem to value science so I will put it this way, Darwin was wrong on genetics, Newton was wrong on alchemy, Einstein was wrong on quantum mechanics, etc. I doubt any of them would have been unwilling to consider the possibility that they could be wrong, and this is good because no one is right on everything in all degrees. Science advances by getting rid of (usually quite logical) errors. To get a better idea on the unknowns it is necessary to listen as well as speak.

    Furthermore, only by understanding a person’s argument can you actually convince them of anything. While you claim to not care about convincing people, the amount of time you spend attempting exactly that, indicates otherwise.

    • Barry Belmont

      I agree with your criticisms (and tried my darnedest to hedge them off in the original article). Yes, this only applies if people are seeking the same end. Yes, this only applies to things that are potentially knowable. Yep, each of these answers mut always be considered as provisional in nature.

      The only problem I have with your criticism is the assumption that I don’t care about convincing people. The truth is, I do. I do think convincing people of the truth is important and I do think it is important to use our available means (from “arguing” to simply placing the evidence on the table). Look it’s not like I don’t keep the rhetorical toolbox stocked (I’ve got my repetitions, my parentheticals, my forceful cadence). It’s just I feel I shouldn’t have to.

      I wish to change the nature of the dialogue we enter into.

      Someone shouldn’t get more points by being eloquent about an incorrect fact anymore than someone should get docked for shouting about natural selection or the gravitational constant. I’m just suggesting that we change the rules of debate to place the burden upon evidence. I wouldn’t think that this is too radical of a notion. Simply demanding evidence for a proposition doesn’t seem to be to be too extreme a notion.

      Basically, I want to get rid of our ability (yes, mine as well) of hiding behind Well That’s My Opinion under inappropriate conditions. You can use that when it comes to discussing symphonies or recipes or art or music or clothing or proper dinner conversation or about pets or motorcycles or vacation spots or favorite books. I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that there aren’t things about which to have legitimate differences of opinions. All I’m saying is that a significant portion of political topics can’t be amicably parsed into mutual exclusive notions.

      (But, yes, for the most part, those were legitimate criticisms of mine, with which I fully agree.)

      • Nathan

        What’s worse is not, “that’s my opinion,” but instead “well that’s just YOUR opinion.” Had that thrown at me several times by an ASUN member the other day. lawl.

        • Barry Belmont

          That’s the worst. It is used only as a means to put someone’s opinions, arguments, and reasoning into a box to hide it away. It is used only by those trying to immunize themselves from criticism.

          Saying “that’s just your opinion” is the rallying cry of those propagating poor thoughts.