Do You Have a Right to Your (Uninformed) Opinions?

This week I’m listening to an audio version of C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, and I heard something yesterday that reminded me of a problem I’ve wondered about off and on for a few years.

As a young man, Lewis was sent to a place called Little Bookham in Surrey to study with a man named Kirkpatrick. Their first conversation was a bit odd to Lewis. He was trying to make small talk, and he said that the country in Surrey was “wilder” than he had expected. Kirkpatrick interrupted him to ask what he meant by that, and what grounds he had for not expecting “wildness.” At first Lewis thought Kirkpatrick was also making small talk, but then realized that Kirkpatrick was in earnest; he really wanted to know. He ultimately had to confess he didn’t have a distinct idea of wildness and that he had no real reason for not expecting it.

Kirkpatrick then said, “Do you now see, then, that you had no right to have any opinion whatever on the subject?”

Maybe not the most tactful way to begin an acquaintance, but Lewis came to hold Kirkpatrick in high regard and later credited him with teaching him to think clearly.

So I keep wondering whether Kirkpatrick was right, whether we really have no right to uninformed opinions. We’re not talking about legal rights here; I’m sure we’d all agree that even someone who has never watched an NFL game should not be fined or jailed for thinking that, say, the Oakland Raiders are a better team than the New England Patriots. What I think Kirkpatrick meant is that on some level a person who holds an uninformed opinion is committing an injustice, either to himself or to others. Lewis wrote, “The idea that human beings should exercise their vocal organs for any purpose except that of communicating or discovering truth was to [Kirkpatrick] preposterous.”

What do you think? Please vote in the poll below:

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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10 Responses to Do You Have a Right to Your (Uninformed) Opinions?

  1. Vickie says:

    Is it possible to vote no in this poll without indicting yourself?

  2. worldtake says:

    Of course you have the right to an uninformed opinion. Lets suppose that somehow by law, you tried to remove this right. How would you do that? If you did would the Tea Party disappear? The entire Tea Party movement is one giant uninformed opinion, just like most other populist movements that have ever existed. What would be the consequence of an having an uninformed opinion? Removal of the vocal chords? chopping off of the fingers so one cannot blog?

    • Dr. J says:

      From the post: “We’re not talking about legal rights here; I’m sure we’d all agree that even someone who has never watched an NFL game should not be fined or jailed for thinking that, say, the Oakland Raiders are a better team than the New England Patriots. What I think Kirkpatrick meant is that on some level a person who holds an uninformed opinion is committing an injustice, either to himself or to others.”

  3. giuntacartoons says:

    Of course we have the right to uninformed opinions. Anyone who believes otherwise is probably a snob (my uninformed opinion). There is a difference between having the right to form bad opinions and having the good sense not to express them publicly.

    We need to be careful, however, when we express our opinions in a public venue. Readers and listeners have the right to published writing that is informed and based on fact – particularly when we express views that can impact the reputation of others.

    So it is really a double-edged sword. We have the right to make bad judgments, but a duty to express those opinions with facts when expressing them in a public forum. Actually, we have a duty to be careful when expressing them to another person as well. That’s why a wise person is usually quite.

  4. Rachel Wishum says:

    I would definitely agree that it is harmful to hold uninformed opinions, because we make choices based on what we believe the truth to be. Once a false opinion has been formed, a person has that much more of a hindrance to learning what is actually true about something. It’s a hard thing to do, though: to reserve forming any opinions about a subject or a person until I have learned enough about it to justify forming an opinion. If forming an opinion is a right, then perhaps the duty attached to that right is to commit to learning as much as possible about the subject of my opinion.

  5. Margie says:

    How much information is needed to make an informed opinion? Is my opinion uninformed if I disagree with you, but informed if I agree with you?

    • Rachel Wishum says:

      At least in the context of the passage, an uninformed opinion would be one in which the opinion holder has no information on which to base his opinion. Lewis had no idea what “wildness” was, and admitted it, so he recognized his opinion as uninformed because he had no information on which to base the opinion. I don’t think “uninformed” would necessarily mean wrong, and “informed” might not even necessarily mean right…one is based on information the person has learned, the other is not. Sometimes a person may form an opinion based on information that is incomplete; in fact, I’m sure most of us find ourselves doing that on a regular basis, because we never know everything there is to know about any subject, and we call many of our thoughts opinions because we’re wise enough to realize we may not have all the information necessary to state that our thoughts are facts. But I’m sure we’d all agree that the more a person seeks to inform himself, the more likely he is to form an opinion that is close to whatever the truth is on a certain matter.

  6. TopCat2x2 says:

    Unless one is ready to become a specialist on every topic we all have uninformed opinions that have been affected by family and the environment around us. A person’s understanding of things observed as a child broadens or changes as they become a teenager, a young adult, reach maturity, become a senior.

    People share opinions to validate beliefs or see from a different perspective. We all have to start somewhere. Whether by personal experience or book study, expressing our limitedly formed opinions is the intellects way of growing and attaining wisdom. Of course a closed mind learns nothing new and clings to whatever provides comfort. But time has a way of forcing one to develop and stretch the intellectual stance whether ready or not.

    What a sad world this would be if a child or young adult couldn’t express an opinion because it was uninformed. Who’s to say that child or young adult couldn’t teach the specialist something new to think over?

  7. Torkuemada says:

    I think the key is the phrasing of *the right* to have an opinion. Having a right implies entitlement. Am I entitled to an opinion? I would argue I’m not entitled to anything to include life. Mammalian life has evolved to require oxygen for respiration; this does not make them entitled to oxygen, rather they are gifted with a high probability of encountering it during their existence.

    Rather than asking if one is entitled to an opinion, it might be more constructive to ask if we should respect others’ opinions, even if they are uniformed. If accepting of a pragmatic human sovereignty sort of view, it seems reasonable to choose laws, social structures, and other societal conventions based on how you would want those structures set up if you could be in the position of the minority, the vulnerable, or the weakest. But the more I think about it, I think that the pragmatic argument would rule against entitlement. There’s a difference between valuing and respecting other people’s life or opinions–it is another to to say they are entitled. So, I’m going out on a limb and saying that pragmatism doesn’t justify any entitlement.

    I’m inclined to conclude that we aren’t entitled to anything. Life might be thought of more as a gift. Mutual respect is beneficial for society and therefore worth pursuing, even from an egotistical point of view–better society is better for me.

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