The value of opinions

The value of opinions
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On Wednesday afternoon, August 1, on Fox News, I heard Mayor Rudolph Guliani, the President’s lawyer, affirm that the president has a “right to his opinion.” By now it is clear to all that the present president does have many opinions. A president needs to be a man with opinions about what is to be done and how it is to be done.

We are used to dismissive statements that say: “Oh, that is just your opinion” — spoken as if opinions do not much matter. But opinions are at the very core of our civil and personal lives. They remind us that many of our actions must be put into effect without perfect knowledge of their consequences. Not doing anything often has as much influence on human affairs as doing something.  


We are also aware that, on some college campuses contrary opinions cannot be expressed without being shouted down. On television we are often confronted with three or four heads each yelling at -- but none listening to -- the others. For many, opinions are not to be pondered but to be prevented from being heard. This often means we decide things by power rather than by reason.


We often hear the expression “informed” opinion. This implies the opinion has something to do with accurate knowledge. Opinion has to do with those things for which we can give reasons but for which there is no conclusive reason. There are good reasons why something is so, but also reasons that suggest it might not be so. We should want to hear reasons posed against our own opinions.

An opinion deals with those things than can be otherwise, to use Aristotle’s term. About whether 2 + 2 = 4, I can, properly speaking, have no opinion. I either know this a reasoned fact or I do not. But whether I should be a butcher or baker, I can only have an opinion. I can be both or neither. No conclusive reasons can be found to exclude one or the other way of life as possible.

Likewise in the area of taste, we can only have opinions. If you like dogs and I do not, or if you like peppermint ice cream and I do not, we can only express our opinions about our tastes. About them, we cannot dispute, not in the sense of being able to find a conclusive reason why one is to be preferred over the other.

The political order was set up as a place where diverse opinions about what we had to do together could be presented. It was recognized and understood, as the saying goes, that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. We live in an imperfect world in which we have to act on partial agreement and partial knowledge.

But the fact that we cannot conclude as to what is infallibly the best tax policy or infallibly the best way to arm ourselves does not mean that we can have no tax policy or sensible views on defense. Nor does it mean that some views are not better than others.

What we deal with here is the virtue of prudence, with right reasoning in things to be done. We deal with means to ends. All our actions take place in the particular. We do this, not that. We have to persuade others that our way is feasible. 

Victor Davis Hanson wrote in National Review on July 31 that in many ways, this country is close to civil war. The reason is that many no longer listen to or deal with opinions. Some sides have absolutized themselves. The shouting and the yelling are signs of irrationality. No mutual discourse is admitted. The institutions designed to deal with opinion -- the schools, the legislatures, the press — are outposts of ideological certitudes.

We are said to live in a world in which everyone has a “right” to his own opinion, whatever it is. But the premise of this affirmation is that there is and can be no truth. Such a world is a jungle unless there is some way to test opinions. Not all opinions are equal unless we think that there is no truth in any order.

The civil war that Hanson envisions arises not from practical things but from ideologically imposed views that do not allow for any contrary opinions, only the certitude of the ideology. If a president can have his own opinions, we are still in a society with some notion of freedom. But if everything he says must be opposed because he said it, we are no longer in a civil society governed by informed opinions.

Opinion and truth are not opposed to each other. Opinion seeks the truth that it knows that it does not yet possess. Truth recognizes that many things of our social and personal living can be otherwise. They do not have to be the way we chose to make them. But we do have to make decisions and live with them. We can change them when sufficient evidence exists. But if at some level we do not agree to live together with good but perhaps imperfect opinions held by good but imperfect citizens, we can no longer be one nation under God or anyone else but some ideological tyranny.

The Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., author of “A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning & Being Forgiven,” is professor emeritus at Georgetown University. His latest book is “The Universe We Think In,” published by The Catholic University of America Press.