Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Respecting beliefs and the right to opinions

About a month ago there was an ethicist on Hack talking about people's right to opinions (about asylum seekers, as it happens, but the argument is general). She agreed with the general principle that everyone has the right to their opinion, and the right to express it if, and only if, those opinions are not based on fallacies - especially fallacies designed to inspire hatred. In other words, no-one actually has the right to spread hate-filled lies. I tend to agree with her.

Yesterday I was accused of being a bigot, on the basis that I show a "stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from [my] own". I'm pretty confident that I tolerate, and indeed respect, a lot of beliefs that I don't agree with, but it's also fair to say that there are some beliefs that I have absolutely no respect for. Those are beliefs that internally inconsistent.

I've argued and debated all sorts of positions. I know that the belief that underpins my world is that there exists an observable universe, and that we are able to observe it. There are inherent assumptions there that people have challenged, but at this stage I'm running with it. I try to keep the rest of my world view consistent beyond that assumption. When I get caught out in an inconsistency, I have to change my views.

I've known a number of people holding various flavours of religious beliefs who have argued with me over the years, and while they start with some differing assumptions, their beliefs have also been internally consistent. I utterly disagree with them, but I respect their integrity.

None of this is the point here, the point is that I really don't respect, or even tolerate, internally inconsistent beliefs. People who claim, for example, that they believe that personhood starts at conception (thereby making abortion murder) but also support the death penalty. People who claim that any religious text is infallible, and then ignore inconvenient bits of it. People who understand how science works, and yet still claim its results are free from subjectivity. And, well, people who believe we were populated by space aliens and that Good People get a planet when they die.

There has to be some measure by which any person's beliefs can be assessed, or we will all have to respect the beliefs of the Sacred Sect of Brownie Worshippers who honour the Almighty Kodak Box Brownie through the sacrifice of chocolate brownies every Wednesday (who have registered as a religion for tax purposes). I doubt that anyone, actually, respects ALL beliefs. There may be other measures besides internal consistency, and if you have some other rule of thumb, let me know. If you think you respect all beliefs, I suspect I either don't believe you, or don't respect your beliefs.

Incidentally, this was sparked by my utter disrespect for Tony Abbott. I have no idea what his beliefs are, since he changes them so often it makes my head spin. A man that can't even own his religious convictions doesn't meet the criteria for respect.


  1. Ariane,
    a couple of comments, firstly how do you determine whether or not opinions are based on fallacies? I have a lot of opinions about the universe based on my understandings about the current laws of physics but who can say if they will still be right in several decades time? Can I express such opinions or not?

    Personally I have a much more extreme view about the right to express opinions, essentially you can say what you like unless that it is going to cause immediate physical harm to someone. Expressing vague hate filled opinions is allowed since those same laws that protects bigots will also protect me when I say something unpopular.

    As for internal inconsistent beliefs, everyone has them and I do not believe that anyone is 100% consistent in their beliefs. Personally an obvious example is that I both believe that I have free will and that the universe is deterministic. Both cann't be true but there is no way one can imagine living without believing that they have free will. I just try and keep my inconsistent beliefs as far apart as possible and only worry about changing them when they overlap.

  2. Surely it depends on your definition of respect. Some seem to suggest that respect means not being critical of a belief. Others that it means not exposing them to satire. Others still that it requires a certain level of adherence to those beliefs (such as in France, where respect for the republic requires that everyone adhere to a strictly secular dress code).

    I'm sure you have your own definition of what it means to respect a given belief. But I'll bet you that the people who brand you as intolerant disagree. So I fear that trying to determine which beliefs deserve respect and which don't is moot - except in establishing your own sense of internal consistency.

  3. What about people who are at least aware of their inconsistencies, but find themselves as yet unable to reach a conclusion?

    I'm thinking particularly of those who might believe that their religious text demands intolerance of gay people, but who also feel compelled by compassion (maybe they have gay friends or just a lot of empathy) to treat gay people humanely?

    My rule of thumb is consequentialist. If their behavior is truly humane, then I respect them, and I respect the stamina it takes to maintain their internal struggle. If they are internally consistent and treat people inhumanely, then they are hobgoblins, all the worse if they have smothered their empathy to achieve consistency.

  4. @Neil: This was written in general, not scientific speak, and so what I mean by "based on fact" is actually "a reasonable conclusion given all the available evidence to you at the time, after doing a reasonable amount of work to find out that evidence". So yes, your theories of the universe are fair game. :)

    Also, I don't really mean "right" in the legal sense, I kind of mean moral right - that you don't have some imperative to be heard on any hate-filled topic you can think of. I am not about to support any kind of legal ban this stuff. But I'm sick of hearing an argument that amounts to "my opinion should be heard and have as much weight as anyone else's" when that opinion is based on lies and bullshit.

    I've always figured free will was an artifact that works as well as any other model in all realistic situations, but you're free to resolve it however you like. :) And I guess I agree that everyone has some inconsistencies - I know I have had before without knowing it, so I've no doubt I have them now. But If I find one, I resolve it, or at the very least, stop trying to make further arguments based on an inherent inconsistency. I would certainly not expect anyone to hold any respect for such a set of beliefs.

  5. @Ed: Well, I'm going with any of those definitions at all :) I don't respect those kids of beliefs in any of those ways, so it probably doesn't matter which one other people are using.

    I particularly object to the idea that I have to mirror a belief in some small way in order to respect it.

  6. @bloggingishard: In the example you give, I would certainly respect the person for recognising and working on it, but I couldn't really respect their beliefs. In the end though, I'd be happy to ignore it altogether as long as they weren't using those inconsistent beliefs to argue further issues, like banning gay marriage.

    In fact, in the cases where people know they have inconsistencies they can't resolve (as with Neil's comment), it's sort of arguable how much of a belief it really is. It's more of a work in progress, which may never, in fact get finished. So I suppose your consequentialist model works quite well - if they aren't trying to justify other positions with this inconsistency, then it's not a problem, because it has no consequences.

  7. I don't care if someone agrees with my opinions or not...just as long as they know that I'm always right!

  8. Heh,"everyone's entitled to an opinion as long as it's mine". :)

    Or as a friend put it today, "I'm not arguing with you, I'm explaining why I'm right". (quoting someone, not sure who)

    It's fair to say I'm not conceding that I really think those other people's beliefs might be right, just that I respect them. Besides, if I respect them, it's much easier to change sides in the light of new evidence. :)