Saturday, September 14, 2013

You Don't Have a Right to Your Opinion

One charge critics of the status quo often face is that of intolerance. I have personally been accused of intolerance with regards to my animal rights advocacy. A standard dialogue along these lines can go as follows:

A: The animals that you claim to love and the animals that you eat do not differ in any morally relevant ways. If you claim to be an animal lover, you should reject all animal use and become vegan.

B: I understand that you believe that, but it is only your opinion. I respect your right to have your opinion, so you should be tolerant of myself and others who think that eating meat is okay.

This response is mistaken in several ways. First, though many people claim it, I'm not sure there exists a right to one's opinion. You only need rights to protect things that are vulnerable to violation. There's no way for me to change your opinion by force, and so there's no need for you to have a right to have that opinion. Of course, you may have whatever opinion you want.

There is a right not to be jailed for having opinions, or killed, or forcibly silenced, etc., but all of those extend from the rights not to be unjustifiably jailed, killed, forcibly silenced, etc. Having an opinion is not something that can be protected because it's not something that can be attacked.

Though perhaps it might seem I'm quibbling, this is important. It is important because what I think these people are actually trying to claim is a right not to have their opinion challenged. No one actually claims such a right, because when it is accurately articulated, it is clearly ridiculous.

Another way in which this response is mistaken is that it is setting up a double standard. When B tells A that they should be tolerant of B's views, B implicitly accepts that she may offer moral criticism of A. The thought that A shouldn't be intolerant of B's opinion is morally loaded, and irreducibly so. That's why B feels that this is so powerful a response, because it reverses the direction of moral criticism. But if B is allowed to criticize A for conversational conduct, then surely A is allowed to criticize B for consuming animals products. And if it is wrong for A to criticize B for not being a vegan, then it is wrong for B to criticize A for offering up such a criticism.

This doesn't resolve the disagreement, of course, but it shows B's response to be self-defeating. And it is curious why this defense is so common, given how weak it is.

One of the reasons this response is appealing to people in B's position, I imagine, is that the victim at the center of B's moral criticism is present. The victim is B, whose opinion is supposedly not being respected.

However, though the victims who are the subject of A's moral criticism may often not be present, the claims on their behalf are no less sound. And even if there were some reasonable complaint that B had about her opinion not being respected, surely what is done to animals who are used for human purposes is far worse. But because the animals are not present when these conversations take place, B can imagine that A is just being self-righteous, rather than speaking up for those who are exploited. This failure of imagination is a large part of what allows the exploitation to continue.

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