Having an opinion is something we all do, but we must recognize that we often do it based on insufficient information and questionable evidence. An opinion is one thing, while forming a well-founded and defensible opinion is quite another. The latter, as Bertrand Russell writes, requires that you be wary of opinions which flatter your self-esteem. Imagine different biases and perspectives, look outside your immediate social circle, and question why an opposing opinion might make you react emotionally. It can be summed up with “Strong opinions which are lightly held.”
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On Forming Opinions
“Opinions are like mouths, everyone has one.” Have you ever heard this phrase, or a more vulgar version? It means that opinions are natural to have and inescapable. However, this doesn’t say anything about their accuracy or the unfortunate consequence that many people like to substitute their opinions for fact.
Sound opinions can only come from intellectual honesty. Especially in the times we live, when it seems like it’s more important to have loud and quickly-delivered beliefs, going out of your way to take deliberate steps in establishing your views is vital.
Philosopher Bertrand Russell identified some of the pitfalls of making hasty opinions, as outlined in one of the essays that comprised his anthology The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell. He may not have known it at the time, but he was one of intellectual honesty’s first proponents. His approach was to ensure that they aren’t clouded by sentiment, bias, or corrupt thinking. Accordingly, one of Russell’s lasting legacies is the work he did in the philosophy of logic, which first started with Aristotle.
It’s one thing to believe facts and opinions that you’ve read or heard about, and there are some that you can even take for granted. You’re secure in believing that bears hibernate in winter, even if you’ve never personally tracked a bear as he’s preparing to pack it in for the season. Is it possible for you to observe them yourself? Other people have, and it might be safe to take their word on it for this one if you trust them.
When you can—especially when it comes to opinions—you should try out your beliefs yourself. If you believe that a new shopping center near your kid’s school is creating heavy and unsafe traffic when school lets out, take a day or two to actually watch and measure the traffic on the street to back up your opinion. Can it truly be your opinion if you don’t have a basis for it?
Don’t just take others’ opinions for your own, no matter how persuasive your sources. It’s a mistake to assert that you know something when you don’t. The more strongly you believe something, the higher the risk that you’re being swayed by personal bias. If you have a chance to test your beliefs, take it.
The most volatile blow-ups we have in intellectual discourse occur when we’re discussing matters that are, at heart, unprovable. We don’t get angry when we hear a math equation; “2 plus 2 equals 4” will not make someone fly into a vicious rage unless they’re extremely unstable. It’s subjective matters of the spirit that people clash over, be it theology, favorite music styles, or whether their favorite sports team “sucks.”
If you find yourself getting increasingly angry when you’re in a debate with someone, stop and think why you’re getting incensed. Russell suggests that you may subliminally know that your viewpoint isn’t necessarily backed up by the strongest proof, and you are dreading the inevitable feeling of being wrong. The more agitated and hotter you are about defending yourself, the higher the chance that you’re standing on shaky intellectual ground. If the ego is awakening, there just might be a reason.
In fact, seek them out. Many times we adopt certain beliefs because our friends and family believe them. For all intents and purposes, those opinions become our reality. Then, we fear being ostracized or rejected by the social circles we’re in if we dare express a countering viewpoint. Other times we may sincerely hold those opinions but have no visibility into what a counterpoint might look or sound like. Echo chambers are where strict, dictatorial stances are left free to develop and turn into ruthless dogma.
Seek out the viewpoints of people far outside your immediate group of friends. Don’t argue against them or refute them. Listen. Read or watch the news sources of the opponent if you can’t get out and talk to them personally. Understand that people live in different worlds, despite walking or sitting right next to you on the subway.
In many cases you’ll find they might have some good points. And if you still find their views repugnant or unhealthy—well, that’s how they feel about you. As unlikely as it seems, exposure to the opposition is the best way to find common ground, decrease intolerance, and balance your own opinions.
On a related note, after gaining a bit of understanding of other people, try engaging in the thought exercise of how someone with an alternate perspective might respond to your opinions. There may be zero chance that you actually change your mind on certain things, but at least you’ve gained perspective and hopefully empathy.
Any politician will tell you that the best way to instill a belief in a certain individual is to appeal to their ego. They win over crowds by complimenting their patriotism, emotions and overall profile. This should be self-evident—people don’t get insulted into believing a certain way, but they can be cajoled and seduced into it.
But just because a vendor calls you beautiful or handsome doesn’t mean the price of that jacket will fit your bank account. Beware when you’re hearing an opinion from someone that makes you feel validated and righteous all over. Is it honest, or is it pandering and flattering for the purpose of gaining compliance? There’s a chance it’s formed and delivered in such a way that you can’t help but be manipulated or charmed into believing it. No matter how sound or rational the opinion might be, check to make sure it’s as appealing to your intellect more than your sense of pride. Thinking clearly means going more deeply than your emotional reactions.
For Russell, forming opinions is not something to be taken lightly, and a certain amount of responsibility comes with it. Others may not engage in this process, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.
Charlie Munger, the businessman and philanthropist who is best known as financial partner to Warren Buffett, once said,
I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.
That view goes hand in hand with Russell’s directives above to seek ideas outside your social circle and imagine how someone would argue back to you. Don’t just come up with a bullet list of counteracting opinions—go deeply into the opposition’s point of view. You should become your own toughest and most articulate critic.
We’re not programmed to do this instinctively. The brain has a strong inclination to confirmation bias, the tendency to only hear opinions that support our own viewpoints that we’ll explore later. But ours is a brain that is programmed for a combination of speed and certainty, not accuracy. Acting decisively in the face of a speeding truck can save your life, while trying to determine truth can leave you a splatter on the road. But that’s not the situation we are dealing with, is it? In the absence of threats to your life, truth should always be the end goal, and opinions should be formed only after making an honest effort to pursue it.
“Strong opinions which are lightly held” is a helpful rule of thumb. Have certainty in what you know, but also be open to what you don’t know and how it impacts your current opinion. Make your opinion a reflection of what you currently know, and keep updating it to adapt. When you don’t attach to a particular opinion, you’ll find that truth becomes easier and easier to see as well as find. If you do feel an attachment, it’s probably a sign that you are not being guided by intellectual honesty.