Monday, November 7, 2016

Robert P. George on "earning your right to an opinion"

I sometimes open my courses by saying to my students, we’re Americans, right? They all say, right. As Americans, we have the right to our opinion, right? They say, right. And I say, wrong. And they’re taken aback. They say, Professor George, you’re saying we don’t have a right to our opinions? Are you going to ram your reactionary opinions down our throats? And, of course, that’s not what I mean at all.

Now that I’ve got their attention, I’ve got something to say to them. Well, in this classroom, you have a right to an opinion when you earn the right to an opinion. And you earn the right to an opinion not by emoting your way to what you hold or think, but by thinking your way to the conclusions that you’re going to have. (Applause.)

And I say, now, I can tell you from experience — long experience, sometimes hard experience — that on all of the issues we’re going to be covering in this course — and I teach courses in constitutional law, civil liberties, moral and political philosophies, so we touch on all the hot-button issues — I can tell you from long experience, on every issue we discuss in this course, we’re going to have reasonable disagreement. On all of these issues, reasonable people of good will disagree about what the right answer is or what position should be held. That’s just a fact. That’s just reality.

Now, that’s not to embrace moral relativism. It’s certainly not to say that I myself don’t have an opinion. I hold the opinion because I think it’s true. But because reasonable people of good will can and do disagree about these things, to earn your right to an opinion, you have to understand — and I mean understand, not just be able to parrot it back. You have to understand why someone as intelligent, as well-informed and as well-motivated as you may have reached a different conclusion.

When you know why, when you can reproduce their argument and nevertheless give me your reasons for rejecting it in favor of the opinion that you hold, God bless you, you’ve earned your right to that opinion.

-- Robert P. George, AEI Annual Dinner 2016: A Conversation with Irving Kristol.

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