Is philosophy just a matter of opinion?
One of the most common misconceptions about philosophy is that philosophical views are just opinions and hence any view is just as good (or bad) as any other.
An opinion is a belief. In common usage, to say “it is my opinion that X” is to say “I believe X.” An opinion is also typically taken as an unsupported opinion. That is, a belief that is not backed up with reasons or evidence. An opinion can become a fact-a belief that is adequately backed up by evidence or reasons.
This particular misconception involves thinking that all philosophical views are just opinions and can never reach the status of being facts. Those who fall victim to this misconception assume that there are no better or worse opinions on philosophical matters. So, any position is as good as any other and there is really no point in discussing it. From this is generally thought that once you have stated your opinion, that is enough and it should be accepted as being as good as anyone else’s opinion.
This misconception typically involves two assumptions: philosophical positions are simply opinions and the assumption that all opinions are equally good. These assumptions are appealing, but mistaken.
In regards to the first assumption, it is true that philosophy begins with an opinion-what a person thinks about a particular issue. However, the practice of philosophy involves reasoning about and arguing for the position in question. A position backed up with arguments is not simply a matter of opinion-the position is now supported with evidence and reasons. Given that logic and reasoning are not simply matters of opinion, these supported positions cannot be dismissed as being simply matters of opinion. If someone wishes to disagree with a supported position, they will need to provide arguments of their own-otherwise there is no reason to accept their opinion over the supported opinion. Thus, supported philosophical positions are not simply opinions.
In regards to the second assumption, it is often assumed that since people are “entitled” to their own opinions, it follows that all opinions are equally good. While this view enjoys some popularity, it seems implausible in. For example, in the case of cancer treatments, the opinion of medical doctor seems quite a bit better than that of a 5 year old. As another example, in regards to designing airplanes, the opinion of an aeronautical engineer is better than that of a 1st year PE major. If all opinions were equally good, then there would no sense in paying such high fees to doctors-you could just ask anyone for medical advice. There would also be no sense in companies hiring engineers-any one should be able to design a plane or determine if a building is safe.
The second assumption is also logically self refuting. If all opinions are equally good, then the opinion that not all opinions are equally good is as good as the opinion that all opinions are equally good. This is a contradiction that arises from the assumption that all opinions are equally good. Therefore, the claim that all opinions are equally good must be rejected.
While this misconception might seem to have been easily defeated, it is often based on sophisticated views of relativism and subjectivism .Relativism is the view that truth is relative-typically to a particular culture. There are specific types of relativism, such as moral relativism-the view that moral truths are culturally relative and not universal. For the relativist, truth varies from culture to culture. So what is true in Rome need not be true in Newark.
A more extreme view is subjectivism. Subjectivism is the view that truth is completely subjective-it is relative to the specific individual. There are specific types of subjectivism, such as moral subjectivism-the view that moral truths are entirely dependent on individual opinion. For the subjectivist, truth varies from person to person. So, what is true for you need not be true for someone else?
Some people assume that philosophical issues are all relative or subjective in nature, so philosophy is thus a matter of opinion. While relativism and subjectivism are defensible positions, to simply assume they are correct is to beg the question. Begging the question is a mistake in reasoning in which a person actually assumes what they need to prove. So, while subjectivism or relativism in regards to philosophical matters might be correct, such a position must be argued for and defended. It would be an error to simply assume that philosophic views simply are subjective or relative.
The conflict between an objective view of philosophy and relativism is an old one and dates back before the time of Plato. In his dialogue Theatetus Plato agrees that some things are relative. For example, a wind that seems chilly to one might seem pleasant to another. But, he argues that relativism is self-refuting. His specific nemesis in the dialogue is Protagoras, a sophist. Protagoras claims that all opinions are true. This must, of course, include the opinions of his opponents who believe he is wrong. So, his belief is false if those who disagree with him have true beliefs. Plato also points out that Protagoras charged for his teachings and justified this by claiming he was teaching people what they needed to know. But once he claims that his teachings are better than those of others, he has abandoned his relativism. In more general terms, when someone starts arguing for the truth of relativism, they certainly seem to be undermining their own position.