The Nature of Opinion, and Why We Differ

I just love Bill Watterson.

I may be two weeks late, but Happy New Year nonetheless! We’re already halfway through January, the dual month of beginnings and endings. For some reason, new followers have trickled in since my last post to the point where there are now around 600 of you. For some reason, over a week ago, I got offered a place at the University of Cambridge to read English. And thankfully, probably due to a rest from college work and all the positive messages I’ve been receiving, I’m in a much better place mentally than I was a month ago. I don’t know how long these good omens will last, but I’m definitely endeavouring to act on them.

Now aside from that brief update, I just wanted to talk about beliefs, opinions, convictions; whatever you want to call them. This topic, even if perhaps not expressed as coherently as it possibly could be, has been weighing on my mind for a long time and I felt I may as well get it down in words. If you’re still reading and you’re not in the mood for even a smidgeon of philosophy, this may not be for you. Or you’ll discover a brand-new passion. Who knows.

As a Philosophy student, for 4 and 1/2 hours a week I’m sat in class having an answer-less, generally circular debate with a group of other tired teenagers. Now, the thing about studying philosophy, or indeed, evaluating your opinions about anything, is that it will lead to only one of two outcomes: your opinion will remain the same, or it will change. As youth mostly raised and nurtured under England’s liberal law system, what I often find is that every single one of us teenagers eventually returns to the same point in our debate. Sure, some of us play devil’s advocate (I do all the time; it’s no fun to sit in a circle and nod in agreement at each other all the time), but when it comes to the heavy things, when we have to discuss letting the poor starve to death instead of providing welfare, or the cold utility of sterilising the disabled, our first and strongest reaction is horror. It’s…interesting, how permanent is the social conditioning you are exposed to at a young age. It’s uncomfortable to discuss, disquieting to realise, but essentially we are slaves to our early experiences. We say things are right and wrong, but really these are concepts which are subjective and directly dictated by a cultural exposure we never had any control over.

One of my classmates in particular was convinced, whether in her naivety or ignorance I do not know, that the Taliban were aware that they were ‘evil people.’ I’m not usually so blunt but I laughed at her. In the West, there is a particular arrogance, perhaps the English version born out of the remnants of this country’s past colonial nature, where it is assumed that Western values are superior to values found elsewhere. Freedom is what the individuals want, Western opinion says, it is what the people need and what is ‘best’ and we can construct several arguments referencing Locke, Rawls, the Founding Fathers, etc. to prove it. What’s often ignored is that the opinions of the ‘evil people,’ if you’re childish enough to believe people can be so defined, can be just as well defended. Theories can be explained, logical arguments produced and coherent reasons expounded on as to why they believe what they believe. And in these ‘evil people’ or those culturally different doing so, the problem of logic is exposed – things are only logical from particular assumed positions. It is painful and uncomfortable to realise it, but our Western idea of freedom is no more or less noble than what some men of Abu Dubai see as nobility in chaperoning their women. Both are the results of gut feeling, conditioned by years of early experience that make them so.

If you’re still reading this incoherent mess, you deserve a biscuit/cookie. Delete as appropriate.

Reading this over, I feel I’ve got bogged down in my annoyance and haven’t explained myself properly. What I am trying to say is, as much as we may not like the reality of it, morality and what is thought of as just is not a concrete thing coinciding with our own opinions. People hate the idea of cultural and moral relativism but it’s the cold hard truth that the difference in our opinions is not the result of the flawed logic of one party (often, coincidentally, foreigners of different cultures or people with different political views) which renders their opinion lesser, this dissonance is simply a result of our feelings. Our intuition. Except it isn’t even entirely intuition, because these feelings are influenced by what we’ve been exposed to in our youth.

My friends are slowly starting to realise this, and some of them are become quite disillusioned with the subject and society in general when they realise that what they used to hold as wrong and right isn’t necessarily so black and white. I don’t, though, think it’s a cause for depression and disillusionment. Heck, I see it as a cause for action. We’ve spent our childhood and adolescence accepting that with which we’ve been raised, those opinions and values held somewhere in our society, and I believe it’s honestly a responsibility of adulthood to get rid of our youthful ignorance and learn to understand the differing opinions in the world. Get out there and learn! It doesn’t hurt and if you simply accept that you are no more right than the other person is wrong, it’s (in my opinion) an interesting experience. You might change your views, you might not. Having experienced life on an extremely low income, I disagree with an anti-welfare stance, yet I can fully understand it and even think of many arguments to support it. Despite being black and gay, I even understand (and yes they do exist, as horrifying as it may sound to some of you) coherent arguments against homosexuality and for the opinions of nationalists (of any race).

Yes, it’s horrifying at first to admit that ideas you fundamentally disagree with usually have a logical core to them. That they are not so different to your own, once stripped away. But I find it more horrifying that people are so willing to disregard or ignore the natural ideological variances we have within human culture. It’s scary to admit that many of our opinions are essentially decided for us before we actually come into being, but it’s scarier to admit to yourself that a part of you doesn’t want to change these opinions out of a fear of new ones. But, I suppose the irony of my typing out this long speech is that if you’ve been following me, you’ve probably realised that this is just my opinion, borne out of my experiences and feelings, and if you like you’re free to disagree and neglect my ramblings. Of course if you’re still reading this long piece (thanks and well done!), you’re free to disagree in the comments below.

14 thoughts on “The Nature of Opinion, and Why We Differ

  1. chicanogets113years

    You’ve hit the nail right square! Being free is something that many of us are not, no matter what great Western area in which we reside, as it comes to us on the backs of other, poor people; and eventually comes to include ourselves. Egocentricity is a sad illusion, as well, and it will be a blessing when folks can find ways to wake up! And, yes, we are in the a matrix of lies, deception and subterfuge; pass it on! Great blog….

    1. dlaiden Post author

      Thank you. It is sad illusion, yes, one that too many people are taken under by. I used to think that people were waking up more as we advanced technologically, but it seems that all such advancement generally does is spread the ignorance further. Perhaps one day!

  2. auuinisrael

    Congrats on your acceptance to Cambridge!
    Great post – I think you’ve touched some of the core realizations about being human and our inherent limitations regarding our knowledge and “rightness”. And I think that awareness of these limitations is crucial in guiding how to live with respect for others, even while not giving up on what you believe in. Thanks for sharing!

    1. dlaiden Post author

      Thanks! It was a bit of a shock (still is, really).
      Glad to know you found the message was coherent! I just wish more people would take the time to get to those realisations, as difficult as the journey is. People are naturally afraid to confront those inherent limitations in their world view, but as you’ve said it doesn’t necessitate giving up their beliefs. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. pinappleflavouredpeople

    I would click that “Like” button twice if I could 😛 (And one more time for the cookie).
    I came to the realisation a while back that (in my opinion, of course) there is no black or white. it’s all point of view. This bothers my ethics teacher sometimes, when he asks me on a concrete opinion and I can’t decide.
    Also, I am jealous. I miss discussions in school. The only discussions I ever have are with my friends at midnight when we’re too tired to be silly. I don’t have “philosophy”, I have ethics where we don’t discuss, we just learn about what everybody else said. We don’t say anything ourselves. But I suppose it’s interesting to see what strange ideas some philosophers had (e.g Plato and his three-class-system with the philosophers – including Plato – at the top).
    Actually, I think it’s quite an important thing to discuss and be confronted with different opinions. It makes us question our own views (except when it comes to Marvel films – there can be no discussion on that! I get a stinging sensation in my heart when somebody says they don’t like Captain America 😦 Don’t touch the Lola!). Also, I don’t think we will ever arrive at the truth, only our own version of it. Then it’s up to us (if we have the chance) if we stick with it or not.
    Right…rambling on here.

    Very good post 🙂 And thanks for the cookie.

    1. dlaiden Post author

      I can understand your ethics question problems. Sitting on the fence, as much as it’s hated in a lot of discussions, is often one of the most intellectually honest decisions you can make. Not that that makes it easy, as kind of bluntly demonstrates that humanity’s search for pure objective truth isn’t realisable.
      Haha, that does sound like a really boring and passive lesson. Learning without the discussion can still be good though; interestingly enough Plato’s Republic is our other module (yes, that three soul hierarchy thing is strange, though interestingly Plato himself would only be an auxilliary without access to the Forms…makes you wonder why he advocates it so much). Hehe, Captain America is probably one of the few superheroes I don’t like! I don’t like super-American-patriotism being put in my face so much…:P But you’re right (I think anyway), in a lot of cases the only truth we can arrive at is a subjective truth (which I guess makes no sense to Plato!). Rambling is always good, it’s 90% of this blog. 😉 No problem about the cookies!

  4. NicoLite Великий

    Hi, a happy New year, and long time no see 🙂 good to have you back. I do agree with your stance on moral relativism. For eccentrics like us, it is an undeniable, and necessary, stance. I do, however, believe that there are better and worse ethical codes, because often, there is dogma in the place where logic should be. Let’s go back to the Taliban: I read a report a few years back, where Taliban warriors killed two young children who had waved to American soldiers driving by in their Humvees. It is understandable that a beleaguered party needs to strictly enforce discipline and loyalty in the face of an overpowering opposing force, but nobody in their right mind can find killing children a good thing, no matter how (well) it is justified

    1. dlaiden Post author

      Happy new year to you too, my friend. It is true that there are what we’d call better and worse ethical codes, but I’d argue that those tags, better and worse, are still subjective. The problem is that all or most logical systems spring from dogmas, including our own. I don’t think it’s that some systems are too dogmatic, I think the problem is that the more we disagree with a different dogma the more incomprehensible we find its logical system. For the Taliban and their extremist logic, killing those children would be a good thing. What was ‘good’ to the Taliban was to uphold what they believed their religion demanded, a demand they believed the children threatened. Thus the children became not only enemies but traitors through their actions, as insane a concept as it is to us, and as enemies they could now be justifiably shot. But we find their extremist premise absurd, and so find their logic equally or more absurd to the point where it just feels wrong for us. But it would not if we were them. Killing children can be an entirely justifiable thing depending on dogma, as it was for the Nazis to the Jewish children, or for the Israelis to the Palestinian children used as human shields in the Gaza wars. Even the US government justifies the deaths of civilians and children killed during drone strikes as necessary collateral damage during the ‘war on terror.’ There is a logic behind all of these justifications, even if we see them as flawed and vehemently disagree with their initial dogmas. Heck, from many points of view, abortion is the murder of children, and yet we in secular Western society find it for the most part entirely justifiable to go through with the action. This is because it is a logical action to us, following on from such dogma as us possessing ownership of ourselves. Other cultures react in shock and horror, seeing our morals are horrific and backwards.
      Calling the morals of others good and bad entirely depends on our own cultural dogmas. From another POV, we’re the despicable, morally subversive people, and they are the ones attempting to introduce what is morally upright to our society. Hmm, not sure if I’ve made myself clear in this long answer, just let me know and we can continue this further.

      1. NicoLite Великий

        Actually, even as an atheist, I find abortion terrible. I’m not judging the people who do it, because I don’t and can’t know their reason, because there are scenarios where I could find it justifiable to abort a pregnancy. And yes, we are despicable for our wastefulness and thoughtlessness, all on the backs of the less fortunate people in less fortunate countries. We are corrupt in the sense that we enable the 1%ers, we are the membrane in the machine that separates the rich and super-rich from the rest of the world. Western Europe is anxious of the labor market opening for Bulgaria and Romania, because they might get what we have now, which would leave less for us, so we perpetuate the ongoing class war that Marx and Engels spoke of, the divide amongst those who believe themselves fortunate, but have no means of comparing their lives to the 1%ers, or the ones we are unwittingly, but willingly, shielding them from. Now it is me who rambles Socialist ideology. And basically saying that most people in the west are snivelling cowards, or delusional, or both.

  5. 2Karl

    Nice read. Good and evil, and moral “right” and “wrong” are not absolutes, they are human constructs, and never black and white. I could cite numerous examples, such as anti-abortionists claiming that all life is sacred while ignoring the fact that bringing another hungry child into the western world could actually spell doom for many in countries where resources are exploited in order to support that child indirectly.

    The point you make about people sticking to the values which they have been raised on (and therefore viewing other value systems as “worse”) is a salient one. Many people would find the practice of leaving elderly members of your family to die in the desert (or an iceberg, depending on which nomadic tribe you were from) abhorrent, but this acted in the interests of the tribe.

    “‘It ain’t ever as simple, is it, as a man is just good or bad? Not even you. Not even Bethod. Not anybody.’
    ‘No.’ Logen sat and watched the flames moving. ‘No, it ain’t ever that simple. We all got our reasons. Good men and bad men. It’s all a matter of where you stand.'”
    -Joe Abercrombie, Last Argument of Kings.

    1. dlaiden Post author

      Thank you, and thanks for reading. I guess it’s just human nature to want absolutes, because some aspects of life would be easier with them. Not being able to divide morality into concrete factions, and always being aware that there is little different from you and your ideological opposite other than the context of your upbringing is difficult. But the subjectivity of what we call just and right and true is perhaps one of the few truths we can actually know.

      About abandoning relatives, precisely. Evolutionarily speaking it’s common sense, and we often see this behaviour in animals, whether its the aged and ill or the runt of the litter being abandoned. It’s modern ideologies which have pushed us away from that kind of utilitarian behaviour, and without rejecting our views it’s important to realise that it is our current position that makes us think this way, not some objective moral code. But again, it’s hard. Thanks for that quote; I think I’ve heard of Mr Abercrombie but I hadn’t got around to reading him yet. Might change that soon.

  6. desirefa

    since you’re into philosophy, i wonder then do you think it’s possible to arrive or get close to an objective truth? do you think there are some “universal” truths however they may end up looking like?

    1. dlaiden Post author

      Admittedly no, I don’t. Both moral/metaphysical truths and even scientific truths rest on assumptions. Moral/metaphysical assumptions are clearly subjective, as we can tell from cultural variance, and many scientific truths are also (though it isn’t often acknowledged) subtly or overtly affected by culture, as well as being logically criticisable on the grounds of whether there is or isn’t a physical reality (which sounds bizarre, but is very interesting to study).

      I don’t believe there are any universal or objective truths, yet I think establishing basic ‘truths’ is a necessary part of operating a functioning society. It’s a bit like needing a concept of ‘perfection’ as a measure to judge things against, even though perfection doesn’t really exist. So really, ‘truths’ aren’t objective, undoubtable rules, but subjective and changing guidelines. But of course, there are no actual answers to anything in philosophy, and this belief is just what I’ve settled on for the time being. In fact, believing something like that makes it a bit stranger to some that I have both a faith and moral system, but hey ho. I hope that long-winded answer actually answered your question; I get carried away sometimes!

  7. Thomas

    This is super late, but congrats on your acceptance to Cambridge! I was scrolling through the blogs I follow and wanted to see what you’ve posted as of late – even though this writing is a few months old, you raise a lot of interesting points. I’m especially enamored with how you state that we shouldn’t feel bad (or useless) because people have opposing points of view; rather, we should use that moral relativism as the foundation for change and discussion. The world wouldn’t be as colorful if everyone agreed with one another, and while these disagreements can lead to sad and sometimes horrible results, we also possess the tools to compromise and learn from one another. I look forward to reading your next post!


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