Is having certain opinions inherently immortal? Or are all opinions morally equal and it is actions alone by which right and wrong are judged?
We certainly want to judge people’s ethics by their opinions. We want to judge the person who is a Neo-Nazi as morally inferior to someone whose heart is pure and good and filled with love and joy for everyone.
But what difference does it really make? The Neo-Nazi isn’t hurting anyone by believing as he does. And we all agree that he, like we, is free to believe whatever he wants. From the point of view of morality, it can be said, all law abiding citizens are equal. If neither you nor the fellow next door do the exact same things, give to the same charities, do the same “good works”, then what difference can it possibly make that he things Jews are demons and you do not?
Right now, you will be tempted to say “But doesn’t action follow opinion?”. And it certainly does. Some of the time. But more often than not, it doesn’t. Who among us can say we live every iota of our ideals day in and day out? For many people, their opinions and their actions are worlds apart.
Given that, can we really say that the potential for action is enough reason to judge someone’s moral worth in light of their opinions? Is a Neo-Nazi really any more likely to hurt people than a righteous liberal?
Most violent crime has absolutely nothing to do with personal belief and a lot more to do with money and sex, two notoriously nonpartisan subjects.
A Neo-Nazi junkie and a liberal junkie are equally likely to steal your car stereo system.
It’s understandable that we want to judge people as morally inferior when their opinions are odious to us. Humans are a highly empathic species and therefore we don’t hear or read opinions, we ingest them. A powerful instinct compels our minds to try to merge our map of reality with the ones we hear or read, and this leads us to having to either swallow the odious opinion (one that fills us with genuine disgust, as if it was a bodily waste product) or reject it with great force.
And this is not at all a pleasant process. In fact, it’s one we would rather had never happened. And so, on a simple emotional level, we get angry at the source of our distress, namely both the opinion and the person who has that opinion.
After all, they could have believed anything, or so we would like to think. Therefore they are morally responsible for the pain they have caused us by exposing us to their disgusting opinions. Right?
The problem is, that is not so much about morality as about who we choose to be around or be exposed to, and to treat that the way we do the ethical evaluation of actions is highly problematic.
Few people would disagree with the notion that we all have opinions that someone else would find odious, no matter how pure and saintly we consider ourselves to be. Therefore, the harm done by opinion alone can be seen as equally applying to all people, at least potentially.
We might say that some opinions are far more likely to be odious to a larger number of people, and therefore are more likely to harm others when exposed to a general population.
But that would suggest that the morality of an opinion is subject to a kind of majority vote, and how many would be willing to (even if it were possible) change their opinions if it turns out most people don’t like them and would be upset or even disgusted by them?
Then how can we ask our Neo-Nazi neighbour to do the same?
The more we examine the issue, the clearer it becomes that, quite counterintuitively, there is no ethical basis to judge that a person with even highly malevolent and erroneous opinions is any morally better or worse than anyone else if the actions remain the same.
This fits perfectly with our dominant cultural belief in freedom of thought and expression. We, as citizens of the liberal democracies of the world, believe that everybody should be free to say and think whatever they like, no matter what.
And that is an easy position to endorse when we are thinking only of ourselves and those like us. In the deep machinery of the democratic zeitgeist, we tend to imagine that difference of opinion are like differences of taste – mildly disquieting but ultimately harmless, like preferring Game of Thrones over Breaking Bad, or liking chardonnay over Merlot.
But matters of taste exist in a special protected category in our minds in which it is generally accepted that all are equal because all are about what an individual enjoys, which is a subject about which the individual themselves are considered to be the only experts that matter most of the time.
This is not true for the rest of opinion, however. The rest of opinion lies in the realm of worldview, and as I said before, we humans have a strong instinct to merge our worldviews, and thus, our need to defend our existing beliefs from being overwritten by new ones.
After all, if we believe our current beliefs to be the correct ones, then to change them to ones we thing are incorrect is to willingly believe that which we think is not true, and that is cognitively impossible.
So our desire to think opinions odious to us are morally wrong in and of themselves is perfectly understandable. But it cannot be said to be rational, or ethical.
Having said this, I do not expect anyone, myself included, to stop judging people by their opinions. Rational or not, justified or not, it is something so deeply fundamental to our psychology that I am not sure stopping is even possible.
The best we can do is to remember, when presented with odious opinions, to take half a step back and ask ourselves, “What does this person actually DO?”.
Odds are that their actions are not nearly as different from your own as you might like to think.
I will talk to you nice people again tomorrow.