Section  4. It's my opinion !

The "It's MY opinion -- how can you tell me what's right for me" syndrome, and other myths ...

1. "Well, it's true for me ...."
Many students have a difficult time seeing a distinction between the following two statements:

a. It's true.
b. It's true for me.

But there IS a difference, and it is important to see the difference, and most people see the difference when it comes to things like mathematics, science, accounting, engineering, law, etc.

Here's the question: What does "for me" add to "It's true"? What I mean is, why would anyone say "It's true for me"? Let's say, for example, your favorite physics teacher asks you to tell her what the rate of fall is for a body located approximately at the surface of the Earth. Let's say that you are a student of physics and know with more certainty than that Bush is president, that bodies fall at 9.4 meters per second per second. If you write on your exam that bodies fall at 9.4 mXsec2, your instructor would put an annoying red "X" next to your answer.

"But wait a darn minute, there, ma'am: it's true for me that bodies fall at 9.4 mXsec2!"

She would either laugh at and mock you, or tell you to read the text again, or something like that. Otherwise she wouldn't have a clue what you meant. Does your statement mean that when you are near other physical objects, they fall at 9.4 mXsec2, but when you are not near them they accelerate at a different rate? If you mean that, then your body or mind exerts some sort of force on these objects to control their rate of fall. But clearly you don't mean that. If you did, then your teacher would be right to laugh at and mock you.

More than likely, what you mean is: "I believe that bodies fall at 9.4 mXsec2," in which case, your teacher would be right to point you in the direction of your text.

In other words, "it's true for me" has nothing whatsoever to do with truth, and does not make your belief legitimate, justified, or deserved.

2. "Nobody can tell me what to believe ..."
What exactly is this a defense against? It seems that it might be claiming one of the following:

No one can force me to believe something I don't want to believe.
  No one has the moral right to tell me what to believe.
No one has the intellectual right to tell me what to believe.

1. Well, no one can force you to believe something -- true enough. But what exactly does this mean? Perhaps it says something like this: No matter how strongly someone else believes that I'm wrong, that will not cause me to believe otherwise. Or perhaps it means something like: No matter what somebody does to me, they can't take away the strength of my character -- I will endure in my beliefs. Or maybe: No matter how badly someone wants me to change my beliefs, I will refuse.

The first case, the suggestion is that my will cannot be forced. I can imagine cases in which this strength of will might be noble, even heroic. Saints and martyrs come to mind. But small children also come to mind, and inexperienced adolescents, and stubborn husbands. In other words, this trait might be a virtue, but it might be a vice, too. And so by itself, it does not recommend itself as a strategy.

2. On the face of it, it is not obvious that NO ONE has the moral right to tell me what to do. I can imagine a young cashier with sticky fingers, and his boss or colleague or parent reprimanding him. I can imagine a Colonel in the army lecturing a cocky new Lieutenant on the issue of courage. The Colonel has been there, done that, seen more, and faced more, and would seem to have the moral right to tell the Lieutenant what to think and how to act. I can imagine a seasoned teacher lecturing a younger teacher on the virtues of being patient with students, or on being overly easy in grading. And so, it seems that this claim needs to be justified.

3. This is the weakest position, and can't withstand even the slightest scrutiny. All you have to do is to imagine the relationship between someone who is bright and inexperienced in something, and someone who is bright and experienced in that same thing. The latter does have the intellectual right to tell the other what to believe -- at least in some situations. Indeed, it is one of the most maddening things to have someone who makes unjustified and false claims about something about which you know well. Yes ... you DO have an intellectual right to correct him.

So, it seems that the claim that "nobody can tell me what to believe" is simply not true, or at least if it is true, it has to be justified and defended. It is certainly not obviously true.

(This doesn't even touch upon the issue of social implication. Once my beliefs and actions effect other people, they no longer belong to just me -- they are public. They automatically open themselves up to public scrutiny, and I do not have the same proprietary rights to them that I had when they effected only me.)

3. "No one knows my situation better than me, and therefore no one can tell me how to live, and no one can judge me."
It is clear that being in a position to make a rational ethical judgment requires experience. It requires being "tuned in" to circumstances, and to the details of the events which are morally relevant. It requires me to be observant, and to be able to tell the difference between things that are important and things that are not important.

But I know first hand that I am not always the best one to determine the facts of the situation -- even though I'm in it! Sometimes I'll ask my friends or people I respect for advice. In such cases I'll explain the situation that I'm in, and the other person will ask questions. When that other person is really wise, their questions will help me to look at my own situation in ways I hadn't thought of. I'll become aware of facts that I hadn't noticed before. For example, I might notice that somebody involved in the situation might have needs that I didn't even notice. There certainly have been times when people have told me things and I misinterpreted what they said, or I didn't really pay attention. This means that in spite of the fact that the experiences were mine, my reading of the situation may not be adequate, and my own assessment of the right thing to do is not necessarily ideal.

One of the discoveries of the 19th-century is that much goes on in human experience that is below the level of consciousness. This insight was shared by Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. Marx realized that the struggle for economic power motivates political and cultural battles. He realized that what may appear to be political or cultural or ethical struggles are only the outward manifestations of a battle for economic power and self-sufficiency. Now, his own reading of how this has played out in history may not be the most accurate, but his insight -- uncommon then -- has become common sense today. The same may be said for Freud. Freud's "psychoanalytic" method focused on emotional realities which influence human behavior and human consciousness "from below". He realized that events early in a person's life can shift one's emotional needs, and shift the sorts of expectations and behaviors that a person has through out life. And these psychological influences are, he believes, are very difficult to see. They are painful, and people often don't want to face them.

My point above is that my sense of my own self is not always accurate. My self-awareness is actually a challenge for myself. And these "subterranean" realities filter my perception of the world, and can distort my interpretation of my own experience. Friends, family members, teachers, priests, and psychologists can help us see more clearly -- to see ourselves more clearly, and to see the world more clearly.

All this contributes to the problems discussed above. It seems that the territory of my own moral experience is not just my own, and that the public examination of my hopes and aspirations, beliefs and decisions, judgments and actions is both to my own advantage, and serve to make those personal realities more ethically respectable.

Notes on Subjectivism by Sandre LaFave at West Valley Community College


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Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

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