On matters of human life, and human dignity, you have to make your argument and prepare to be bested, no cheating.
When someone explains his claim about a difficult matter by saying, “You have to respect my opinion,” you can usually say, “No, I don’t.” Because, really, you don’t. You might be doing the person a kindness by telling him that.
People often say this when they want to assert something dumb or dubious without being contradicted. It’s the rhetorical get-out-of-jail-free card. Find yourself out-argued, say “You have to respect my opinion.” Expect everyone else to nod and stop arguing. I mean, no one ever says it when he’s winning an argument.
It isn’t true, though. Few of us know very much. The subjects on which we can speak with any authority are limited. I can speak about the crafts of writing and editing, but I can’t speak about the crafts of carpentry or pitching. You should not respect my opinion on creating dovetail joints or throwing the slider. The carpenter or pitcher would have every right to laugh at me, or say something rude.
This doesn’t bother the Catholic. We are part of a Body, a Body that speaks with the refined wisdom of the ages and a Divine guarantee for much of what it says. You know this, I know that, and the Church knows more than all of us put together. We mostly need to learn, not to discover or invent.
The agnostic and the Baptist don’t have to respect my ideas on the moral law, because who am I, but they should respect the Church’s, because she has earned the right to speak on it. She can produce an extensive set of elaborate arguments for the claims she makes and the instructions she gives us.
The real problem
But it does bother the people who want to say something definitive and have only themselves as authorities to invoke. The real problem is the way these people use the claim in public arguments, especially about contentious issues. Abortion and euthanasia would be obvious examples, but even Catholics can use this line when they disagree with Catholic Social Teaching. (I talked about this in relation to abortion in The Disciple of Rationality’s Unreasonable Thoughts on the Human Life Review’s website.)
“We are all entitled to our opinion,” said someone in a Facebook discussion of abortion. (My thanks to Sean Taylor for flagging it.) In context, that means the same thing as “You have to respect my opinion.”
Of course you have a right (an entitlement) to your opinion. That doesn’t mean anyone else has to take it seriously. You have the right to stand in front of town hall with a sign saying “I am Plato reincarnated.” I have the right, indeed I think I’m required, to doubt your ability to dispense platonic advice. For the good of others who might do who knows what on your instruction, I may need to question you sharply about your knowledge of Plato’s writing.
The Catholic writer Anthony Esolen took the matter one level deeper. He responded to the Facebook assertion: “Change the terms. Make it about Russian roulette, dueling, gladiatorial combats to the death for the entertainment of crowds, cockfighting for gamblers, etc. You are not entitled to an opinion where grave moral evil is at issue.”
The stakes are too high for someone to make a positive claim and when challenged just say “I have a right to my opinion and you should accept it.” We’re not talking about something that doesn’t really matter, like who’s now the best hitter in baseball or whether Mozart or Bach was the better composer.
We’re talking about human life and death. We’re talking about mothers, and sometimes fathers too, who feel desperate. We need more than opinion. The Facebook commenter wouldn’t want a juror explaining his vote to give him the death penalty by saying “I’m entitled to my opinion.” The unborn child, were he allowed to be born and grow up, would say the same. Only the question at hand is whether he will ever be able to say anything at all.
You must make an argument
Esolen explained: “You are entitled to [make and hear] an argument.” If you want to talk about abortion, you must deal with the reality and say something definite about it. Otherwise, don’t talk. More to the point, don’t support aborting unborn children.
The Catholic Church makes an argument based upon the data, as Esolen goes on to explain. “The conceptus is a self-organizing, living, individual, developing human creature,” he writes. The Church recognizes that fact and draws a moral conclusion from it: “You don’t get to kill it.” You may disagree with the Church’s understanding of the data or the moral conclusion she draws, but you have to argue your point. Dropping back and saying “We are all entitled to our opinion” doesn’t work.
Because human life and human happiness is at stake.