Why Have Opinions?

I just surprised some people here at a conference by saying that I don’t have opinions on abortion or gun control. I have little use for such opinions, and so haven’t bothered to form them. Since that attitude seems to be unusual among my intellectual peers, let me explain myself.

I see four main kinds of reasons to have opinions on subjects:

  • Decisions – Sometimes I need to make concrete decisions where the best choice depends on particular key facts or values. In such cases I am forced to have opinions on those subjects, in order to make good decisions. I may well just adopt, without much reflection, the opinions of some standard expert source. I have to make a lot of decisions and don’t have much time to reflect. But even so, I must have an opinion. And my incentives here tend to be toward having true opinions.
  • Socializing – A wide range of topics come up when talking informally with others, and people tend to like you to express opinions on at least some substantial subset of those topics. They typically aren’t very happy if you explain that you just adopted the opinion of some standard expert source without reflection, and so we are encouraged to “think for ourselves” to generate such opinions. Here my incentives are to have opinions that others find interesting or loyal, which is less strongly (but not zero) correlated with truth.
  • Research – As a professional intellectual, I specialize in particular topics. On those topics I generate opinions together with detailed supporting justifications for those opinions. I am evaluated on the originality, persuasiveness, and impressiveness of these opinions and justifications. These incentives are somewhat more strongly, but still only somewhat, correlated with truth.
  • Exploration – I’m not sure what future topics to research, and so continually explore a space of related topics which seem like they might have the potential to become promising research areas for me. Part of that process of exploration involves generating tentative opinions and justifications. Here it is even less important that these opinions be true than they help reveal interesting, neglected, areas especially well-suited to my particular skills and styles.

Most topics that are appropriate for research have little in the way of personal decision impact. So intellectuals focus more on research reasons for such topics. Most intellectuals also socialize a lot, so they also generate opinions for social reasons. Alas most intellectuals generate these different types of opinions in very different ways. You can almost hear their mind gears shift when they switch from being careful on research topics to being sloppy on social topics. Most academics have a pretty narrow speciality area, which they know isn’t going to change much, so they do relatively little exploration that isn’t close to their specialty area.

Research opinions are my best contribution to the world, and so are where I should focus my altruistic efforts. (They also give my best chance for fame and glory.) So I try to put less weight on socializing reasons for my opinions, and more weight on the exploration reasons. As long as I see little prospect of my research going anywhere near the abortion or gun control topics, I won’t explore there much. Topics diagnostic of left vs. right ideological positions seem especially unlikely to be places where I could add something useful to what everyone else is saying. But I do explore a wide range of topics that seem plausibly related to areas in which I have specialized, or might specialize. I have specialized in far more different areas than have most academics. And I try to keep myself honest by looking for plausible decisions I might make related to all these topics, though that tends to be hard. If we had more prediction markets this could get much easier, but alas we do not.

Of course if you care less about research, and more about socializing, your priorities could easily differ from mine.

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  • 5ive

    You seem to have a problem with the word “opinion.” You don’t have ideas about what’s most likely to be optimal policy based upon broad, general knowledge of the human condition and a surplus of examples of what policy outcomes might look like based upon other locations? I’ve heard you talk with a lot of confidence about what kind of housing extremely tiny robots animated by electronic copies of human brains are going to want to live in.

    • Even if I could generate an opinion based on crude fast considerations, if I estimate the quality of that would be low relative to what others know, I prefer to instead not generate an opinion.

      • Sharper

        Some people don’t seem to really get what you mean by having no opinion on something. I call it choosing to reserve judgement because I don’t have enough information to have a definite belief one way or the other. That’s something I choose to do on many topics.

        Certainly, if required to make a decision I have to form at least a basic opinion on the topic, even just resorting to a shortcut as you describe in the original article, but the vast majority of things out there require no decision on my part and thus it seems more accurate to not have an opinion yet and hence free myself up to not commit mentally nor tactically to what is likely a mistake view.

        One side effect is if I believe something to be true, I generally have good reasons for it and can intellectually defend my position against any counter-evidence I’ve previously encountered, otherwise I’d be reserving judgement on it.

        I suspect you have a similar mental process to mine, but you’re confusing some people who don’t understand the concept of having information on a topic, even potentially extensive information, without feeling the need to decide internally what’s true and thus form a definite opinion on the matter.

        I’d much rather spend my time in conversation gathering more information on what’s behind others’ opinions on the topics of the day and how they think then expound an opinion of my own which wouldn’t be well-founded. Of course, that approach may also lead to hemlock drinking, so it’s not without social risks.

  • LemmusLemmus

    What you don’t mention is that one will often form opinions effortlessly, as one goes along. For example, I recently read a book on the legendary Fischer-Spassky chess match – for entertainment purposes and not because I wanted to form an opinion on Fischer. Now I think Fischer was a bit of an asshole, on the basis of his actions described in the book.

    • oldoddjobs

      Right, I don’t think people choose to have opinions on abortion and gun control. They choose to make their opinion known to others.

      • So is Robin being disingenuous when he claims not to have one? Or is he truly unusual? (See my other post for why I think the second.)

      • oldoddjobs

        Interesting. I find your take plausible.

        I would quibble slightly with Robin’s list of 4 reasons. For the vast majority (the non-intellectuals), the “socializing” and the “exploration” are bound together. Opinions are exchanged to impress, amuse, get along etc but this is also research because their exploration for truth does not take place in journals, conferences, blogs etc

        How about you Stephen? Do you “have opinions” on gun control and abortion? I am aware of many such opinions. I have done some reading on these subjects over the years but perhaps less than Robin, for example. Not sure how many I “have” but I could probably offer a bunch.

      • Yes, I have opinions on these subjects, but then I see them as pretty fundamental questions, “moral,” one could say (although I wouldn’t). Abortion concerns who should be accorded rights – in my view neither fetuses nor nonlinguistic animals should be, because rights for beings incapable of participating in society almost necessarily reflects a fallacious moral realism. [Laws punishing cruelty to animals piss me off almost as much as anti-abortion laws.] Against gun control because I’m opposed to depriving persons of nonharmful prerogatives because other people will abuse them. [Gun control laws are a form of victimless-crime laws.]

        These are a priori considerations, and are reversible by substantial evidence, but it would take a lot more than some highly visible shootings or (say) an argument that the economy would benefit somewhat from having more people. [But in today’s world, it’s especially hard to see why we would want to make someone have a child who didn’t care to raise it. (I’ll go so far as to advocate free abortion on demand.)]

        Why do I form opinions like these, when I don’t talk about them much? Consciously, because I experience doing so as a duty. No doubt this has status roots: I respect people less who can’t be bothered to form opinions on the issues of the day that affect the masses.

  • Olio Pantalonia

    Makes sense from an utilitarian perspective as well. When people lacked means of communication they had to ask *everything* from the only smart guy in their vicinity, who usually was a priest. Now we have overcame these restrictions and can afford to specialize. However our intuitions might still be wired for a more ancient environment and thus tempt us to consider lack of formed opinions on any matter cowardice.

  • Matt M

    I got a puzzled response last week by not having an opinion on fox hunting. (I live in the UK). I said I didn’t know enough about it.

    Can I add a further category? Signaling. Opinions are a costly way of committing ourselves to one group instead of another.

    • Signaling is social.

      • Matt M

        Yeah, I didn’t really think it was likely that you had forgotten signaling. It’s worth emphasizing that people want you to commit to an opinion, to make it costly for you to back down from it later. Loyalty was your word.

        I wonder if the “no politics, no religion” dinner party rule is related…

  • Zhang Tingyu

    Do tell us if some female in your family is considering having an abortion, thus forcing you to form an opinion about it.

    • Dave Lindbergh

      Why would that force Robin to have an opinion? It’s not him who’d have the abortion. He doesn’t have to decide anything.

      • Zhang Tingyu

        He’d have to socialize very hard with his family about it.

  • CarlM

    I use the word “opinion” differently. In my opinion, vanilla is preferable to chocolate and temperatures in the 60’s (F) are preferable to temperatures in the 90’s. I make no assertion that these opinions are correlated with “truth.”

  • Shane

    “I have little use for such opinions, and so haven’t bothered to form them.” I find the process of forming opinions in itself benefits my critical thinking and helps me to evolve as a person and my view of the world. My initial opinions almost always change as time goes on and I discuss those opinions with others, not only because I learn new information, but I also learn new ways of thinking through problems/scenarios (which is a part of critical thinking). If I don’t take the time to think through critical issues, not only do I feel ignorant, I’m not exercising the philosophical part of my brain which affects my ability to think through issues that are perhaps more directly related to my life.

    In summary, I would suggest a fifth reason to have opinions are simply to evolve as a person.

    • I find the most striking implication of Robin’s rejection of the inherent intellectual value of forming opinions to be pedagogical. The most useful device for eliciting critical thinking in students is the essay. The student defends an opinion on its merits, without regard for the authority of its proponents or his own incompetence. Robin, I suspect, forgoes this device.

      A second implication is political. Democracy depends on citizens forming opinions. But then, Robin’s (reactionary) position on democracy is close to “neoreactionary.”

      A third is the one you explain. Moreover, to understand a position you must first form a favorable opinion of it, however transitory. (See “Unraveling the mystery of morality: The unity of comprehension and belief explains moralism and faith” ( http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/2012/04/143-unraveling-mystery-of-morality.html ) Refusing to form opinions means being unable to understand opinions strongly opposed to your own. I think that’s an enormous sacrifice, and I suspect (from experience) Robin makes it.

  • I just surprised some people here at a conference by saying that I don’t have opinions on abortion or gun control. I have little use for such opinions, and so haven’t bothered to form them. Since that attitude seems to be unusual among my intellectual peers…

    Consider this proposition: intellectual folks have “no use for” opinions on a given subject when the opinions they would honestly form put them at odds with their allies. Works here – in my opinion. It explains your uniqueness in this respect by your unusually ideologically isolated environment (which Caplan referred to as his bubble).

    [Since everyone agrees that we form opinions spontaneously, your not having an opinion on these common matters is what requires explanation; where you (patronizingly) reverse the burden of proof in your conclusion.]

    • “Since everyone agrees that we form opinions spontaneously, your not having an opinion on these common matters is what requires explanation…”

      Most people think this, but some people accept direct doxastic voluntarism. I agree that Robin’s manner of discussion here implies that doxastic voluntarism is true, that is, that he is deciding not to have an opinion on these matters, and that other people are deciding to have an opinion.

      I happen to agree with him. Doxastic voluntarism is true, and it’s not that difficult to see from the relevance of the sorts of incentives that Robin talks about here. But since most people disagree with this fact, it’s important to say explicitly that you intend to assert this, and Robin omitted to do that.

      That said, I think there is in fact at least one social motivation for Robin’s not having an opinion about these particular matters, which is to avoid conflict with various social liberals or conservatives whom he knows.

      Most people basically either know only liberals, or know only conservatives, and therefore form opinions about these two things. But I suspect Robin has fairly close acquaintances that fall into both camps.

      • I do have both liberal and conservative friends, and yes avoiding conflict with them is also a plausible motive for avoiding opinions on sensitive topics.

      • Nonsense. You have no fear of “offending” liberals. (Best proof, your rape versus cuckholding post, but your “Equality talk is about taking” goes to the issue slightly obliquely.) [You didn’t seem to care about having “offended” Noah Smith.]

        Your allies (whoever your friends may be) are on the right. Conjecturally, your natural utilitarian inclinations would be to allow abortions and to impose gun control, which are “progressive” positions. Hence, avoidance.

      • charlies

        interesting that you find abortion obviously justified from a utilitarian perspective

      • Dain Fitzgerald

        Above-it-all rationalists appear to be like a bug zapper for the right: http://dryhyphenolympics.com/2015/06/14/yes-even-polyamorous-drug-users-are-conservative/

    • alexander stanislaw

      “Since everyone agrees that we form opinions spontaneously”

      When did everyone agree to this? I don’t understand why you find it hard to believe that someone wouldn’t have an opinion on gun control. I don’t because it doesn’t affect me or anyone I care about, and I don’t really care to expend energy on it.

      • What I really meant by “everyone” is Robin, who agreed to LemusLemus’s post (or upvoted it, which with Robin seems to indicate agreement). I really don’t think “everyone” literally applies–in fact, probably the opposite. The automatic formation of opinion is counter-intuitive. (It was part of Spinozaism.)

        The reason I find it hard to believe one wouldn’t have an opinion on gun control is that you can’t avoid propaganda on the subject. At least, it would take an effort that probably wouldn’t be worth the avoidance. On the other hand, if you do encounter the propaganda, you would have to constantly counter all the propaganda impinging on you to avoid forming any opinion. [See links in my previous posts in this thread on the unity of comprehension and belief.] Anyone who wanted to avoid expending effort on these subjects would form an opinion.

        [But you’ve established in another post that Robin had a different meaning of “no opinion” in mind: basically amounting to a lack of interest in the subject matter. I don’t find that hard to believe, although the other meaning of opinion presents a more interesting topic for discussion.]

  • surprised

    “Topics diagnostic of left vs. right ideological positions seem
    especially unlikely to be places where I could add something useful to
    what everyone else is saying.”

    Robin, is your view of your own claims on e.g. twitter that you stay clear of the left / right divide on e.g. inequality and distribution?

    • All else equal I expect to be less useful on left right questions, but there are many other relevant factors re having opinions, so I may well have opinions on left right issues due to other factors.

      • surprised

        Without making “other factors” more clear that addition I think that catch all takes the edge of the “four main kinds” message in the OP.

        After reading you on twitter, albeit scattered reading, my impression is that you express markedly right wing views on inequality/distribution issues there, which made me curious on your selfperception on that score after reading this piece.

  • Lord

    Opinion is doing much of the work here. I view it as much more diffuse and vague and on a much wider scale, motivated by instinct more often than reason, and ranging from the flip of a coin, tentative hypothesis, theoretical proposition, deeply held belief, to unproven certainty. Opinions are the water we swim in, so to not have an opinion is to have never experienced or heard of it before, while to withhold opinion is an active check against instinct. We may not have any interest in it, but that is mostly an opinion on its importance and saliency, or we may have some, but know we haven’t thought enough or know enough to form one, or even a lot, but remain open, undecided, even conflicted, seeing all sides. An opinion it doesn’t matter is still an opinion, and we can passively acquiesce in opinion as much as actively formulate them. Reason is as much justification of instinct and experience as reflection on them.

  • Rafal Smigrodzki

    Robin, I do not believe you. I would posit that you do have an opinion about gun control and abortion but you choose not to share it. It is psychologically implausible not to have opinions on topics of any significant salience. Opinions on everything we hear about continually bubble up from our subconscious, sometimes with great conviction, usually without – but they are not absent. Bah, I even have an opinion about the stars in the Andromeda galaxy. Of course, an unwillingness to share opinions may be well-justified, for example to avoid tedious discussions with zealots, or to appear more unusual and intellectually impressive but this is a whole different story.

    • IMASBA

      I think it’s not a case of him not having any feelings on these subjects whatsoever (that would be impossible for a person living in the the US), but a case of him consciously choosing not to present those feelings as well-informed opinions that others should listen to or that he would find sufficient to base a choice on without further relevant research. If you get Robin drunk enough he may share his feelings on these subjects but when sober he’ll tell you he doesn’t have enough information to form a useful opinion. Many other people are not self-conscious enough to be able to admit their intuitive feelings on some subject do not constitute a useful opinion (or they equate those feelings with the word “opinion”), but that doesn’t mean Robin is lying.

      • Rafal Smigrodzki

        If Robin said he does not have a strong opinion, or maybe he feels his opinion is not worthy of sharing, it would be most likely true, and uremarkable. The number of comments on such a posting would be probably small. Saying that he has no opinion is a claim much more improbable, and therefore more notable, I would say, clickbait-ey.

      • IMASBA

        It’s probably a matter of semantics: Robin does not consider some vague intuitive feeling (that he doesn’t think worth sharing or thinking about) to be an opinion, many other people do. But who knows, maybe it’s just clickbait-ey signalling…

    • Zhang Tingyu

      “I even have an opinion about the stars in the Andromeda galaxy”

      Most likely humans are in a normal distribution about how opinionated they are. On one end are insufferable bores who have opinions even about the stars in the Andromeda galaxy; on the other are others who have can’t be bothered to have opinions about anything at all.

      • Rafal Smigrodzki

        Am I to understand you *don’t* have an opinion about the Andromeda galaxy?
        Very surprising.

      • truth_machine

        What about the insufferable bore who is you?

    • alexander stanislaw

      If by opinion you mean – have any thoughts or intuitions at all about something – then I understand your incredulity. But I don’t think Robin is using the word in that way. Having an opinion usually means leaning significantly one way or the other. I also have no opinion on gun control. I don’t know anything about it other than it involves “guns” and “laws”, but I really don’t care about it, it doesn’t affect my life, it doesn’t affect the lives of anyone I know.

      Now there are topics that I have opinion on, but they aren’t well thought out, and I can’t defend them. I would usually tell someone I don’t have an opinion on it, or just “I don’t know” (abortion is one of them). But there are also prominent topics that I really have no opinion on.

      • Yes, I think you’re completely correct about Robin’s meaning: I too misunderstood him. I’m going, however, to externalize blame: I think you’re and Robin’s answer to the opinion question is disingenuous, and that’s the reason so many of us misunderstood him.

        If someone asked me the “your opinion” question in any significant forum or context, I would be at pains to be clear about whether I couldn’t decide or I just didn’t care to bother my head with the question. (Sherlock Holmes avoided considering whether heliocentrism was true or not because he wanted to save his resources for mastering evidence.)

        This equivocation seems to be motivated by status considerations, in that it is slightly disreputable to say (in a supposed democracy) that you don’t think abortion and gun control are worth your time.

        If we were all utilitarians, this wouldn’t make sense. Robin (and you) wouldn’t have to hide your contempt for topics people are expected to take an interest in out of civic-mindedness. Robin addresses the altruism question essentially by saying he’s too good for such semi-obligatory concerns.

        Extant social “morality” (the perceived duty to the collecive) isn’t utilitarian. Rather, in the main it goes along the line “I’ll do my share (in a given domain) if others do the same.” Robin is perceived as a shirker. (And his equivocation is designed to hide that he is.) [Not being a moral realist, I (really) have no opinion on whether he is one.]

      • alexander stanislaw

        Okay I’m beginning to understand the civic duty perspective that you are describing. I take a small issue with term “contempt” which seems like a severe exaggeration for lack of interest. Nevertheless the broader point that due to social pressures it is easier to say “I don’t know” than ” I don’t care” is an interesting one that I hadn’t thought of before.

        I do, however, think there is a spectrum between “I don’t know” and “I don’t care”. Abortion and gun control – for me – occupy the more or less ends of that spectrum. But in the middle there is “I sort of understand, but it will take me a while to come to a conclusion”, or “I’ve spent a small amount of time trying to understand, and may or may not try to come to a conclusion”. I’m not equivocating, there is usually a mix of the two occurring.

      • selenae

        I’ve been trying to put my reaction to this post into words, and I think you hit it exactly with “perceived duty to the collective.”

        You have a moral obligation to hold a negative opinion about things that kill people. By choosing not to care about abortion, you are saying that whether or not fetuses are people you don’t care about them being killed. By choosing not to care about gun violence, you are saying that you don’t care about people being killed whom you don’t personally know. You care SO little about generic human life that you won’t even put in the effort to decide which political party will save more lives.

        From a utilitarian perspective, it makes sense for a single x-risk issue to determine which political tribe you vote for and advocate that others vote for. There is indeed little value to learning about other topics that you are unlikely to influence except by voting. But there’s a big difference between “abortion isn’t worth having an opinion on” and “abortion isn’t worth having an opinion on if I have an opinion on global climate change.”

      • A spot-on quote:

        American society is still on the near side of robotification. People who can’t conjure up the relevant sympathy in the presence of other people are still felt to need various kinds of remedial help: they are autistic or sociopathic, it may be said—those are two of a range of clinical terms. Less clinically we may say that such people lack a certain affective range. However efficiently they perform their tasks, we don’t yet think well of those who in their everyday lives maximize efficiency and minimize considerate, responsive, and unrehearsed interaction, whether they neglect such things from physiological incapacity or a prudential fear of squandering their energy on emotions that are not formally necessary.

        Source: http://tinyurl.com/nuookyn

  • malkav60

    I’ve always found it odd that in a democracy people are expected to form opinions on topics on complex technical matters. For example, take copper mining, skin cancer treatment, and macroeconomics. Most people outside the relevant fields have no reason to form opinions on any of the three. I certainly don’t have the knowledge

    • IMASBA

      Democracy doesn’t strictly require people to be that much informed in order to beat out authoritarian regimes on indices most people care about.

    • adg

      That’s why representative democracy is more prevalent than a pure democracy (citation needed). In the US, we’ve implicitly decided it makes more sense to pay/elect people to think about complex issues for us and trust they come to the “right” conclusion. And we use heuristics (e.g., political party ID) to decide whom to outsource to.

      Even so, there’s also some rational expectations argument to be made too. Assuming RE, it doesn’t require that everyone learn EVERYTHING about a particular proposal before determining what they think the results of the proposal would be. On average, people’s expectations are right. Of course, people are wrong all the time, but the magnitude and frequency of their wrongness depends on how much information they consume.

  • Which is more incredible: that Robin avoids left-right issues or that he doesn’t care much for socializing (when he’s constantly attending conferences and conventions)?

  • How long does it take you to develop an opinion on a subject like that? I feel like if you took an hour or two you could get a pretty good impression on the state of the evidence on any given issue. It’s just convenient to familiarize yourself with the big issues of the day, so why not?

    • It is only “convenient” due to social pressure against not having opinions. I don’t see a positive net value from generating such opinions, however, so I resist that pressure.

      • If it really helps discipline you against distraction, I admire your focus. But it sounds more like a way of registering a protest (essentially, I think, a “libertarian” protest against social obligation).

      • Wearing clothes in warm climates is only “convenient” due to social pressure against going around naked. I don’t see positive net value in spending money on clothes, however, so I resist that pressure.

      • Mike South

        Not really a very tight analogy. People can passively detect your socially non-normative nudity, and, if bothered by it, would need to take steps to actively avoid continued exposure, whereas you can just not ask OP what he thinks, which you are already doing by default.

        Also, you should carry some disinfecting wipes for the public seats you use.

    • Michael Wengler

      The opinion you can form with only a few hours of study is 1) already been formed by millions(?) of others so who needs me and 2) not confidently right. So unless there is a big gain to having lots of incorrect opinions echoing each other, why bother?

      • The gain QuiteLikely proposes is familiarizing yourself with the issues of the day. If I were a physicist like you, I might well say I have enough to familiarize myself with: I don’t need the “issues of the day” added on.

        I don’t think this answer is available to a social scientist with broad interests.

  • Selekon

    Do you vote?

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  • While there are tons of *pure* signaling explanations there is at least one good one.

    In cases where it is important for a group (be it your tribe or your nation) to reach a consensus on some issue without any natural experts people going around discussing the question will generate more ideas than one person studying the issue and telling everyone else what to think. Not to mention that the later method likely won’t produce consensus.

    Not only does holding an opinion encourage discussion but it acts as an indicator of your current view of the pros and cons thus giving other members of your community information about the judgement of others.

  • I like the “vibe” of this argument, but when one doesn’t have an opinion about a given topic or problem, isn’t this like not having a prior about that topic or problem … If so, how can one not have a prior?

  • Robert King

    Strictly speaking I wouldn’t call any of those efforts “altruisitic”. They do not reduce your fitness while increasing another’s. They are mutualistic (assuming that both benefit)–because both you (social capital) and the recipient (improved knowledge) are better off.
    (That would be me sharing my intellectual research field in a mutualistic way)
    Cheers by the way. Have some social capital. No really it’s on me.

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