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Frequently Asked Questions
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1. Is there a clear way of distinguishing subjective issues from nonsubjective ones?
2. Aren't people ever entitled to their own opinions?

1. Is there a clear way of distinguishing subjective issues from nonsubjective ones?

If you want a simple criterion you can apply in every case to give you an uncontroversial answer, you should know that philosophers have tried to develop one for thousands of years and haven't yet come up with a standard that everyone agrees to. That is not to say that no one will ever develop such a criterion, only that none exists today - which is what this question is asking for.

However, there are good practical ways of drawing a distinction. First, reflect on what type of answer you expect to reach on the issue. If there is a fact down the line that resolves the issue, then you are addressing a nonsubjective matter. That is, if a claim, C, is a claim about a matter of fact, then either C is a fact or the contradiction of C is. Take the claim "The universe began with an explosion." If that claim is true, it is a fact that the universe began with an explosion. If the claim is false, it is a fact that the universe did not begin with an explosion. Either way you wind up with a fact; so the claim concerns a nonsubjective matter.

Put this point another way. There is no room in the universe for both a fact and the contradictory fact. When we disagree about a nonsubjective matter, at least one side is wrong. And that wrongness is itself a fact: To call people wrong for having believed the sun to go around the earth is to state a fact about their error.

In a second strategy for identifying nonsubjective matters, you can look at how the people involved in a disagreement defend their positions. You can ask: Do any arguments exist, either that might work or that you feel compelled to make, to settle the issue?

Some people put sugar in their coffee and others don't. Rarely do they have cause to sit down and discuss their practices. For this reason, the preference for sugar or no sugar usually counts as a subjective issue. Now, suppose someone did feel inclined to argue against sweetening coffee, saying that the sugar harms your teeth, or that it contains empty calories. Now we have nonsubjective matters in the air.

Somewhere along the way, you might respond that the benefits of not adding sugar don't make up for the effect on the taste of the coffee. Your co-conversationalist might urge you to try sugarless coffee for a week and see how you like it, but you could answer that you've tried it plenty of times already and the coffee just doesn't taste as good. It would be fruitless for the person to keep at the subject, insisting that coffee tastes better without the sugar. Your discussion has returned to judgments of taste that no observation or argument can settle: This has become again a subjective issue.

Finally, prepare to err on the side of caution when drawing this distinction. It gets tempting to sweep all difficult, complex, and especially emotionally charged issues into the dustpan of pure opinion. Yielding to that temptation leads to errors about which issues belong where. If, on the other hand, you act from the prejudice that an issue concerns a matter of fact, only changing your mind when you feel forced to acknowledge that there's no way of reasoning about an opinion, you will make sounder judgments about which claims are which.

2. Aren't people ever entitled to their own opinions?

Of course they are. Criticizing the overindulgent appeal to that principle does not mean that we need to hammer the disagreement out of anyone whose opinions are different from our own. But it helps to see why the principle comes to be applied overindulgently.

The problem begins with confusion between subjective and nonsubjective issues. In the subjective case there is (by definition) no argument, evidence, or credible authority through which to decide on the truth of a claim. When two people disagree on whether falling asleep is pleasant, argument and observation become bootless. Such cases lead us to say that both people are entitled to their opinions.

If all opinions were about subjective issues, people would be entitled to all their opinions. But the fact that you hold an opinion on a subject does not automatically make the subject a matter of opinion-you may just as easily hold an opinion about a nonsubjective, or factual, matter. An opinion is the first word on a subject, not the last word: We need to go on to classify the subject as a nonsubjective matter or not. Resorting to the plea of tolerance on opinions stops us from taking this next step.

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