“The public buys its opinions as it buys its meat, or takes in its milk,
on the principle that it is cheaper to do this than to keep a cow.”

—Samuel Butler

When opinion polls are conducted on some urgent matter of the day (the character of Colonel Qaddafi, or the compatibility of some soon-to-be-married royal couple) those polled are permitted to declare themselves “Don’t Knows.” It is usually a minority who are so ill-disposed as to forget their civic duty to have an opinion on each and every subject, and they can usually expect to be rebuked as fence-sitters or slugabeds. People confronted by the demand that they take sides can generally produce a “view,” which they maintain against all comers without the slightest attempt to seek out confirmatory or counterevidence. Sometimes, no doubt, this view “bubbles up” from the speaker’s entrenched evaluations and opinions; sometimes, it has simply been selected, off the cuff, from the available alternatives and entered in the speaker’s “axiomset”—the things he’ll say when asked, or which he may even “act on” in some more material way—without any implication that the alternative opinion would not once have done as well.

People choose sides in civil, fashionable, moral, or metaphysical questions very much as children choose which local football team they will (notionally) support. “I’m the sort of person who supports Everton rather than Liverpool, pretends to adore the Queen Mother and dislike Princess Anne, thinks that Qaddafi is insane and Gorbachev is a nicer chap than Brezhnev, and votes for Mrs. Tiggywinkle while expressing cautious disapproval of her policies.” Or in other circles: “I’m the sort that was born under Aquarius, thinks the military-industrial complex controls the Western world, and that ‘the scientists’ are only not revealing their solution to death, UFO’s, and telepathy because they’re in league with the Freemasons.” Taking a position, like wearing a particular dress or choosing to drink lager, is expressing loyalty to a group, an image of oneself, a particular rhetoric.

Those of us who honestly don’t know (and often don’t much care) which team or party or celebrity to claim to “like” suffer from more than pollsters. Hesse’s description of the Age of the Feuilleton, in The Glass Bead Game, comes to mind: “Noted chemists or piano virtuosos would be queried about politics, for example, or popular actors. dancers, gymnasts, aviators or even poets would be drawn out on the benefit and drawbacks of being a bachelor, or on the presumptive causes of financial crises.” Those who possess some genuine expertise in one profession or craft may even believe that they have superior insights to convey about some other craft. In many cases, “stating a position” is only to represent oneself as a certain kind of person, claiming the affection of others of that kind, expressing a particular loyalty. The world of letters is awash with ignorant assertion and self-dramatization.

Public-spirited persons must have a view, must join the game, because democracy itself requires us to make judgments on the rights and wrongs of public issues: the processing of nuclear waste, the likely general effects of increasing personal taxation, the right of Argentinians to claim to “own” certain offshore islands. In most such cases, we do not know (and may suspect that neither does anyone else) what may befall or what was done a century and more ago or which paper to believe. Even if some particular promoter of opinions seems to us to have a good argument going, we are uncomfortably aware that in civil matters any argument is defeasible.

In logic or mathematics, what follows from true premises is true, no matter what else is true; in civil questions (and indeed in practical engineering), what “follows” from true premises may still be false. It may be true that the increase of learning is a good thing, and that to experiment on orphan children to their destruction will increase learning: To that extent the experiments are demonstrably good, but other premises as indubitably decree that they are bad.

What sounds like a good idea may not be, because other factors that the promoter has not mentioned must be taken into account. And how shall we ever know that no other factors are important? So democratic procedure requires that we take sides on wholly inadequate information, that we trust our lives and futures to bridges built by committee, and by committees who are never sure that they have all the information that they would need for rational choice. Or rather: They should not rationally be sure of this unless they are rationally convinced that they here confront an absolute.

If (as is highly likely) it is absolutely wrong to experiment upon orphan children, no matter what advantages might be gained thereby, there is no need for the local ethical committee to wait for further information on those advantages: The experiment can be ruled out at once. The implication is twofold: First, a relatively uninformed electorate may rationally forbid or require those things that are absolutely wrong or absolutely right, without the inevitable qualms that should afflict those who know that they are deciding issues without full, value-free knowledge of the consequences of what they do. The only things of which we could be rationally certain in advance of training and learning and experiment wholly beyond most or all of us are absolutes. Whatever is not absolutely wrong or right is wrong or right only under conditions, and we only rarely (if ever) know that those conditions alone obtain. Second (and more pragmatically), we can only believe that our decisions are more than arbitrary opinion if we believe that they embody absolutes. If we cannot believe, on any particular occasion, that they do, we cannot rationally believe that the decision is more than a choice which might as easily have gone the other way. “A person who arbitrarily chooses the propositions that he will adopt can use the word ‘truth’ only to emphasize the expression of his determination to hold on to his choice” (C.S. Pierce, How to Make Our Ideas Clear, 1877). If I vote for Mrs. Tittlemouse not because I think her right in principle but because I guess or choose to be the sort of chap that guesses that she may have better effects all round than Mr. Tiptoes, my vote is a gesture, and anything I say on its behalf is opiniatrety.

Those who fixedly support a party, sect, or tribe must suppose that theirs is an absolute devotion; those who do not must rationally regard their occasional votes as guesses or as gestures. The latter will be inclining to leave all necessary particular decisions to those supposed to be more rationally informed; the former will require that no decisions be taken against their ruling absolute. Those who have no absolute to back would be rash to complain whatever decision is taken: Whether the government decides to abandon nuclear weaponry or to acquire new generation missiles, it will be on the basis of much better information than the average citizen has. The government is quite probably mistaken (and should bear in mind that this is so), but the probability of John Doe’s being in error is far higher; therefore those who have no absolutes to defend must rationally be more acquiescent. The government may not know best, but it will on average know better. The voter’s office is only to express occasional opinions that no one need attend to, to have the opportunity to “stand up for one’s opinions.”

A governing party, accordingly, whether it is literally political or merely a governing sect or sept of church, profession, or family, has three ways of securing its position without resort to arms. The first is to persuade an established majority that its principles are absolutely right, that all good men and true can know beforehand what is to be done or not done. Alternatively, if there is little hope of persuading an established majority that what they do is absolutely right, they have good reason to encourage a less absolutist view. It is better to encourage citizens to think of votes as gestures or gambles. Best of all, from the governors’ point of view, would be a situation where a mass of people had no settled principle of judgment, but were fashionably convinced of this opinion or that and held to it not because they had or hoped to have any real evidence of truth, but because they had built their personality around the fact of being the sort of person that thinks things like that. Genuine absolutists, after all, think that certain things are right or wrong, irrespective of the consequences or the opinions of the ruling classes.

Genuine relativists, believing that right or wrong depend upon a mass of detail that they simply do not have, can have no fixed or fanatical devotion even to the cause they gamble on. What is required by any party leader is a mass of people who will express fanatical devotion to the cause while at the same time allowing the leaders every practical decision and leaving no scope for rational inquiry about the cause itself To query the cause is to criticize a man’s religion, and so to mock the sort of man he has chosen to become while ingenuously pretending not to realize that the cause is not adopted as a rational one, incumbent on anyone who knew enough, and laboriously cheeked by honest inquirers. The best conclusion for the leader is that we should be encouraged to have opinions which we half realize are ones we have no epistemic right to have. Those with the opposite “opinion” are less dangerous than those who reserve their judgment or claim not to know.

In the Age of the Feuilleton, in brief, the social demand that we have unjustified opinions, expressive of our personality and class-loyalty, is a mechanism of social control. Really to think that what we choose to say is true admits the possibility that we and our leaders might be wrong. To inquire into the rational grounding of the opinions currently on offer reminds us that most of us have no epistemic right to any opinion on most subjects of importance (including, of course, the question of who does have such a right on any particular subject: Who has a right to an opinion on the ancient Assyrian copula, the reliability over the next thousand years of current techniques of radioactive waste disposal, or whether property—as it is currently distributed—is theft?).

Relativists can hardly be absolute in their own defense and must rationally allow those with the strongest claim to know to have their way. Absolutists may hold even their own leader to judgment. What leaders want in their parties is a dogmatic relativism, a sense of superior wisdom that by abandoning (verbally) all claim to truth is spared the rigors of self-examination. That is what opiniatrety amounts to: perseverance in opinions that even the opinionated do not seriously think are rational or true. The having of such opinions is what pollsters, feuilletonists, and party hacks require of us. Freedom correspondingly requires us to confess, Socratically, our ignorance, and to suspect the opinionated of a like defect.

The Enlightenment sages who required that we reserve our opinion till we have checked the reasoning and evidence that might support one view or another had far too individualist a notion of what counted as sound rational practice. Life is too short for each of us to check every separate dictum before endorsing it, and too demanding of particular action for us always to refrain from judgment. What I offer as my opinion is not opiniatrety merely because I cannot adequately outline what would lead rational inquirers to that conclusion.

We are entitled to our prejudices and accepted truths, and those who claim to have no prejudice have usually failed to inspect their axiom-set with proper clarity. Opiniatrety is not to purvey accepted wisdom without quite knowing how to prove it. It is to adopt as one’s own whatever the breath of fashion and class-loyalty may blow. The Enlightenment solution has exacerbated the problem: Since no one can, in fact, completely check accepted wisdom, but no one can ever do without a prejudice or two, the opinionated classes are condemned to rely upon opinions that they know they should not have, to change opinions as they change dresses, by following fashion and their friends’ expressions.

Then, how do we maintain a properly and practically Socratic stance? Only by wearing another badge, by acting in loyalty to an ideal community whose goal is truth. In the Age of the Feuilleton we can revere the true society of scholars, no one of whom could by himself check every prejudice but who can hope to cooperate over the centuries in distilling truth. “The opinion that is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is real.”

Pierce’s faith in that destiny, or his representation of that faith in ultimate agreement as a necessary postulate of scientific reason, is rationally accepted only by those who think the world is founded on that real, not just ideal, community. As Lossky wrote in The World as an Organic Whole in 1928, “According to [concrete ideal-realism] the ultimate ground of the world is God, who transcends the world and is more than perfect—a Being that stands above perfection. The proximate ground of the world, and a component part of it, is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Spirit as a realized ideal. Even the beings that are farthest removed from it may hope to attain it, for that kingdom really exists, and by the grace of God, its rays lighten, if only to a small extent, each one of us, helping us to endure the sorrows and burdens of the imperfect life which is our self-chosen doom.” Opiniatrety and arbitrary government are resisted best by those who acknowledge that all of us live under judgment, that there are absolutes, and a truth already known to Heaven.