The Trouble with Opinions

The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that the passions invariably lead reason about by the nose, that we want what we want before reason steps forward to build a scaffolding that justifies our desires. We then cling to that secondary work of reason in order to explain our desires as if we had settled on them by a process of sober logic.

We might apply Hume’s rule to our political opinions and religious beliefs as well as to our more tangible desires for material goods or influence over others. We come to many of our opinions and beliefs for reasons that have nothing to do with reason, and as a result, I suggest, we do not truly believe many of the things we claim to believe; we merely follow our passions.

For example, we often adopt specific opinions because persons we consider smart or sophisticated or successful tend to support them, and we want to be seen as smart, sophisticated or successful too. By a sleight of hand that fools even ourselves, we grab hold of convenient arguments to prop up our new opinions in order to obscure the actual motives of our endorsement.

From whom do we want to hide our motives? From God perhaps, but certainly from others and from that inward censor that tells us such motives are more often than not base or disgraceful.

What is a person to do?

We may try to hold as few opinions as necessary or to refrain from casually adopting new or fashionable ones. This is no small task when the prevailing culture teaches us that failure to publicly offer the correct judgement, even on persons or events with which we have no connection, is morally identical to endorsing evil or compounding the victimization of persons.

We might also investigate our opinions and beliefs by a process of cold self-examination, a method intended to determine what we believe in practice rather than what we merely select, consumer-style, from a shelf of beliefs and opinions arranged to flatter the purchaser or appeal to the eye.

Stand outside yourself as far as possible and consider the creature before you as you would a character in a novel or an animal under scientific observation. How does he live? What are his habits? How does he spend his time? What are the things he chases after and what are the things he avoids? What are his regrets?

Honest answers to questions of this sort may tell us more than we wish to know about what we believe. It may, for example, teach “liberals” that they live and think conservatively; it may show “conservatives” that they are often secret liberals. It may teach an “atheist” that he accepts a moral order that cannot be explained without a transcendent origin, and it may show a “Christian” that he is in fact a self-deluded atheist.

It is not possible to live without beliefs and opinions. The Greek philosophical school of the Pyrrhonists attempted something like it, but even to believe that forming opinions is undesirable is in itself to form an opinion. The trouble with opinions is that we’re tempted to hold them thoughtlessly or for the wrong reasons. “The heart is deceitful among all things,” said the prophet Jeremiah, and the bewigged Scotsman Hume would agree.



“I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travelers I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who have heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.”

~ Thoreau, Walden

In the West today it seems that we live in the shadow of a loss we are at pains to understand. We scramble in the shadows for we know not what and even if we laid hands on the Necessary Thing might fail to recognize it. But perhaps it has something to do with fidelity and companionship (the hound), with valor and intrepidity (the horse) and with peace and transcendent vision (the dove).

I am not an intellectual or academic. I am not a skilled speaker or debater. I am a middle-aged man, a husband, a father. I read books, walk in the woods, and work in my garden. It is not my intent to indulge in chicken-little-ism. I hope that we may yet shrug off our forgetfulness and recover the Necessary Thing. I only want to remember.