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Of Principles and Fallacies: Forming Just Opinions, Part 3

I was reading a biography on Louis Pasteur recently and came across this wonderful quote: “The greatest danger to the mind is to believe in something because one wishes to do so.”

Charlotte Mason would agree. When it comes to forming opinions, we have to realize that our reasoning naturally leans toward the side of our own inclinations and desires. “We must remember that Reason is each man’s own particular servant, and plays on his side, as it were, and convinces him of that which he is inclined to believe” (Vol. 4, Book 1, p. 61).

But if we recognize that tendency, we can be on the alert against it and strive to form opinions that are fair and just—opinions that are worth having.

“An Opinion worth having.—We may gather three rules, then, as to an opinion that is worth the having. We must have thought about the subject and know something about it, as a gardener does about the weather; it must be our own opinion, and not caught up as a parrot catches up its phrases; and lastly, it must be disinterested, that is, it must not be influenced by our inclination” (Vol. 4, Book 1, p. 180).

We’ve already discussed the first two rules Charlotte mentioned: gathering facts so we can know about the issue at hand and not settling for ready-made opinions. Today let’s talk about evaluating those facts with a non-prejudiced reasoning.

Spotting Fallacies

I remember a movie in which the actor, portraying a fictional U. S. President, gave a speech about how important it was to uphold the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights. But in the next breath, he talked about his commitment to take away citizens’ guns.

Personal inclination could cause a listener to support that “President’s” agenda, especially if that listener had suffered a bad experience involving a gun. But upon looking at the facts, we can see the fallacy. The Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment to be specific, assures citizens the right to keep and bear arms. When you hold that fact up against the statements in the speech, you see an inconsistency in his thinking. He couldn’t support the Bill of Rights and ignore the Second Amendment at the same time.

Charlotte warned us: “Popular cries, whether in the school or the country, very often rest upon fallacies or false judgments. So we must look all round the notions we take up” (Vol. 4, Book 1, p. 185).

I love that word picture of looking all round the notions we take up. And remember that our personal inclinations can sometimes act as a blinder while we are looking round. Let’s do our best to gather facts and evaluate them justly, looking closely for fallacies.

Foundational Principles

So we look for fallacies in the facts, and we also compare the ideas with foundational principles.

Recently a friend of mine asked for my advice, which is a veiled way of inquiring after my opinion. She had been participating in an activity for many years, but difficulties within the organization had recently arisen. She had tried to gather the facts by going to those in charge, voicing her concerns, and listening carefully to understand their thoughts on the matter. The conclusion was that, in their opinion, things were fine and would continue along the lines they were going. So now she was contemplating whether she should keep participating or step out for a while.

It was a tough issue, and her opinion on staying or stepping out fluctuated with each experience that unfolded with the group. So we tried to examine the situation through the lens of life principles.

You see, timeless principles remain constant and can be applied to various situations. Though details change, the principles endure. This is why Scripture is full of principles. Once you understand the foundational principles, you can evaluate each situation in light of those unchanging principles.

“There are persons of whom we say, ‘We always know how so-and-so will act. We can depend upon him.’ The reason is that he is not liable to be carried away by sudden inroads of outside opinion. His knowledge affords him a standard by which he judges the worth of such opinion; his principles, a test of its moral rightness. Therefore the flashy new opinion, which history tells him has been tried and found wanting long ago, has no chance with him. He examines it in the light of his principles, finds it to be based on an error of thought, that it leads to further errors of thought and action; and it takes no hold upon his mind” (Vol. 4, Book 2, pp. 61, 62).

Some opinions are formed easily when the light of foundational principles is shone on the situation. However, not all decisions are easy.

Here are the principles we thought of regarding my friend’s staying involved:

  • Principle: I should use my gifts to serve others.
  • Principle: I need to live at peace with everyone, as far as it depends on me.

But we came up with equally directive principles that supported her stepping away:

  • Principle: I don’t want to sow discord among the team members.
  • Principle: It is good to give other people opportunities to serve as well.

As you can see, a just opinion is not always easy to determine, but I am confident that my friend will not be acting on an emotional whim. She is putting forth the effort to form a just opinion.

Two Extremes to Avoid

And that’s where some of us falter. It seems we can easily go to one of two extremes: either disdaining anyone whose opinion differs from our own, or shrinking back and thinking there is no way we can ever spot a fallacy or apply a principle. Charlotte gently warned against both extremes.

First, “Good and Sensible Persons come to Opposite Conclusions” (Vol. 4, Book 1, p. 61). We dare not consider all those who have a differing opinion from our own to be fools or enemies.

Second, though forming a just opinion is sometimes difficult, we dare not shrink away from our duty because of fear.

“Intellectual panic is responsible for many failures; for our failure to understand an argument, to follow an experiment, and very largely for our insular failure to speak and comprehend the vocables of foreign tongues. Intellectual panic is responsible, too, for the catchwords we pass as our opinions. We fear it is not in us to form an opinion worth the holding and worth the giving forth” (Vol. 4, Book 1, p. 117).

“But, once again, we may not be sluggish in this matter of opinion. It is the chief part of Justice to think just thoughts about the matters that come before us, and the best and wisest men are those who have brought their minds to bear upon the largest number of subjects, and have learned to think just thoughts about them all. It is a comfort to know that Justice, that lord of the heart, is always at hand to weigh the opinions we allow ourselves to take up” (Vol. 4, Book 1, p. 186).

Yes, it will take practice, but you will grow in your ability as you practice. Think about evaluating fruit at the market. How do you decide whether you will take it home or leave it alone? You look for holes or bad spots and you compare the piece in your hand to what you know should be true of a good one. Does it measure up to the standard?

Just as your skills at the fruit market improve with practice, so your skills of opinion forming will improve with practice. Look all round the notion for fallacies (holes or bad spots) and compare it to foundational principles (the unchanging standard).

Next week we’ll look at what Charlotte said about sharing our opinions. Once we have done our research and come to what we think is a just opinion, how should we present it? Charlotte had some great ideas.

3 Responses to “Of Principles and Fallacies: Forming Just Opinions, Part 3”

  1. 3littlegirls February 1, 2012 at 11:25 pm #

    This reminds me of Ephesians 4:14-15: “…that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head-Christ…”

    I’m always amazed at how often Charlotte’s principles line up with Biblical thinking. I can’t wait to speak to her one day. 🙂

  2. Lara February 2, 2012 at 7:56 am #

    Thank you Sonya! I was just praying about a difficult decision regarding my daughter and activities at church, trying to decide if my husband and I had made the best decision, or needed to revise it. I was so happy to open up my email and find this article waiting for me! Blessings on you and your family!

  3. Nanci February 2, 2012 at 9:40 am #

    Wow, so much to think about here.

    I love the evaluating fruit analogy.

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