Being Right Vs. Having a Right
Updated: Apr 18
These days, I talk to a lot of people about fake news. Many of them want to know how to have productive conversations with their friends and family about issues that divide them. When they recount examples of failed conversations, there are usually some common themes. This post is about one of them. Sometimes conversations go badly because the interlocutors make a conceptual mistake. Identifying those mistakes isn't always easy.
In this case, the confusion is between being right and having a right. Here's an example of a conversation that blunders into the confusion. Samantha asks her mother whether she's signed up for the vaccine yet.
"No, I'm not signing up for one."
"But mom, why not?" Samantha asks, "You're in a high-risk group. You should get one right away."
"I've read that the coronavirus is no more dangerous than the flu, and I don't get flu shots. Besides, my brother got one and ached for days. I don't want to do that."
"Mom, the pandemic killed over 500,000 people last year.," Samantha insists, "And that's just in our country! And that's even after we socially distanced and wore masks! That's way worse than the flu."
"Oh, please. That's just scaremongering. The coronavirus is just another flu and the shot is just a way for companies to make money off of us."
"Mom, that's not right."
"When are you going to let me just live my own life?" her mom retorts, "I have a right to think about these things for myself. And I have a right to decide what goes in my body. End of story."
What went wrong here? Lots of things, but one in particular: Samantha and her mother blurred the lines between being right and having a right. It's unfortunate that these concepts both use the English word 'right' because they couldn't be more different from one another. That probably explains our consistent confusion across them.
To be right is to have the correct answer. We say that an answer is either right or wrong. Being right is a good thing because it means you got to the truth. We want our beliefs to be right, and as a result we care about things like evidence, arguments, etc. Philosophers would call this the epistemic sense of 'right'.
To have a right is to have an option. If I have the right to smoke, that means it's up to me whether I do so. I have an option, and you can't infringe on that option without violating my right. Philosophers would call this the moral sense of 'right'. We often say things like "people have the right to believe whatever they want."
You can now see that Samantha's conversation with her mother waffled back and forth between the two senses of right. Much of the conversation was dedicated to figuring out what was true or reasonable to believe about the coronavirus and the vaccine. That's thinking about what's right in the first (epistemic) sense.
But the conversation stopper was an appeal to what her mother had a right to do. That's thinking about what's right in the second (moral) sense. And the move from one to the other was a confusion: Samantha wasn't trying to tell her mom that she had no right to decide whether to get the vaccine or not. She was trying to tell her that her beliefs about the coronavirus were mistaken.
Deep-down, we all know the difference between these two senses of 'right'. You have the right to think whatever you want. But that doesn't make you right about what you think. Put differently, you have the option to think and act in a variety of ways. But that doesn't make your beliefs true or your actions reasonable.
Case in point: I have the right to smoke. And when you confront me with evidence that smoking is terrible for my health, it's confused for me to respond by telling you that I have a right to smoke. Of course I do! That wasn't what you were saying, so it's a confusion for me to respond in this way. You weren't saying that I don't have the option to smoke. You were saying that it's unreasonable for me to take that option.
This same confusion plays out every day in conversations about fake news:
Person A posts something about politics, religion, health, etc.
Person B challenges the truth of the posting.
Person A then responds by saying he has a right to believe what he wants.
It's like two trains passing in the night...
Here are two take-away lessons. If you want to challenge some aspect of another person's worldview, grant right up front that they have the right to believe whatever they want. Only then follow-up by pointing out what you think is the mistake. Offer reasons for your view. Just yesterday I was in my cul-de-sac found out that a neighbor wasn't getting the vaccine. Someone else stepped up and said, "Well, that's their right." Yes, of course it is. But that kind of response confuses being right with having a right. Don't make that mistake when you talk with others about what they believe.
Second, if someone else challenges some aspect of YOUR worldview, don't dismiss them by saying you have the right to believe what you want. Of course you do. They weren't denying that. Instead, listen carefully to their reasons for thinking that you've made a mistake. Unless you're infallible, you might have something to learn.
Having a right doesn't make you right. We should all bear that in mind.