What is the difference between an opinion and a belief? Let us say that a belief is an opinion with reasons. One of the objectives of public debate in a democracy should be to promote opinion into belief. We must demand reasons. But many Americans are not comfortable with this demand. “It’s just my opinion”: this bizarre American locution, which is supposed to provide an avenue of escape in a disputation, suggests that there is something illegitimate, even disrespectful, about insisting upon the defense of a proposition. Yet the respect we owe persons we do not owe their opinions. Political respect is axiomatic, but intellectual respect must be earned.
This is another snippet from the very quotable defense of reason by Leon Wieseltier I linked to earlier. The last point here is key: We could agree with Kant that we are obligated to respect persons for their inherent dignity and worth as persons. But no idea has inherent dignity or worth. Even though our identities are in large measure constituted by our ideas — our hopes, dreams, fears, aspirations, in short, our beliefs and opinions — we are not only our beliefs and opinions. To the extent we remember this, we are less likely to claim to be offended when we are simply disagreed with. Offense leads to fights; disagreement furthers both our arguments and may lead us both on to a clearer picture of the truth.