Facts and alternative facts

Fred asked:

Are the facts always the facts? Or can there be alternative facts?

Answer by Eric DeJardin

I think that the expression ‘alternative facts’ is ambiguous. That is, there are (at least) two senses in which it might be understood.  Let’s (somewhat tendentiously!) call the first sense the ‘innocuous sense’ and the second the ‘destructive sense’. But before we discuss that distinction and then answer your question, we should first get (somewhat!) clearer about what a fact is.

I take it that a fact is not a linguistic expression, e.g. like a sentence. So, the fact that I’m now writing this post is distinct from the sentence, ‘Eric is now writing this post’. However, we can use linguistic expressions to express or represent facts, e.g. ‘It’s a fact that Eric is now writing this post.’ So although facts can be expressed or represented linguistically, they’re not themselves linguistic items. But then what are they?

One way of thinking about facts (albeit a controversial way – more on this below) identifies them with certain states of affairs. A state of affairs could be conceived as comprising objects (e.g. a computer and a desk) with certain properties (e.g. being gray and having four legs) standing in specific relations to one another (both in time and space, so e.g. being on top of the desk at such and such a time). But not every state of affairs is a fact. So, the state of affairs in which Obama is now serving his third term as president of the United States is not a fact, for that state of affairs doesn’t ‘obtain’; that is, Obama is not now serving his third term as president. Rather, the state of affairs in which Trump is now serving his first term as president of the United States, and in which Obama is now an ex-president, obtains. Hence, on the state-of-affairs conception of facts, to say that such-and-such a state of affairs obtains is roughly what saying ‘it’s a fact that such-and-such’ amounts to.

With that rough sketch of what a fact is out of the way, we can now look at what I’ve called innocuous alternative facts. Take the (epistemically) open question, ‘Did the Trump campaign collude with Russia during the 2016 election?’ Most of us couldn’t say for sure one way or the other. But we could point to certain facts to support a case for one conclusion or the other. However, when we make a case for a conclusion we sometimes ignore facts that harm, or minimally don’t support, our position. When we do so, those who defend the opposing view could say that they have alternative facts that support their position, and not ours.

This notion is innocuous because it doesn’t bring the ordinary idea of a fact into question. Rather, it merely supposes that people sometimes choose specific facts from a larger set of (relevant) facts to focus on depending on which conclusion they’re defending.

However, if one were to deny that there were any facts of the matter at all — or, more weakly, concede that there are facts, but deny that we can access them — and proceed to use that claim to support one’s conclusion, then one would be appealing to alternative facts in what I’ve called the destructive sense. According to the destructive sense, the modifier ‘alternative’ is a privative adjective, for it functions like the modifier ‘toy’ in the expression ‘toy gun’ – that is, just as a toy gun is no gun at all, an alternative fact is no fact at all.

But how can we make sense of the notion that there are no facts? I’m not sure if we can. (For example, if someone claims that there are no facts, is that claim a fact? Or, is it a fact that she made that claim? This stuff gets bizarre quickly!) What folks who appeal to destructive alternative facts seem to have in mind is something like this: the world as we conceive it isn’t the world as it is. Or, a bit more weakly, even if we conceive the world as it is, we’re not justified in concluding that we conceive it as it is. For we all conceive the world with cultural, linguistic, experiential and historically conditioned concepts. It’s as if we’re all wearing world-distorting glasses (etc.), and we can’t remove them. So, this view goes, you see the world as you do, and I see it as I do, and neither one of us is in a position to delegitimize the way the other sees it. You have ‘your truth’, and I have ‘my truth’ (as folks who endorse this sort of view commonly say).

What I’ve called ‘destructive’ views of alternative facts can get very complex and very sophisticated. Further, defenders of this view can point to problems with the more commonsensical view of facts that I sketched above. For instance, if facts are obtaining states of affairs, and states of affairs comprise objects and relations, then how do we account for modal facts (e.g. I might not have written this response), or moral facts (genocide is wrong), or negative facts (I’m not writing this on a Mac)? In addition, the appeal to facts seems to add a category to our ontology that is not obviously necessary, e.g. the world not only contains a computer, a desk, and an on-the-top-of relation, but also contains the fact that the computer is on top of the desk. So we must concede that even the commonsensical view is not unproblematic.

In light of all this, I’d now suggest that we can clarify your question in the following way: are there facts or not? For I take it you’re not concerned with innocuous alternative facts, and as we’ve seen, the notion of destructive alternative facts amounts to the claim that there are no facts (as they are commonly conceived, i.e. as obtaining states of affairs).

I’d argue that of course there are facts. First, even the defenders of destructive alternative facts appeal to facts in the commonsensical sense when it benefits them. So, when it was erroneously reported that the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. was removed from the Oval Office, the White House wasted no time demonstrating that this claim was false – that is, that it was not a fact that the bust was removed. Second, defenders of destructive alternative facts must appeal to facts in the commonsensical sense. For instance, they explain the existence of destructive alternative facts by appealing to what they believe to be, well, facts about human cognition. (If the claim that we’re all wearing world-distorting glasses is yet another alternative fact in the destructive sense, then what are we to make of their conclusion that you have your truth and I have mine? Does it even follow anymore?). Third, it’s difficult to understand how we’d make sense of science or the law or mathematics or much else in human experience without an appeal to facts (or something very like them) in some substantive sense.

So, my answer to your question is that the facts are always the facts, for there plausibly cannot be destructive alternative facts (though there are innocuous alternative facts).

Aristotelian Virtue and Kantian Duty

Zuleika asked:

“In Section I of the Groundwork, Kant draws a distinction between actions that are “in conformity with duty” and actions that are “done from duty”. In Book II, chapter 4, of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle draws a distinction between actions that are merely virtuous (“having some quality of their own”) and actions done “in accordance with virtue”. In what respects are Aristotle and Kant drawing the same distinction? In what respects do their distinctions differ?”

Answer by Eric DeJardin

Hi Zuleika,

Let’s consider a concrete case and use it as we work our way through these Aristotelian and Kantian distinctions.

Essay: Mark is taking a philosophy course with one graded assignment, viz. an essay due at the end of the semester. Mark’s final grade for the course will be determined by the mark he receives on his essay. Since Mark is on academic probation, he needs to pass his philosophy course, which means he needs to get a passing mark on his essay. He considers whether he should attempt to write the essay himself, in which case he might fail the class and be dismissed from the university, or purchase an essay instead, which will guarantee he receives a passing mark.

Let’s first consider how an Aristotelian would look at this case.

Suppose Mark chooses to write the essay himself. He badly wants to purchase the essay, however, and only overcomes this temptation with great effort. In this case, Mark acts in accord with virtue; that is, he acts as a virtuous person would act. However, since he doesn’t want to act as a virtuous person would, he doesn’t act virtuously (more on this below). Aristotle categorizes behavior that is in accord with virtue, but is contrary to an agent’s desires, as continent behavior. Continent behavior is good, but it’s not nearly as praiseworthy as is fully virtuous behavior.

Now let’s alter Mark’s response slightly. This time, he sincerely wants to write the essay himself. But this is because he has a natural inclination to behave honestly, or, put another way, not to cheat. He doesn’t deliberate about what to do; he merely acts as he wants to, that is, in accord with inclination, which happens to be in accord with virtue. Aristotle would say that in this case, Mark displays natural virtue.

To act virtuously, Mark would not merely act in accord with virtue, and he would not merely act as he is inclined to act, though he would indeed do both of these things. For a truly virtuous Mark would in addition act for reasons that he has identified, through wise deliberation (i.e. through the exercise of what Aristotle calls phronesis, or practical wisdom), as morally salient. Only then would Mark’s reliably virtuous behavior be categorized as fully virtuous.

Now, let’s consider how a Kantian would look at the case.

Suppose Mark chooses to write the essay himself because he wants to. That is, suppose he displays an Aristotelian natural virtue. In this case, Kant would say that Mark has acted in accord with duty. However, since his inclinations motivate him to act, he has not acted from duty (more on this below). Kant would say that although his behavior is praiseworthy, it does not merit esteem.

To see a clear case of acting from duty, consider the case Aristotle identified as displaying continent behavior. Mark wants to purchase an essay, but he instead chooses to write it himself. Suppose he acts contrary to inclination because he believes that he has a moral duty to write the essay himself. Although Aristotle would judge Mark’s behavior as inferior to fully virtuous behavior, Kant would say that Mark’s action in this case merits our highest esteem. For Mark is motivated to act from a concern for duty alone, and not from inclination.

But what would Kant say if Mark both has an inclination to write the essay himself and ultimately chooses to act from a concern for duty? Although readers of Kant disagree on this point, I think Kant would say that in this case, Mark has acted from duty, and his action merits esteem. That is, Kant doesn’t see anything inherently wrong with acting in accord with inclination, as long as one acts from duty and not from inclination (in cases in which only dutiful action is permissible).

We can now see that Kantian acts that accord with duty are similar to Aristotelian acts that accord with virtue insofar as neither case is morally ideal. And neither is morally ideal because in neither case is the agent’s action done for the right reason. In the Kantian case, the act is not done from duty, and in the Aristotelian case, the act is not done from wise moral deliberation. (Just how similar acts done from duty — which are fundamentally rational acts for Kant — and acts done from wise moral deliberation are focused on the same sorts of considerations is a matter of dispute.) We can also see how they differ. In the Kantian case, one acts in accord with inclination, while in the Aristotelian case, one may be acting either in accord with inclination or contrary to inclination.

We can also now see how dutiful Kantian acts are similar to virtuous Aristotelian acts. A dutiful Kantian act will be done for the right reason, that is, because it is what duty demands. And a virtuous Aristotelian act will be done for the right reason, that is, because it is what the exercise of wise moral deliberation concludes a virtuous person would do. But we can also now see how these acts differ. For the Kantian, a dutiful act can either be contrary to or in accord with inclination, as long as it’s motivated by a concern for duty. For the Aristotelian, however, a fully virtuous act must be in accord with inclination. If an act in accord with virtue is done contrary to inclination, it’s merely continent behavior for Aristotle.