After President Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer made a series of false claims in his first official statement to the press, high-ranking White House official Kelly Conway defended him by saying that he presented not falsehoods, but rather “alternative facts”. This phrase has been widely criticised, and, I think, rightly so. But some people might also be tempted to connect what Conway said with relativism, and criticise relativism as a result.
Take this tweet from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which emphasises the connection between "fact" and "objective reality":
It would be easy to conclude from this that those who critically explore the connection between facts and objectivity are guilty of paving the way for people like Conway to say what she said. I think that this would be a mistake.
At their core, relativist theses say that some things (such as values, norms, or facts) are dependent on some other things (like social groups or individuals) in such a way that the first things can only be judged with reference to the second things. So according to one possible kind of relativism it’s not right to say that a particular norm is “correct” (as an absolutist about norms might say), but only that it is “correct according to group x”. It might seem that this kind of view could justify Conway’s point about “alternative facts”. Perhaps she meant that there are facts relative to one group (the Trump administration) and facts relative to another group (the press), and that it’s not proper to judge either of those facts by external standards. So, it’s not right to say that one set of facts obtain and the other don’t; they are both just ‘alternatives’.
I don’t think that this is the right way to interpret Conway, but let’s run with it for now. If this kind of relativism is behind what Conway is saying, then doesn’t this show that relativism is highly problematic? I don’t think so.
We can distinguish different kinds of relativism according to (1) the phenomenon that they relativise, and (2) the variable that they relativise that phenomenon to. The relativism that seems to be implicit in Conway’s thinking relativises facts to the Trump administration.
Let’s take the relativised phenomena first. Versions of relativism which relativise facts are known as metaphysical relativism, and they are less common and more radical than other variants, like epistemic relativism (which relativises the property of justification to some variable) and moral relativism (which relativises moral properties to some variable). So there are plenty of relativist theses that don’t make controversial claims about facts. None of these kinds of relativism are implicated by anything that Conway has said.
What about the variable that the phenomena is relativised to? There are a range of variables that relativists can choose from, but whichever one they pick they must be able to offer an explanation of why it’s legitimate to relativise their chosen phenomena to. In other words, if a metaphysical relativist wanted to justify the kind of assertions that Conway makes, they would need to tell a convincing story about why groups or organisations like the Trump administration are a suitable variable to which to relativise facts. It’s very unclear how such a story would go, and so there’s little reason to think that a metaphysical relativist could, let alone would, defend this kind of view. What this means is that Conway and her “alternative facts” don’t present us with any reason to be suspicious of metaphysical relativism either.
To the extent that Conway is depending a kind of relativism then, she is depending on a very particular and implausible kind of relativism that shouldn’t be thought to have any bearing on the variety of serious relativist views in the literature. But as I said before, I don’t think that it’s right to interpret her as really relying on relativism in the first place. Note that (in the video clip linked above) Conway is happy to criticise some claims as “flat-out false”. Whilst she thinks that it’s a mistake to judge the claims made by Spicer against an independent, objective standard (they aren’t falsehoods but are instead true-relative-to-the-administration) she doesn’t have a problem with judging the claims of the press objectively (she doesn’t think that they are false-relative-to-the-administration and true-relative-to-the-press, but are false simpliciter). Conway dabbles with relativising facts when it suits her purposes, but equally she reveals a commitment to absolutism when that is more convenient. Her behaviour is no more an indictment of relativism than it is of absolutism.
1/24/2017 05:12:46 am
Bravo Natalie! -- I just have a brief footnote. I suspect Conway simply meant to say that Todd (i.e. the journalist she was talking to) was referring to one subset of the facts (how the Mall looked like at time t), and she (and Spicer) were referring to another -- "alternative" -- subset of the facts (how the Mall looked like at time t'). Of course, she and Spicer were wrong (indeed very probably lying!) about how the Mall looked at t'. -- I am not sure whether my suggestion is a charitable one. For what is worse (in the eyes of my fellow philosophers): being a liar or being a metaphysical relativist?
I want to echo Martin's construal of 'alternative' as a "subset of [the data]." On hat construal Conway is talking in ways that are totally normal in science — "In our data, we find that ..., but in so-and-so's data, they find something else. So in the present meta-analysis, we aim to make sense of the discrepancies between datasets."
1/25/2017 07:53:30 am
Thanks Martin, Thanks Nick!
1/24/2017 07:05:10 am
First, thanks for creating this blog!
1/25/2017 08:57:34 am
Hi William, thank you for reading the blog!
1/26/2017 01:46:13 pm
I am happy to see this blog pop up and comment on this issue. I have firsthand familiarity with the scorn suffered by us poor relativists in the academy, and now we are taking a beating in popular discourse with all the buzz surrounding fake news, alternative facts, etc.
1/27/2017 01:06:28 am
Thanks for your comment! I'm glad to hear others agree that there is a need for this kind of discussion. And yes, I think that there are some strange assumptions about relativism out there which I hope we can shed some light on.
1/27/2017 02:18:15 am
I've just come across another philosophical discussion of this issue on Jonathan Ichikawa's blog:
1/29/2017 12:56:37 am
Thanks Maggie - hadn't seen this!
1/27/2017 02:43:25 am
Just a question: why is epistemic relativism off the hook, as devil's advocate might ask? It seems to me that Conway can happily argue 'these are not the facts' from the point of view that her community of knowledge rejects what is claimed to be true by the ('unreliable') press as knowledge - so then it is not about truth, or facts (admittedly) but about what are properly regarded facts epistemologically. And then epistemic relativism would bolster her case. Or not? I would like to know..
1/29/2017 01:12:44 am
Hi Machteld, thanks for your comment. Epistemic relativism is the view that justification is relative to epistemic frameworks, or communities, or so on, so an epistemic relativist could argue that the propositions that the press asserted are not justified relative to the Trump administration's framework. But note that they would still need to (a) explain why the Trump administration's framework is a legitimate one, and (b) accept that the those propositions *are* justified relative to other frameworks (like that of the Press), and not "flat-out" false.
Thanks for launching this initiative and sorry for the late reply
9/17/2017 11:33:23 pm
Very nice post Natalie (super clear and concise)! Sorry I'm a bit late to the party on this one.
11/22/2019 06:49:14 pm
Leave a Reply.
This is our project blog.