Modern conservatism manipulates facts to fit its moral judgments. (More)

“There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts”

So declared Trump spokesperson Scottie Nell Hughes yesterday on The Diane Rehm Show:

Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s – on one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go, ‘No, it’s true.’ And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts – they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way – it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.

And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd – a large part of the population – are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some – amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.

Politico’s Glenn Thrush was also on the panel, and he strongly objected:

There are no objective facts? I mean that is an absolutely outrageous assertion. Of course there are. There is no widespread proof that 3 million people voted illegally. it’s been checked over and over again. We had a Pew study that took place over 15 years that showed people had more likelihood of being struck by lightning than voting illegally in an election. Facts are facts. I’m sorry you don’t like the facts.

Have President-elect Trump and Republicans rejected the idea of objective facts?

Not really …

For example, in a completely fact-free worldview, it would be impossible to justify opposition to abortion. The conservative dogma that abortion is murder is contingent upon the existence of the fetus as a life-in-being. You cannot argue that “life begins at conception” unless you argue – as a fact – that the lump in a pregnant woman’s womb is a fetus.

I dare say that, were you to argue that the lump is in fact a slowly-inflating soccer ball that magically becomes a baby during the birth process, Hughes and other conservatives would mock you, and rightly so. We can disagree on the moral judgment of whether that fetus is a “life,” but Hughes and other conservatives would not accept disagreement on whether it is biologically human.

Similarly, I’ve seen no evidence that conservatives drive as if other vehicles, curbs, guardrails, etc. do not exist. When they need to get from the fifth floor to the lobby, conservatives don’t step out a window on the presumption that gravity is a liberal myth. They take the elevator of stairs.

… But sort of

And yet, Hughes clearly does advocate a kind of factual relativism: “facts,” she argues are merely “like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth.”

How can we square the circle of “Everybody has a way of interpreting [facts]” with declarations like “life begins at conception” and thus “abortion is murder?”

In his essay on moral realism, John Danaher describes Type-Type Natural Realists:

Second, there are the naturalist realists. Again, they maintain that moral facts exist, but they differ from the Platonists by maintaining that there is a direct equivalency (or supervenience relationship) between natural facts and moral facts.

I’m taking liberties with Danaher’s terms here, and you really should read his first and second articles on moral realism in full. But what I see from modern conservatism is a form of reasoning that begins with moral judgments – which for conservatives exist as unchallengeable “facts” – and then manipulates other facts to support those judgments.

For example, if you declare the moral judgment “life begins at conception” as an objective fact, then you manipulate other facts to support that. You might argue that the just-conceived fetus has the same DNA that the baby will have at birth, a mixture of genes from the mother and father. The just-conceived fetus may have only a few cells, but the genetic code for its “human-ness” is already there in full.

As a matter of biology, that’s not as true as it sounds. Much of what “the baby” will be at birth is yet to be determined, a function of placental biochemistry. For example, the just-conceived fetus may have a Y-chromosome, but to be phenotypically male at birth it must be androgen sensitive and the SRY gene must activate. Both usually happen if a fetus has a Y-chromosome, but not always.

Similarly, the mother’s exposure to various chemicals can dramatically affect fetal development. So while the fetus’ DNA is set at conception, the characteristics of “the baby” may turn out very different. And while conservatives favor laws that punish mothers who use illegal drugs during pregnancy, they oppose laws that would punish women who smoke tobacco during pregnancy, despite a recent study that found cigarette smoking can affect the baby’s DNA.

The only way to untwist that pretzel is to begin with moral judgments as ‘facts’ – illegal drugs are bad, but adults have a “right” to smoke cigarettes – and manipulate other facts to support those moral judgments.

You can go through a list of facts that conservatives accept or reject and find that same pattern repeated, again and again. It’s the Just-World Fallacy writ large, with a big dollop of tribal ethics stirred into the mix.

Now I’ll go untangle my tail….


Image Credit: John Danaher (Philosophical Disquisitions


Good day and good nuts