If only I hadn’t done that...
Why counterfactuals are misleading
Historians and novelists love asking “What would have happened if…?”
Philip K Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle imagines the consequences of Germany and Japan winning World War II, and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America imagines what would have happened if Charles Lindberg had been elected president. These are counterfactual histories — they run counter to the facts. They are things that could have happened, but didn’t.
We often use counterfactual reasoning in our daily lives, in situations that are less dramatic than those we find in novels. For example, suppose that I got drunk last night and argued with my colleagues. Today, I regret the argument and wish that I had acted differently — counterfactually. The counterfactual change I would make is not drinking. Not drinking generates a counterfactual scenario in which I didn’t have an argument, and in which I am not suffering regret today.
Historians like to consider more complicated counterfactuals. They ask things like: What would have happened if Alexander had conquered Rome, or Britain had stood up to Hitler in 1938? As with my drinking example, these sorts of questions are taken to reveal what we should have done but didn’t.
The counterfactual confrontation of Hitler in 1938 is often followed by Hitler backing down and the avoidance of World War II. At the Munich conference in 1938, Czechoslovakia was asked by the UK and France to cede part of its territory to Germany. At the time, the UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain thought that he had averted military conflict, and secured peace in Europe. Today, it is usually seen as an unsuccessful act of appeasement. The lesson history appears to teach us is that another ‘Munich’ must, and can, be avoided. We should stand up to aggressive regimes. We often draw similar conclusions about our own lives: If only I hadn’t got drunk, I wouldn’t have got into an argument. It’s easy to imagine a different course branching off from a decision we made differently. However, this sort of thinking is misleading.
The first reason we are misled is that a counterfactual change sounds like it is easy to make. It would have been easy for me not to have drunk last night, right? However, historians recognise that we can’t just have done things differently. We (usually) make decisions in ways that seem reasonable to us at the time, so it turns out that a lot of things would have had to have been different for us to have made decisions differently.
Continuing with the Munich example, Chamberlain was not simply deciding whether to stand up to Hitler, or not. He knew that the UK was unprepared for war in 1938, which limited his options. The memory of World War I was also still fresh, so he was not alone in wanting to avoid war at all costs. Chamberlain couldn’t just have acted differently; the environment in which he was operating and his understanding of world events would also have had to have been different. In our own lives, thinking ‘If only I hadn’t…’ glosses over the reasons why we did the things we did. Perhaps I was stressed yesterday, which explains my drinking because I usually drink when stressed. In order for me not have drunk, I would have either had to have had a relaxing day yesterday, or make changes to my character. It is easy to say, “If only I hadn’t got drunk”. But it less easy to gauge how realistic this counterfactual behaviour really is. I might wish that I hadn’t got drunk, but this doesn’t mean that it was easy for me not to have done so. We can’t miraculously change the way we would have behaved, because all sorts of other things would have had to have been different.
Furthermore, when we indulge in counterfactual thinking we often privilege the alternative history we’re interested in. The view that if Hitler had been confronted at Munich, he would have backed down has informed US foreign policy. Harry Tuman argued that inaction over North Korea’s invasion of South Korea was an error similar to Munich, and Lyndon Johnson believed that the Vietnam War would prevent further Munichs. The lesson of 1938 is taken to be that expansionist regimes should be confronted and that the US should stand firm in the face of such threats.
However, this is not the only way that a confrontation in 1938 could have gone. Would Hitler have backed down? Historian Yuen Foon Khong argues that Hitler might have started a war in 1938, which in turn may (or may not) have led his enemies within Germany to try to depose him. He concludes that it is unclear whether Hitler would have backed down. The lesson usually drawn from a counterfactual 1938 therefore says more about our current attitude to world events (that we should confront aggressive regimes) than any truth about alternative courses of history. Once we imagine Chamberlain acting differently, we can image our alternative history unfolding in a variety of ways, some of which are worse than the real history.
In the same way, just because we can imagine a much better life for ourselves, if only we’d done something differently, this doesn’t mean a better life was likely to happen if we’d behaved differently. It says more about our current attitude to our present situation than it does about how likely our lives were to turn out better, if only we’d done something different. In all likelihood, there are many possible ways it could have gone, only some of which are positive.
Christopher Prendergast. Counterfactuals: Paths of the Might Have Been. “What are counterfactuals and what is their point? In many cases, none at all.” Prendergast explores the science and philosophy of counterfactuals from antiquity to the present in this rich and entertaining book.
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If this is true, and we couldn’t have behaved differently, doesn’t this force us into thinking that our lives are predetermined, or that we were always going to make the choices we did?
It does sound like this, but this isn’t true. None of the scenarios we are thinking about are inevitable. I got drunk last night, but it doesn’t follow from this that an argument was inevitable. I might not have spoken to my colleagues, or I might have been too drunk to speak to them by the time they showed up. I do seem to have a problem with drinking, at least for the purposes of this article, which means that when I’m stressed I’m likely to drink. Although it is unlikely that I could just have decided not to drink last night I can make choices today that increase my ability to drink less in the future. Perhaps I will take up meditation, or running, or find some other way to deal with stress. Even given my drinking, last night could have turned out in a variety of ways. Any counterfactual yesterday could have turned out any number of ways too.
The next time we find ourselves thinking “If only I hadn’t, or had, done something…”, we need to pause and consider that the ease with which we can imagine this counterfactual scenario misleads us. It is easy to say, “If only I hadn’t…”, but there are reasons why we did whatever we did, and all sorts of other things would have to have been different for us to have behaved differently.
Secondly, we can easily imagine ourselves being in a better situation today if we had acted differently. But just like the counterfactual confrontation of Hitler in 1938, we must remember that there are all sorts of ways in which the counterfactual might have turned out, including ones where we are worse off today. Our interest in examining counterfactuals often reflects dissatisfaction with our lives today. Rather than looking back at what we might have done differently, but probably couldn’t have, we should focus on what it is that we regret and try to help ourselves to behave differently in the future.
Christopher Prendergast, Counterfactuals: Paths of the Might Have Been.
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Cover image: The SA in Spandau, Berlin. Source: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P049500 / CC-BY-SA 3.0