It is rather common for politicians and pundits to make appeals to anger and fear in the hopes of getting people to accept claims. While these appeals are often effective, they are most often based on fallacies: the appeal to fear and appeal to anger. The fallacies are as follows:
The appeal to fear is a fallacy with the following pattern:
- Y is presented (a claim that is intended to produce fear).
- Therefore claim X is true (a claim that is generally, but need not be, related to Y in some manner).
Naturally, there are cases in which something can provide a legitimate reason to accept a claim while also generating fear. For example, if you are told that you should back away slowly because you are near a deadly snake, then you would probably be worried-but you would also have a good reason to believe that you should back away.
The appeal to anger (also known as an appeal to spite) is a fallacy in which something that generates a feeling of anger is substituted for evidence when an “argument” is made against a claim. This line of “reasoning” has the following form:
- Claim X is presented with the intent of generating anger (or spite)
- Therefore claim C is false (or true)
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because a feeling of anger does not count as evidence for or against a claim. This is quite clear in the following case: “Bill claims that the earth revolves around the sun. But remember that dirty trick he pulled on you last week. Now, doesn’t my claim that the sun revolves around the earth make sense to you?”
Of course, there are cases in which a claim that evokes a feeling of anger can serve as legitimate evidence. For example, if you know that someone has stolen from your club, then you would be angry but also have a good reason to believe that the person should not be elected treasurer. However, it should be noted that the actual feelings of anger or spite are not evidence.
When people fall for these fallacies, they typically do so because they assume that if they feel afraid or angry, then they must be justified in feeling anger or fear. While it is true that the person does feel the way he does, the fact that a person is angry or afraid does not prove that his feeling of anger or fear is warranted. That is, he may be angry or afraid and not have a legitimate reason to feel the way he does.
People can, obviously enough, be angry or afraid for no good reason or feel anger or fear far out of proportion to the situation. For example, someone who is accidentally cut off in traffic might become enraged enough to pull a gun and start blazing away. While the person is truly angry, her response would be disproportional to the provocation.
When someone is being swayed by an appeal to her anger or her fear, she should ask two questions: 1) Have I been given a legitimate reason to be angry or afraid? and 2) is my anger or fear proportional to the situation? If the answer to either question is “no”, then the person should work hard to reign in her feelings.
Unfortunately, fear and anger have an unpleasant tendency to impair a person’s reason. As such, a person who is angry or afraid will tend to not think critically about his fear or anger. This is what politicians and pundits count on and it is generally safe for them to put their faith in these methods. For example, much of the bailout plan was pushed through with the aid of appeals to fear. As another example, appeals to fear are common ploys used by folks opposed to the health care reform being proposed by the Obama administration.
In some cases the politicians stepped up to the challenge and made some reasonable points. Since we do have a serious health care problem, we need this sort of behavior. That is, we need our leaders to be leader acting for the good of the nation. This can and should involve disagreements and dispute. However, the debate and disagreement should be aimed at furthering the public good rather than simply scoring political points. While politicians do need to have their eye on the next election, they should not look away from the public good when doing so.
In other cases some folks were simply trying to score political points and engage, as the media pundits love to say, in political theater. That is, putting on a scripted show to sway emotions rather than doing anything that accomplishes anything substantial.
One thing that has been rather interesting about the process is that Obama has been relentless criticized for not doing things that he did, in fact do. For example, it was interesting to see a Republican attacking Obama for not saying which people would attend the summit and what would be done there. The only problem was that Obama had done both of these things. This suggests that some Republicans simple attack Obama without even bothering to consider the facts. Of course, people are generally not inclined to check facts-they generally tend to accept what matches their biases without critical assessment or due investigation.
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While I generally don’t listen to morning shows on the radio, I happened to catch one in which the fellow was talking about rudeness. He mentioned a survey that indicated most people thought that people are too rude. Interestingly, those surveyed agreed that they had been rude and that politeness would actually encourage people to behave better. I had been thinking about doing a post on rudeness and respect and what happened today provided that last bit of motivation.
During my office hours today I was involved as something of a mediator between a student and another faculty member. The gist of the dispute was that the student had accused the professor of being disrespectful and simply refused to leave her office. My involvement began when the professor came to my office and asked me to help out.
I try to practice what I preach in regards to ethics and critical thinking, so I carefully and politely listened to the student and the professor. What I found interesting was that the student admitted to skipping class, to studying for other classes during her class, and to going to the department office manager and chair to ask about whether the professor had to give him a make up exam or not. When I found out that he was openly doing work for other classes in her classes, I pointed out that was a clear sign of disrespect and hence her reaction to him might have been motivated by his own disrespectful behavior. I used an analogy to a person on a date who spent the whole date openly calling someone else to talk about dating that other person. His reply was that going on the date and talking to the other person was more respectful than simply standing up the first person. That might be true, but taking that approach is rather like defending spitting one someone’s shirt by saying that spitting in his eye would be worse. That is true, but rather misses the point.
This incident, though a single event, did give me new insight into the notion of respect. As this incident shows, people tend to have rather different views of respect. The general principle seems to be that people are rather inclined to interpret their own actions as being appropriate while holding others to higher standards. That is, a person can see an action as respectful if he does it and the very same behavior as disrespectful if it is done to him.
The student seemed to honestly believe that he was showing respect by doing the work for other classes in her class. After all, he said, it would be less respectful to simply skip class. Obviously, the professor did not see this as a sign of respect but rather of disrespect. Based on this and other behavior that she regarded as disrespectful, the professor made it clear that she did not have respect for the student. He, of course, could not understand that. She, of course, did not accept his professed outrage at the perceived disrespect. Rather, she believed that he had earned the level of respect she had shown him, that is none at all.
As a professor, I have also observed similar situations. For example, I have seen students chatting away in classes and annoying the other students. I have then seen the same students chastise other students for being disrespectful to them for doing the same thing. I have also seen students that are very badly behaved in classes complain about faculty being rude to them. Often this “rude” behavior involved the faculty telling them to stop disrupting the class. Outside of academics, I have seen people outraged at the rudeness of someone who dared to ask them to stop talking on their phone during a movie. Ironically, the same person later chastised someone else for talking to the person sitting nearby. Again, this seems to support my theory that people interpret their own actions rather favorably while condemning the same actions taken by others. This meshes nicely with the fact that people generally both condemn and engage in what they regard as rude behavior.
As far as what people should do, the answer is easy: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So, for example, if a student wants respect, then she has to act in ways that are respectful. Rude behavior does not merit respect. Likewise, a professor who wants respect also has to act in a respectful manner. Naturally, the same applies outside of academics as well.
While watching Glenn Beck often leads me to speculate about his mental stability, he is clearly an entertaining speaker. He also is not one to shy away from controversial remarks, even when they are directed at Republicans.
At the recent CPAC event he said something that struck me as quite correct: “It’s not enough just to not suck as much as the other side.” That He also added: “The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. I have not heard people in the Republican Party admit they have a problem and when I did hear them say they have a problem, I don’t know if I believed them.” Beck went on to enumerate the problems the Republicans face, such as an addiction to spending and a willingness to put the government ahead of the individual. While this is a stock libertarian line, Beck seems to be on target in calling the Republican party to task.
The Republicans allege to be fiscal conservatives, but they tend to be profligate spenders when they get into power. Beck’s own hero, Reagan, was no fiscal conservative but a big spender. Bush, of course, spent Clinton’s surplus and then kept on spending-thus handing Obama a massive money pit to climb out of. In general, the core ideas of fiscal conservativism are quite plausible: do not spend more than you have and when you must spend, spend responsibly.
The Republicans have also alleged to be for small government and for the individual. However, as Beck points out, the Republicans and the Democrats both create massive government. Be it under Reagan or Obama, the Federal government has grown and become even more intrusive with each passing year. This has resulted in a greater consumption of resources (mostly through waste) as well as more restrictions on liberty.
What always strikes me as an amazing irony is when I hear Republican politicians speak about how government is the problem while they are working very hard to become part of that government. Naturally, they can be quite right (that government is a problem). However, it seems to be wise to be suspicious of someone who is eager to become part of what he considers to be the problem.
Overall, Beck is quite right to be critical of the Democrats and the Republicans.
In an interesting coincidence I happened to be teaching about ethical egoism about the time that the Toyota problems were hitting a peak. Ethical egoism is, crudely put, the moral theory that people ought to maximize their own self interest. So, I should maximize my self interest and so should you. Famous theorists in this camp include Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, and Ayn Rand.
Interestingly, Hobbes argued that out of self-interest we should cooperate and obey the laws of the state. This was, of course, to avoid the horrors of the state of nature (a “war of all against all”). As such, our self interest is supposed to motivate us to keep our self-interest in check.
Adam Smith, the theorist who gave us the “invisible hand“, argued that market forces would sort things out between individuals who were acting on the basis of self-interest. What is often overlooked in Smith’s theory is his view that the end is to create social utility via the free market. Of course, the motivation to act well is based in self-interest.
Altruistic views, which are typically presented as the opposing views to the various forms of ethical egoism, enjoin us to take into account the interests of others and not just our own. In the case of altruism, it is often claimed that people should act well because it is the right thing to do and not merely a matter of self interest.
One obvious concern about taking the self-interest approach is that a person will (and should) act against the interest of others when doing so is in his interest. Put rather crudely, if a person can gain more by doing what might seem to be wrong, then that is what the person should do. Naturally, this takes profit to be the measure of right.
In the case of Toyota, there is evidence that the company might have taken deliberate action to avoid having to recall vehicles so as to keep their profits. While this certainly seems to have put people at risk (and perhaps even killed and wounded some people), it would be a prudent act on the part of the folks at Toyota, provided that their gain exceeds their losses. In fact, this seems to be a rather standard practice in numerous fields. For example, a drug might turn out to cause heart attacks, but this might simply be covered up (perhaps with the collusion of regulatory folks) so as to keep profits high. Obviously, individuals use the same approach in their own lives, doing less than upstanding things so as to gain or to avoid a loss.
Getting back to Smith’s invisible hand, what is supposed to happen is that the misdeeds of businesses are supposed to create a loss for them. As such, they have an incentive to act well so as to maintain their profits. Toyota seems to have gambled that by avoiding recalls they could keep substantial profits. Currently, of course, Toyota is reaping what it has sown and is taking a massive PR hit. Of course, Toyota might still come out ahead. If so, delaying the recalls might turn out to have been a good decision.
One factor that allowed Toyota to do what it did (and perhaps helped motivate the action) is the fact that the folks responsible for making such misdeeds costly seems to have been under the sway of Toyota. This seems to be a general problem-all too often the regulatory agencies are very cozy with the companies they are supposed to regulate. Then again, if the goal in life is to maximize self interest, then the companies and the regulatory folks are acting as they should-they are all trying to get the biggest slice of money pie that they can. Naturally, the public is suffering because of this, but that is because the public seems unable to ensure that it is in the best interest of the regulators t0 make sure that it is in the best interest of companies to not act against the interests of the public.
When company decisions makers are acting prudentially in regards to profits, they elect to take the actions they believe will maximize profits. Naturally, the actions that maximize profits might be regarded as rather immoral (such as marketing a risky drug or not fixing defective vehicles). Since appealing to what is right seems to have little impact on people (this is why police carry guns rather than handbooks on moral philosophy) what needs to be done is to ensure that actions that are wrong will come with a high cost. For example, rather than allowing the regulatory folks to let Toyota get away with their alleged misdeeds, the cost of not fixing such problems needs to be increased until it is not prudent to allow them to persist.
Of course, it is reasonable to be worried that people are not prudent. After all, there are harsh penalties for crimes and for doing stupid things, yet people persist in doing both. So, maybe corporate folks would continue to do such things even when the cost outweighs the profit. It is also reasonable to be worried that the regulatory agencies will always slide into cozy relations with the industries they are supposed to regulate.
I won’t even argue that we should hope that people will do the right thing because it is right.
One constantly repeated theme these days is the idea that the government is broken. While this is a nifty talking point, it doesn’t really provide much in the way of details. Typically when folks provide an account of how the government is broken, the general idea is that the government is not doing what they think it should do. This is, obviously enough, often based the person’s specific principles. So, while folks on the left and right agree that the government is broken, they disagree on the nature of the breakage.
However, there does seem to be some general agreement about the broken aspects of government. These include scandals, corruption, overspending, inefficiency, and a marked inability to solve problems. While the nature of the breakage would make an excellent subject, I am going to provide some possible explanations as to why the government is broken.
One breaking factor is that what politicians need to do to get elected does not mesh well with doing a proper job governing. This problem dates back to the time of the ancient Greeks. In Socrates‘s day there were sophists who, for the right amount of money,would teach people to sway the masses with rhetoric. When Athens was a democracy, political power rested on being able to get the support of these masses. However, as Socrates argued, governing properly is a matter of knowledge about how to govern and not merely being able to manipulate the masses. As such, the people who got elected would be skilled at swaying the masses but might not be very skilled at governing.
This is a rather hard problem to fix. After all, people have a natural tendency to overestimate the abilities and forgive the failings of people they like while doing roughly the reverse for people they dislike. Getting people to judge on the basis of merit is a core problem in critical thinking and this is something that is much broader than the matter of elections. However, the cure is well known: get people to be critical thinkers.
A comparable problem exists today. Politicians have to appeal to their base and this requires them to master the arts taught by the ancient Sophists. Also, as in the past, politicians need wealth in order to buy their way into power. Today this is in the form of campaign financing and this means that politicians need to be focused on making money. This creates three problems. First, the skills of a money maker and an effective leader are not the same. Hence, a person who is a great money maker might not be a very good leader. Second, politicians have to spend so much time preparing for the next election that they do not have the time needed to do their jobs properly. Third, the politicians are sold to the money that enables them to get and hold their office and this means that they will generally not be serving the public good but the interests of those who have helped buy them their power.
The usual solution offered for this problem is the rather vague notion of campaign funding reform. There has long been talk about limiting contributions, setting limits on spending and even requiring that all candidates spend the same amount of money (provided by the taxpayers). The main challenges here are the idea that free speech entails free spending and the power of the various special interests (ranging from corporations to teachers’ unions).
A second breaking factor is that politics tends to attract people who are interested in fame, power, and fortune. Such folks are often rather easy to corrupt by offering them what they seek. Also, politicians often have a rather high opinion of themselves which can lead to damaging hubris. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, some folks go into politics to do good or to fight for what they see as a righteous cause.
Interestingly, Socrates argued that the folks who would be best suited to run the state would not want the job. After all, highly competent people no doubt prefer to be involved in clearly productive activities rather than being involved in politics or administrative matters. While I have never held political office, I have held various administrative roles. The paper work, politics and so on is vastly less satisfying than my real job, that of professor. As such, I can see Socrates’s’ point rather clearly.
Getting competent people who will serve the general good to go into politics is rather challenging. Most such people regard politics with disgust and would rather do something else, such as run a business, practice medicine, teach, or go fishing.
A third breaking factor is that politics often creates the sort of culture of corruption that the anarchist Goldman warned people about. Even someone with the best of intentions will find that either their efforts amount to nothing or that they have become corrupted by the system (or, more correctly, the people and processes that make up the system).
Dealing with this problem requires reforming the process of politics and also reforming (or getting rid of) the people who are corrupting influences. The United States does have a general system that helps avoid certain problems, but the natural tendency of any political system is towards bloating, inefficiency and needless complications.
A fourth breaking factor is that politicians are people. While there is a certain pleasure in calling government broken, it is also fair to ask about the rest of society. Our government is a reflection of our society and perhaps our government’s broken elements merely mirror what is broken in the larger society. As Confucius would say, good government begins at home.
Every Spring semester I teach from 11:00 to 8:15 on Tuesday and 11:00-4:25 on Thursday. Since my classes are back to back and run through lunch time, I need to carry my lunch with me and devour it between classes. Obviously, a sandwich is a good choice for lunch on the run.
Since I make my sandwiches the day before, I found that putting lettuce or tomato on one would result in a soggy sandwich. In the past, I dealt with this by just having cheese and meat sandwiches. But, I found these a bit bland and somewhat less than ideal from a health standpoint. So, I decided to create a sandwich that would have vegetables, good flavor and possess a distinct lack of sogginess. To this end, I created my Tuesday-Thursday sandwich.
While you can vary the ingredients, here is how to make one: start with whole wheat flat bread and put the cheese on it. Place the meat (my favorite is roast beef) on the cheese (the cheese “protects” the bread from the meat juice). I then dice red and green peppers and sprinkle them over the meat along with mushrooms. I then add some diced jalapeno peppers to add a bit of bite. The whole thing is topped off with shredded carrots. Since it is too big for a typical sandwich bag, I usually just roll it and then wrap the whole thing in tinfoil.
Those who are not fond of meat can, of course, leave it out and just go with the vegetables and cheese (or cheese-like product).
It is also really good toasted, although I don’t have an oven in my office.
Andrew Joseph Stack III, apparently partially motivated by a hatred of the IRS, crashed his plane into an Austin building. This incident has been officially classified as a criminal act rather than a terrorist attack. However, some have contended that this is a case of conservative terrorism. While this incident is a terrible one, it does raise the issue of what counts as terrorism.
From a purely cynical standpoint, it could be claimed that the label of terrorism is applied as a matter of politics. Acts are declared terrorists acts so as to gain some sort of political game piece to be played for an advantage. For example, the underwear bomber is a terrorist because this enables the Republicans to claim that a terrorist attack occurred on Obama’s watch. In this current case, neither the Republicans nor Democrats can gain a political point by calling this incident terrorism and so they do not label it as such.
However, there seems to be a matter worth discussing here that is beyond mere political rhetoric.
One plausible view of terrorism is that it is the intentional use of force on to create fear and this is done on the basis of ideological motivations. To distinguish this from standard police and military actions, it can be added that the force is aimed at civilian targets or at the very least disregards the civilian/combatant distinction. Of course, the concept is one that is rather heavily debated and, as such, this can hardly be considered a definitive and non-controversial account. However, it does seem to have intuitive appeal. This definition does seem to nicely capture paradigm cases of terrorism, such as the 9/11 attack.
Using this definition, Stack’s attack would seem to be terrorism. After all, he seems to have been clearly motivated by ideological factors (combined, of course, with various personal issues) and he used violence against civilians. The parallels to 9/11 are quite clear, even down to the use of a plane as the weapon.
Of course, Stack’s attack has been presented as a criminal act rather than an act of terrorism. This raises the obvious question of what distinguishes Stack’s attack from a terrorist act.
One factor that might be pointed to is that Stack is an American and this makes his act a criminal act rather than a terrorist act. However, this does not seem to be enough to change the nature of the act from being an act to terror to a mere criminal act. After all, there can be internal acts of terror committed between citizens. For example, the bombings in Iraq by Iraqis are considered to be terrorist acts as were the acts of the IRA in Ireland.
Another factor is that Stack seems to have acted as an individual without any supporting group that trained or at least helped guide him towards his act. It is generally accepted that terrorism is a systematic process that requires a group or organization. Obviously there can are criminal organizations that commit violent acts to advance their goals. However, these are usually distinguished from terrorist groups by their motivations. That is, criminal groups often create fear to make money while terrorist groups often commit crimes to make money to fund terrorist attacks so as to advance their ideology. Of course, the line between terrorist groups and criminal groups is often a blurry one-especially in cases involving large scale drug trafficking.
If terrorism is defined in a way that makes it a group thing, then Stack’s attack would not count as a terrorist attack. This view does have some plausibility as shown by a comparison to war.
If I organize and launch an attack against my neighbors and take over their house, then I am a criminal. If my country organizes and launches an attack against another country, then this is war and not (on the face of it) a criminal act. Perhaps terrorism works the same way. To use a metaphor, perhaps terrorism and war are team sports so that an individual cannot play those games by himself.
So, while Stack was motivated by ideological factors and used violence against civilians, the fact that he acted alone would entail that he was a criminal and not a terrorist. If he had, however, some links (however tenuous) to the right sort of group, then he could be classified as a terrorist.
As noted above, there have been some arguments that Stack was a terrorist on this basis. The general case is that he was actually part of a group with a definite ideology and hence this provides him with the necessary context for being a terrorist. The weak point in this argument is that the group that Stack is supposed to be associated with is a rather vague one, namely people who dislike the government and the IRS. Taking such tenuous group membership is taken as an adequate basis to define a person who commits violence as a terrorist seems to make the definition of “terrorist” rather broad. After all, anyone who does not dwell in complete isolation will have some sort of association with some people who have some sort of ideological views. The challenge here is, of course, to work out what sort of relation a person would need to have to what sort of group to make that person a terrorist rather than a criminal.
It is, of course, tempting to take the view that “terrorist” is primarily a political label that is placed to serve the political ends of the person applying the label. So, for example, a person might be labeled a terrorist so that he can be interrogated with enhanced techniques, assassinated or jailed without due process. Or someone might declare a “war on terror” so as to use it as a political tool to reshape laws and how they are applied. A lone person who crashes a plane into a building simply doesn’t provide a useful political game piece and hence is labeled as a criminal rather than a terrorist.