A Philosopher's Blog

Anger & Fear

Posted in Medicine/Health, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on February 28, 2010
Figure 20 from Charles Darwin's The Expression...

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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:

  1. Y is presented (a claim that is intended to produce fear).
  2. Therefore claim X is true (a claim that is generally, but need not be, related to Y in some manner).

This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because creating fear in people does not constitute evidence for a claim.

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:

  1. Claim X is presented with the intent of generating anger (or spite)
  2. 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.

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