A Philosopher's Blog

Anger & Fear

Posted in Medicine/Health, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on February 28, 2010
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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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  1. […] Anger & Fear « A Philosopher's Blog […]

  2. T. J. Babson said, on February 28, 2010 at 10:53 am

    What if the politicians should be afraid, but aren’t?

    The Dems are fiddling about healthcare when USS America is on fire and sinking fast.

    Niall Ferguson:

    If empires are complex systems that sooner or later succumb to sudden and catastrophic malfunctions, what are the implications for the United States today? First, debating the stages of decline may be a waste of time — it is a precipitous and unexpected fall that should most concern policymakers and citizens. Second, most imperial falls are associated with fiscal crises. Alarm bells should therefore be ringing very loudly indeed as the United States contemplates a deficit for 2010 of more than $1.5 trillion — about 11% of GDP, the biggest since World War II.


    • magus71 said, on February 28, 2010 at 1:48 pm

      I just read article on Real Clear Politics. Ferguson’s very good. I’d suggest reading his book: Colossus.

      But I still thinks it’s us, for the most part, not the politicians. They’re doing what we want them to. We are the great enablers.

      Great article here:


      • T. J. Babson said, on February 28, 2010 at 1:59 pm

        Part of the problem is that I don’t think people fully understand how much money a trillion dollars really is.

        A trillion is $3,255 for every person in America, or much more for those who actually pay the bills.

      • P.E.N.Name said, on February 28, 2010 at 2:56 pm

        Hell has indeed frozen over. We agree on one thing. We enable. The enabling is not a partisan issue. We elect and reelect the guys and gals who ‘represent our interests.’ One of our most costly ‘interests’ is pork. If our rep can bring the pork he becomes a permanent fixture. Murtha was reelected despite his controversial stand on the Iraq war. He served for 36 years. In an adjoining congressional district a guy named ‘Bud’ Shuster resigned in the midst of scandal after more than 30 years ‘serving’ his district. They served ‘our interests’.
        From the Newsweek article:’They9?) cannot bring themselves to raise taxes on the middle class or cut Social Security and medical benefits for the elderly.’ Indeed, whoever ‘they’ are cannot bring themselves to raise taxes on corporations and the rich or raise the cap on SS payroll tax.
        The article also states:”If Obama were to come out squarely for medical-malpractice reform—in a real way. . .” Well. Let me additionally propose that Boehner, McConnell and all Republicans should ‘come out squarely for’ regulation of insurance companies-‘in a real way’. Then let’s negotiate from there. You accept absolute regulation, I accept complete malpractice reform. You want only an incremental change in regulation? I offer an incremental change in malpractice reform. Etc. That’s negotiation. Think it will happen?

        Our sense of what our interests truly are generally does not reach beyond our wallets and national safety. Our feelings surrounding these interests are among the most easily manipulated. Using fear and anger, for example. One of the most common appeals to fear is some variation of the slippery slope argument. “If we pass this bill we’ll open the door to socialism.” “Pass this regulation and they’ll take away our guns.” Sometimes the fallacy is skipped and you get an outright distortion, if not a bald faced lie. “Obama is a socialist.”

    • P.E.N.Name said, on February 28, 2010 at 7:23 pm

      Re the Times article.So many related points. just a few here. “Economic reality is not my problem. I want my benefits.” Where have I heard this before? That would be at a Republican town hall meeting. “”Keep your government hands off my Medicare.”
      “I had to politely explain that, ‘Actually, sir, your health care is being provided by the government,'” Inglis told the Post. “But he wasn’t having any of it.” Yet also, strangely, from Republicans opposed to increasing Social Security taxes! “It’s my money dammit.” And from both parties who inexplicably hesitate for one second to raise the early retirement age from 62 to 64 or higher. And where were the conservatives when Medicare Part D, one of those entitlements the article IDs as the source of civilization’s ultimate downfall, was passed unfunded??
      The article is incorrect in implying that entitlement programs automatically lead to a plunge off the falls. It does have it right in saying that America can still pull to shore. And obviously if a country has the option to pull to shore, entitlements do not necessarily lead to a plunge over the falls. A true slippery slope, if it’s to instill the fear it’s designed to instill, doesn’t offer an escape route.
      And “nothing makes an individual more selfish than the socially equitable communitarianism of big government.” Whoa! Stop the presses.Am I to swallow whole this ludicrous implication that the 65 year-old who receives an SS check or Medicare is rendered more greedy by those social programs and that B Madoff or K Lay to name just two are rendered less greedy by their unfettered pursuit of wealth?

      • magus71 said, on March 1, 2010 at 2:28 am

        “The article is incorrect in implying that entitlement programs automatically lead to a plunge off the falls.”

        Your churlishness gets the best of you. It really does. You basically just want to argue.

        Here’s the formula, and it’s quite simple. More cash out than cash in=economic crash.

        Madoff and May didn’t cause Greece’s problems. They didn’t even cause ours. Regulation did not stop the housing collapse–the mortgage people broke the rules and gave loans to people they weren’t supposed to.

      • P.E.N.Name said, on March 1, 2010 at 10:41 am

        I think I understand you better now. If I disagree with your weltanschauung, I’m churlish. Which meaning of that word should I choose to determine how much I should be offended? Let me take slightly different approach. You just want to argue. And I’ll stand by my third paragraph. Not just pieces of it. The whole thing.
        And the fourth, for that matter.The statement that “nothing makes an individual more selfish than the socially equitable communitarianism of big government” is a dizzyingly clumsy and loaded generalization. Is the resulting ‘selfishness’ greater than or less than the ‘selfishness’ that results when governments remove regulations on big businesses and banks? Let’s get out our selfishness scale for accurate measurement. I think the point is eminently debatable. If I replace “the socially equitable communitarianism of big government” with “an advanced society’s attempts to protect its elderly, its poor, its disabled etc. ” would that offend your conservative sensibilities (brush too roughly against your weltanschauung)?

    • T. J. Babson said, on March 1, 2010 at 11:12 am

      One of the definitions of insanity is that one keeps trying the same thing again and again and expects a different result.

      How many times does socialism have to fail before people realize that it can never work?

      • P.E.N.Name said, on March 1, 2010 at 12:05 pm

        How many times do people have to say that social programs are not socialism?

      • T. J. Babson said, on March 1, 2010 at 10:21 pm

        Why fight it?


        There are significant differences in reactions to “socialism” across ideological and partisan groups:

        *A majority of 53% of Democrats have a positive image of socialism, compared to 17% of Republicans.
        *Sixty-one percent of liberals say their image of socialism is positive, compared to 39% of moderates and 20% of conservatives.

      • P.E.N.Name said, on March 2, 2010 at 12:08 am

        tj: Truly a strange poll. Gallup asked how members of both parties felt about big business, small business, free enterprise, capitalism, and entrepreneurs. Predictably, it seems to me, both groups felt a similar amount of positivity toward these groups. With small business getting the most positive response (in the high 90’s) overall and big business getting the least positive (50% on average). Can’t argue with that.

        They then tossed in the clinkers. The federal government and socialism. And I can’t help wondering if the poll might have actually have had ‘some’ meaning, if it had included ‘social programs’ or ‘Social Security’ or ‘Medicare’ on the list. Here, that goofy concept “Keep your damn gummit hands off my Medicare” (that famous statement that rang out in tea party meetings–see my 2/28/2010/7:23 above, paragraphs one and two) would surely have produced some intriguing results. Certainly results more meaningful than those the poll presents. What do you think the figures would be if one of those items had been been included for the respondents’ consideration? And if the correspondents actually stopped to think what the hell they were thinking?

  3. Patrick Sperry said, on March 1, 2010 at 11:57 pm

    No kidding Michael! When, some years in the future, will all of this be twisted by historical fallacy?

    Same answer!

    • P.E.N.Name said, on March 2, 2010 at 10:30 am

      “Despite the differences by party, the data show that overall, Americans tilt toward the Democratic position — with a majority saying they trust the government more than businesses to solve the nation’s economic problems.
      This overall average is driven largely by the fact that there are more Democrats than Republicans in the United States at this point [clear evidence that we’re a conservative-leaning country,btw].”

      “There is no evidence of any trend toward Americans saying either that government is doing too much that should be left to individuals and businesses, or that government has too much power. If anything, there has been a slight movement in the opposite direction. In short, there is no sign to this point that Americans overall have become more worried that government is gaining too much power or attempting to do too much.
      Still, despite the trends, slight pluralities of Americans say that government is trying to do too much and that government has too much power.”

      They’re going to wear out the word ‘slight’ here. The poll’s so ‘slight’ it’s ‘slightly’ meaningless. As with the last poll posted here, this poll would benefit (slightly?) from some fleshing out.Some questions about specific government powers in specific areas for example. Some clear effort on the part of the pollster to remind the respondent to keep differences between state and local governments and the US government in mind when responding.

  4. magus71 said, on March 3, 2010 at 8:28 am

    This couple, apparently driven by the fear of an invasion of global-warming-displaced polar bears, killed their young son, shot their 7 month old baby (who lived) then killed themselves.


    Just to be a jackass and join the herd, I’ll ask: Were they terrorists?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 3, 2010 at 7:06 pm

      I think that falls under insanity rather than terrorism.

      After all, if they were afraid of polar bears and had guns, they should be able to reason that they can hold off the bears with firepower.

  5. magus71 said, on March 5, 2010 at 2:53 am




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