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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Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 20, 2008

I recently bought plane tickets, thus setting off my usual dread of flying. I dread flying for two main reasons. First, I am terrified of heights. Second, American airlines are, to use the technical phrase, “sucking bad” this year.

The fear of heights thing is, of course, my problem. This fear brings great shame along with it because my great grandfather was a Mohawk and Mohawks have a reputation for being unafraid of heights. In fact, they are famous for working the high steel in construction. My father also doesn’t do well with flying and he is, of course, even more Mohawk than I.

Fear is, of course, a difficult thing. When it comes to such feelings, people feel what they feel (obviously). However, as Aristotle argued in his Nicomachean Ethics, we can consciously modify how we feel by conditioning. Or rather, to be more accurate, we can shape how we deal with how we feel. I’ve never been able to shake my fear of heights. Even buying tickets for a flight brings sweat up on my palms-that is how extreme and pathetic the fear is. However, when I fly I show absolutely no sign of concern and have, on occassion, helped other passengers deal with their fear. The fear doesn’t go away, buy I can control how I respond to it. To use an analogy, it is like being stuck on a plane with a screaming child. There is nothing you can really do to stop the child from screaming. But, you can control how you react to that. In the case of the fear, it is like having something screaming away on the inside. I’ve found that I can simply ignore it and thus prevent it from having any impact on my conscious actions. Naturally enough, this inclines me to accept Aristotle’s theory. I am also inclined to accept some of the classic views of the will-that a person is free and the master of her own mind. Naturally, there are forces that push against the will, but it seems a critical part of our being people and not just things. But, I could be wrong about this. In any case, even though I am terrified of heights, I have no problem functioning just fine while running about on top of tall objects or being on planes. I actually enjoy climbing and suspect that the fear merely adds to it.

The airlines sucking badly is, of course, mostly their problem. While some airlines enjoy sterling reputations, most of them are outside of the United States and, of course, none of them operate out of Tallahassee, Florida. I don’t fly that often, but almost ever time I’ve flown since the 1990s I’ve run into some kind of problem ranging from lost luggage to lengthy flight delays. Luckily, the longest I’ve been stranded in an airport has been about 7 hours, which is actually fairly minor these days.

Since there are some very good airlines, the main problem lies with the way the poor airlines are managed. After all, the airlines have to deal with the same basic problems so those that do it better must be better run. Or perhaps they are just lucky. Naturally, since the American airlines have to rely on the state for air traffic control and have to deal with Homeland Security, the state has a clear hand in making most American airlines suck.

Passengers also have a role in this as well. Making things go well requires money and it is hardly shocking that airlines that focus on providing more high end services (and higher end prices) tend to do better. The same is true in almost all industries. Compare, for example, your experience at a 5 star restaurant with that at McDonalds. Passengers tend to focus most on price and this means that airlines have to offer lower prices, which limits their resources. Also, when passengers pick cheap airlines, they will tend to have that McDonalds sort of experience.

Like many, these days I’ve lowered my airline expectations. I really just expect to  1) get to Maine from Florida in less than 12 hours and 2) survive the flight.

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The Danger of Terrorism

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 15, 2008

I must admit that I miss Rudy Giuliani’s run for President. Without his constant reminders, I often forget that there are terrorists who want to kill me and, presumably, my pets as well.

Obviously, the threat of terrorism is real-people are killed by terrorists. However, there is an important question that often goes unanswered: how much of a threat do terrorists present?

In terms of the numbers, terrorists cannot hope to even match automobiles in raw killing power. After all, about 43,000 Americans die each year in automobile related events (many of which involve alcohol as well). In terms of injuries, terrorists also fall behind toilets (in 1996 43,687 people were injured by toilets), pruning (36,000 in 1996), and even buckets (10,000 injured in 1996). They are, however, well ahead of sharks (about 11 attacks per year in the US). Terrorists also cannot hope to compete with natural dangers such as extreme weather and illness.

Given the numbers, it would seem that terrorists are but a minor threat. Yes, even a single death is significant-but if we applied that sort of justification across the board we would also need have massive wars on everything that harms people-things ranging from swimming pools to fatty foods.

Obviously, the war on terror is not motivated primarily by the desire to protect people-we could save more lives by having wars on things that kill far more people (like a lack of health insurance). The main motivations are the usual things. A war on terror allows money to be funneled to the allies and friends of the politicians, it allows the government to justify numerous evil misdeeds (spying, torture, violating rights and so on), and it allows the government to shore up its power by generating fear.

It might be countered that although terrorists do not kill that many people each year, they would if they could. Plus, it is just a matter of time before they get WMDs and go on to kills vast numbers of people.

In reply, it certainly seems that terrorists could kill more people if there was, in fact, a terrorist threat that actually matches the hype put forth by the Republicans.

First, the American borders are a sieve. As the Republicans constantly warn us, illegal immigrants are swarming across the borders. If average folks from Mexico can cross the border and get into the United States with little difficulty, so could terrorists. Yet, there have been no attacks.

Second, America is extremely vulnerable and our defenses are rather ill-prepared. Right now, we have gang problems, problems with crime, vulnerable infrastructure and so on. If people can go on shooting sprees, if gangs can run parts of America cities, and if traffic accidents can tie things up for days, then terrorists should have an easy time of it here. Yet, they don’t seem to be doing anything.

Based on the evidence, it seems that the terrorist threat is vastly overstated. Yes, terrorism is a serious matter-but it is not a threat of the magnitude that some Republicans claim. It certainly does not justify the expenditure of billions of dollars, the systematic violation of rights, and the use of evil deeds like torture.

That said, we should be on guard on against terrorists-but to the degree that they pose a threat. Our priorities should be based on the degree of danger and there are far more serious dangers than the bugbear of terrorism.

Fear of Flying

Posted in Medicine/Health by Michael LaBossiere on August 1, 2007

I am terrified of heights. So much so, in fact, that even the thought of flying results in a lingering dread that haunts me-albeit in a very small way (like a ghost of a gnat).This fear of heights also applies to things like mountains and buildings.

When I’ve been in skyscrapers, I always felt rather uncomfortable-as if, at any moment, the floors would vanish beneath me and I would be given a rather quick trip to the basement.

I have no idea why I have this fear-I’ve never had a really bad fall and I’ve never been in a plane crash. Often it seems that fears are just there. Since most people do get afraid when actually falling, perhaps it is just some over active set of neurons that get rather fired up about this matter.

Naturally, some people find this fear rather amusing and like to see how I’ll react to such situations. The very best of the lot was done by my ex-wife (this is not, I assure you, why she is my ex). We were visiting a park in Maine and she wanted to visit the top of the mountain. So, we were driving up the mountain road and, as always, I fell asleep in the car. Seeing this, she pulled right up the guard rail and awoke me by pushing my face into the window-so it seemed that I was about to fall off the side of the mountain. I’m reasonably sure that only years of running kept my heart from failing. But, it was pretty funny.

Since I know I have this fear, I make it a point to always sit by the window on flights and stare out the window during take offs and landings. I also clean the gutters of my house and climb things when the opportunity presents itself. This is because I believe that my actions are under my control and not under the control of my irrational fear. So, I do what I need to do and simply endure that senseless feeling of terror.

I find this very interesting in terms of what it indicates about the mind. Specifically, it raises intriguing questions about choice and the interaction between the rational and the irrational aspects of the mind. Of course, I like to believe that my will is such that it can act freely in the face of such things as fear. This is something of a classic view of the mind and the freedom of the will.

However, the current view of the mind tends towards a materialist view and the idea that the mind is merely the functions of the nervous system. If this is true, then this so called will is merely one set of functions taking precedence over another set of functions. Regardless, I still fear to fly…but do it anyway. No, I don’t drink when I’m flying. 🙂

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Altruism and Fear

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on May 20, 2007

The National Institute of Health recently published the results of a study about the ability to read fear in facial expressions. According to the study, those better able to recognize fear were more inclined to behave in more altruistic and compassionate ways. For example, such people are apparently more inclined to donate money and time to help others. In another example, they are willing to say that people are more attractive-if saying otherwise would hurt the feelings of those being assessed.

It has been speculated that psychopaths and criminal types might be less capable of recognizing fear. From this, it has been suggested that such people become that way because they were less capable of discerning suffering and hence less likely to develop empathy and the associated feelings of guilt from wrongdoing.

This is an interesting hypothesis and is similar in some ways to Socrates’ explanation of evil. According to Socrates, people do evil out of ignorance. His view is what is known as ethical intellectualism-to know the good is to do the good. The hypothesis discussed above is similar in that people would do evil things because they apparently do not realize that they are causing harm.

This hypothese does have a certain degree of plausibility. Based on anectdotal evidence, it is common to hear stories about people who treat others poorly described as just not understanding the pain they are inflicting. Of course, there are many altenrative explanations. It might be that these people are well aware of the suffering they inflict but are simply not affected by it in a way that deters such behavior. In short, they know the other people are afraid, but it does not bother them.

To use an analogy, think of how dogs behave. Having observed dogs for years I am fairly confident that a vicious dog knows when other dogs (or humans) are afraid and this actually inclines them to attack such dogs (or people). They know to associate fear with weakness and weakness means an easier kill. Dogs that are better natured also know when other dogs (or people)are afraid of them and act in ways to reduce their fear (lying down and being non-threatening, for example).

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