The “Affective Fallacy” Made Me Do It

A theme here, and elsewhere, is that the unduly passionate, those who rationalize their views based upon emotions rather than reason, are merely self-indulgent. Their feelings become, at least in their minds and the minds of those who agree with them, an acceptable substitute for thought.

They need not explain their beliefs; that they believe is reason enough. And, indeed, they cannot explain because there is no explanation. Good is good. Right is right. If they believe it’s good and right, it’s justice.

The beauty of this perspective is that there’s no arguing against it. Feelings, you see, can’t be wrong. They are personal. They are theirs. They are, by definition, right. And challenging someone else’s feelings isn’t merely insensitive, but an effort to erase their humanity. It may be insipid and unpersuasive to those who don’t subscribe to feelz über alles, but since no amount of logic can alter the belief, challenges to feelings serve only to reinforce their validity and propriety in the hearts of the unduly passionate.

There is a name for this phenomenon: the “Affective Fallacy.

Professor Owen Williamson of the University of Texas at El Paso has compiled a Master List of Logical Fallacies. He defines the affective fallacy as the idea that “one’s emotions, urges or ‘feelings’ are innate and in every case self-validating, autonomous, and above any human intent or act of will (one’s own or others’), and are thus immune to challenge or criticism.”

Williamson continues, “One argues, ‘I feel it, so it must be true. My feelings are valid, so you have no right to criticize what I say or do, or how I say or do it.’”

It’s good to have a name for the pervasive phenomenon that’s seized the rhetoric of so many potentially sentient beings. But is it as simple as that?

Professors Joseph LeDoux and Richard Brown show, in a 2017 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “emotions are not innately programmed into our brains, but, in fact, are cognitive states resulting from the gathering of information.”

This seems to throw a monkey wrench into the works. The resort to emotion as a self-justifying fallacy isn’t merely the facile substitute for people unwilling to put in the hard labor of thinking, but a cognitive state. Cogito, ergo feelz?

On college campuses, endless lousy behavior has been tolerated by college administrators, as students argue their feelings are self-validating. Students’ feelings have been automatically elevated to the level of truth.

Or consider the “honor” murdering father who kills his daughter because she had dishonored their family. Not for a moment did he think his feelings weren’t self-validating. If he did, he could never have committed such a heinous act.

Then, there is the recent case of a driver who rammed another car because it displayed a Trump bumper sticker. At a red light, the incensed driver shouted, “You voted for Trump?” When the owner of the car with the sticker said yes, the incensed driver called him “a racist and several other names.” She then side-swiped the stickered car and sped away.

The contention appears to be that there was some active thought process preceding the action that’s rationalized on the basis of feelings. If emotions aren’t innate, then they have to come from somewhere.

“We argue that conscious experiences, regardless of their content, arise from one system in the brain,” explains LeDoux, a professor in New York University’s Center for Neural Science. “Specifically, the differences between emotional and non-emotional states are the kinds of inputs that are processed by a general cortical network of cognition, a network essential for conscious experiences.”

As a result, LeDoux and Brown observe, “the brain mechanisms that give rise to conscious emotional feelings are not fundamentally different from those that give rise to perceptual conscious experiences.”

This doesn’t seem particularly controversial, that our emotions are the by-product of our perceptions of conscious experiences. But it also doesn’t provide much of an answer or justification for indulgence in the Affective Fallacy. While our brain mechanics that produce emotional and non-emotional states may work in similar, even the same, ways based on inputs doesn’t alter the fact that the outputs, emotion or reason, are apposite.

Beyond putting a name to the phenomenon, and attempting to understand how one gets to the point where one prefers to indulge in the Affective Fallacy, rather than the more difficult and risky endeavor of thinking, is there any downside for the person who picks self-validating emotion over reason?

The driver who side-swiped the car of the Trump voter may have been out of her mind, but years of repetitive thoughts about Trump voters lit her fuse. Her angry feelings were just the tip of a massive iceberg of dysfunctional thinking.

I would be surprised if her anger was limited to Trump and Trump voters. Very likely, this woman has suffered through life. Day after day, life may be giving her feedback that her beliefs are causing her misery. Might she dismiss the feedback that life provides because she believes her feelings are self-validating?

A more important question is, are we dismissing the feedback that life provides us? Are we continually sitting under a cloud of our thinking and wondering why there is no sunshine?

The self-validating component of the Affective Fallacy empowers us to ignore, even reject, objective reality in favor of “our truth,” which means that the misery suffered as a result of one’s actions, one’s feelings, doesn’t make it through to the brain to inform us to stop doing stuff that produces more misery. Do emotions make us dumber, or at least prevent us from learning from our mistakes, from our failures that produce lousy outcomes?

They say that insanity is performing the same act over and over and expecting a different result. Maybe that’s not insanity at all, but indulgence in the Affective Fallacy, where the belief that self-validating feelings can’t be denied, so the problem is always something else as it can’t possible be us.

20 thoughts on “The “Affective Fallacy” Made Me Do It

  1. Richard Kopf


    This is a brilliant and fascinating piece. Cogito, ergo feelz. Wonderful.

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      I’m not at all sure this is remotely brilliant. I find it useful to have words and phrases to embody concepts, as they enable me to give them some deeper consideration if I don’t have to run through the basics to get to the good stuff. But whether this is accurate isn’t clear to me. And one of my gravest fears is confirmation bias on my part.

      1. JRF

        This strikes me as a little bit muddled, and let me offer the following: Assume that you claim that “the moon is made of green cheese.” I respond: “How do you know that”? Let’s agree, to simplify matters a little, and agree that knowledge is justified true belief, or, K=JTB. Let’s further agree that a TB is an objective claim about reality, not merely a subjective experience. And that a JTB is an objective claim that rational actors should accept. You respond to my skeptical inquiry by telling me: “I know that the moon is made of green cheese because I ran 50 moon rocks through my cheese=o-meter.” We now have something to debate. It seems that the affective fallacy would come into play if your response was: “My strong feelings tell me so.” That your strong feelings are real for you is self-validating for you, but not self-evidently true for others.The issue of innateness also seems irrelevant, as does the cognitive process the brain uses to create your subjective experience. However the brain produces your subjective experiences, and whether you call them feelings, preferences, or opinions is missing the point. Why should anyone believe that your subjective experiences are TB about the objective world? And even if I thought your B was a TB, you need to marshall evidence of some sort to make it a JTB. Descartes, who you misuse, is actually on point here. Just because you have the brute experience of, say, redness, does not prove that there are any red objects in the world. It does, however, provide a compelling case for your own existence. That is, something is experiencing redness, and that thing must exist. Whether it has feelz or not needs to be demonstrated.

  2. Raccoon Strait

    I hear the 1st Amendment guarantees free speech, but it does not guarantee an audience. So while folks who are determined to express their feelz to the world and seek validation, another group is standing by and after having heard the first few words of the emotional outburst are discussing which malfunction(s) of the psyche best describe the instant case.

    Is it really necessary to validate every expressed feeling, as some institutions of higher learning seem to be intent upon attempting? Or has the concept of ‘suck it up, learn from your mistakes’ fallen completely out of favor?

    I like that ‘Master List of Logical Fallacies’, it’s gonna come in handy, though the expressed perception that it is a ‘master’ list is a logical fallacy that was not listed.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ve seen a few such “master lists,” which strike me as dubious as well as ironic as well. What else is new?

    2. losingtrader

      I prefer the master list of SHG”s insulting comments,. It;’s much funnier.

      Too bad he won’t let me sell it on Amazon.

  3. Aaron G

    Affective Fallacy sounds a lot like IBS. No one can debate how you feel and odds are you’re about to express yourself in a way no one appreciates.

    1. SHG Post author

      There’s a possibility that the people who suffer from one suffer from the other as well, but correlation does not prove causation.

        1. SHG Post author

          No. There are a few hundred million other things I wasn’t thinking about either. Would you like me to list them? WTF?

  4. Billy

    And then there is the Ordinal Fallacy: First I will become rich; then I will perform charitable deeds. (Bill Gates to Heaven, Warren Banquet-Buffett to Bernie Made-Off–come to mind.)

    First I will lose weight, then I will take up the Tango dancing. What was Affective Fallacy again? Is that some newfangled terminology designed to make those of us outside the academy look/feel stewpid?
    I hate it when that happens.

    First I will get married, then fall in love, etc. First I will read the essay, then I will comment. Ha. (Been there, done that.) First this, then that… If you catch my drift? Not necessarily a formula for success, in spite of what the Boy Scout wisdom might be, or the Haaavad Busyness School might teach. Sez who, I might add (or subtract)?

    Life does not work that way, my Dear Watson. Don’t forget, Wallace came up with “natural selection” before Darwin, and wrote to him regarding same, but DarWinner gets all the credit. Is he an idiot Saba ntGo figure? It just is not write that the true genius must sit backstage and curtail his anger at being upstaged. Yea, we know it went down like that, like the rain in Spain. (Goes mainly in the storm sewers.

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