Special Pleading is a fallacy in which a person claims there is an exemption to a general or universal principle (rule, law, policy, etc.) without adequately justifying this exemption. The fallacy has the following general form:
Premise 1: Principle P applies generally or universally.
Premise 2: No reason or irrelevant reason R is given that P does not apply to A.
Conclusion: A is an exception to P.
This is fallacious reasoning because simply asserting that there is an exception to a general or universal principle does not support this conclusion. This fallacy most commonly occurs when a person attempts to exempt themselves (or someone else) in an unjustified way from a principle (or principles) they accept as generally applying to the circumstances in question. This version can be presented with this form:
Premise 1: Person A accepts Principle P and applies it in circumstance C.
Premise 2: Person A is in circumstance C.
Premise 3: Person A offers no reason or an irrelevant reason R for an exemption to P.
Conclusion: Therefore, Person A is exempt from S.
The person committing Special Pleading is claiming that he is exempt from certain principles or standards yet provides no or an irrelevant reason for this exemption. That this sort of reasoning is fallacious is shown by the following extreme example:
Premise 1: Jane accepts that all murderers should be punished for their crimes.
Premise 2: Although she murdered Bill, Jane claims she is an exception because she really would not like to be punished.
Conclusion: Therefore, the standard of punishing murderers should not be applied to her.
This is a blatant case of special pleading. Since no one likes being punished, this cannot justify the claim that Sally alone should be exempt from punishment. If it did justify an exception, it would apply to everyone and thus undercut the general principle. Since this fallacy occurs when the justification for the exception is inadequate, this leads to the obvious matter of determining when the exception is warranted. When addressing this, philosophers generally turn to the Principle of Relevant Difference.
From a philosophic standpoint, the fallacy of Special Pleading violates the Principle of Relevant Difference. According to this principle, two people should be treated differently if and only if there is a relevant difference between them. This principle seems reasonable; since it would not seem rational to treat two people differently when there is no relevant difference between them.
To use a silly example, it would be odd for a parent to insist on making one child wear size 5 shoes and the other wear size 7 shoes when the children are both size 5 and there is no reason at all for the difference in treatment.
The Principle of Relevant Difference does allow for different treatment. For example, if Henry barely works and Nancy is a very productive worker the employer would be justified in giving only Nancy a raise. This is because productivity is a relevant difference.
Since it can be reasonable to treat people (and other things) differently, there will be cases in which some people will be exempt from the usual standards. For example, if it is Bill’s turn to cook dinner and Bill is very ill, it would not be Special Pleading if Bill asked to be excused from making dinner. Bill is offering a relevant reason for the exemption, and it would be a good reason for anyone who was ill and not just Bill.
While determining what counts as a relevant and reasonable basis for exemption can be a difficult task, offering no reason at all for an exemption would clearly be Special Pleading. Thus, unless a clear and relevant justification for exemption can be presented, a person cannot reasonably claim to be exempt. This does lead to the normative and practical problem of determining when a difference is relevant and can justify an exemption.
Sorting out such matters goes far beyond “pure” logic and into the realm of the normative (ethics, law, religion, etc.). Because of this, there can be considerable disagreement about whether a pleading is special or not. Such disagreement can even occur in good faith. For example, when I went to college, I had to prove that I was registered with the Selective Service to get my federal financial aid. Female college students did not; women are exempt from signing up for Selective Service. Obviously, some people believe that a person’s sex is a relevant difference for being required to register but it could be argued that this difference is not relevant, and this is a case of Special Pleading.
While Special Pleading usually involves a person trying to get an unjustified exemption, this fallacy could also technically be used against someone to fallaciously argue that they are exempt from something they want to apply to them. For example, someone might accept a general principle of free expression, but engage in Special Pleading to fallacious argue that it does not apply to those they dislike. If they offered no reason, there would be no disputing the fallacy has been committed. But if they offer a reason, then the question arises as to whether the reason warrants the exemption.
Defense: To avoid committing the fallacy yourself, be sure to consider whether you really have a justification for the exemption you want to claim. To avoid falling for this fallacy when used by others, check to see if they are offering a relevant reason that justifies the exemption. This can take you beyond the realm of “pure” logic and into a debate in the normative realm, such as ethics or law. Be careful to not assume that just because you disagree with someone’s reasons that they must be committing Special Pleading. Likewise, be on guard assuming that a person is not engaged in Special Pleading just because you like the reason they give.
Bill and Jill are married. Both Bill and Jill have put in a full day at the office. Their dog, Rover, has knocked over all the plants in one room and has strewn the dirt all over the carpet. When they return, Bill tells Jill that it is her job to clean up after the dog. When she protests, he says that he has put in a full day at the office and is too tired to clean up after the dog.
Jane: “Turn of that stupid stereo, I want to take a nap.”
Sue: ‘Why should I? What are you exhausted or something?”
Jane: “No, I just feel like taking a nap.”
Sue: “Well, I feel like playing my stereo.”
Jane: “Well, I’m taking my nap. You have to turn your stereo off and that’s final.”
Mike: “Barbara, you’ve tracked in mud again.”
Barbara: “So? It’s not my fault.”
Mike: “Sure. I suppose it walked in on its own. You made the mess, so you clean it up.”
Mike: “We agreed that whoever makes a mess must clean it up. That is fair.”
Barbara: “Well, I’m going to watch TV. If you don’t like the mud, then you clean it up.”
Barbara: “What? I want to watch the show. I don’t want to clean up the mud. Like I said, if it bothers you that much, then you should clean it up.”
Student: “Did you grade the paper I turned in?”
Professor: “I did. It was great. I really liked it.”
Student: “So I got an A?”
Professor: “No, an F. That is why we are having this talk.”
Student: “But why did you give me an F?”
Professor: “Well, I think the paper is great and I really liked it because I wrote it I guess you did not check to see who wrote it.”
Student: “I agree that plagiarism is wrong, but I really do not want to flunk this class.”
Professor: “No one does.”
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