Also Known as: Ad Misericordiam
An Appeal to Pity is a fallacy in which a person substitutes something intended to create pity for evidence in an argument. The form of the reasoning is as follows:
Premise 1: P is presented, with the intent to create pity.
Conclusion: Therefore, claim C is true.
This is fallacious because pity does not serve as evidence for a claim. To use a melodramatic example: “You must accept that 1+1=46, after all, I’m dying…” While you may pity me because I am dying, it would not make my claim true.
This fallacy differs from the Appeal to the Consequences of a Belief. In that fallacy, the effects of a belief are used as a substitute for evidence. In the Appeal to Pity, it is the feelings of pity or sympathy that are substituted for evidence.
There can be cases in which claims that serve as evidence also evoke a feeling of pity. In such cases, the feeling of pity is still not evidence. For example:
Professor: “You missed the midterm, Bill.”
Bill: “I know. I think you should let me take the makeup.”
Bill: “I was hit by a truck on the way to the midterm. Since I had to go to the emergency room with a broken leg, I think I am entitled to a makeup.”
Professor: “I’m sorry about the leg, Bill. Of course, you can make it up.”
The above example does not involve a fallacy. While the professor does feel sorry for Bill, she is justified in accepting Bill’s claim. Getting run over by a truck would be a legitimate excuse for missing a test.
As with other emotions, the feeling of pity is not itself a fallacy. Whether one should feel pity and act on it is a matter for ethics rather than logic. In the context of ethics, acting out of pity can sometimes be morally justified. One can also choose to be kind, which would not be a fallacy.
Defense: While being without pity would make you immune to this fallacy, the usual defense is to be on guard against attempts to substitute pity for evidence. While the fallacy can be self-inflicted, it is most often used against a target.
The most pernicious use of this fallacy is when a person targets something they know will strongly influence a person, often because of something they (or someone they care about) suffered. This can be the hardest version to defend against because you will usually have a stronger emotional reaction. If the situation warrants suspicion, you should be on guard against such appeals—especially if the person knows something about you, they can exploit.
For example, my graduate school roommate died of cancer during my first year of teaching and I told my classes I had to miss class to go to his funeral. Later that semester a student who had not been doing any work told me they had cancer, but they did not have any documentation from the school to prove this. Having just seen a friend buried, I just accepted their claim without proof and arranged make-up work. I would have been none the wiser, but they used the same tactic on a friend of mine. He had been in a bad automobile accident which cost him a piece of a finger. So, the student told him that they had been in a bad car wreck. That worked perfectly on him. The student did not know that we knew each other and would have gotten away with this Appeal to Pity had we not happened to talk about the “awful thing” that had happened to our mutual student. While I obviously knew all about the Appeal to Pity as a fallacy, I had not yet fully developed the professional emotional distance essential to avoiding becoming a victim of such appeals. I also learned that some people would lie about anything even for but a small gain.
Jill: “He’d be a terrible coach for the team.”
Bill: “He had his heart set on the job, and it would break if he didn’t get it.”
Jill: “Well, I guess he’ll do an adequate job…”
“I’m positive that my work will meet your requirements. I really need the job since my grandmother is sick”
“I should receive an ‘A’ in this class. After all, if I don’t get an ‘A’ I won’t get the fellowship that I want.”