Appeal to Pity (Argumentum ad Misercordiam)
Appeals to Emotion and Desire
Appeal to Pity
Argumentum ad Misercordiam
Appeals to Emotion and Desire
With this fallacy, the arguer tries to get people to agree with their conclusion by evoking pity and sympathy either with their situation or with the situation of some third party. Empathy can be a very strong emotion in people - it is important in any social animal and is likely an important factor in our development of morals and ethics. The argument generally has this form:
1. Unfortunate or lamentable situation S is described. Therefore, conclusion C should be accepted.
By appealing to people's ability to pity others, a powerful emotive force can be created. Unfortunately, however serious another person's problems are, that does not automatically make their claims any more true. My sympathy for that situation does not create a reasonable basis for believing their claims.
Examples and Discussion:
Here are some ways in which an appeal to pity can occur in various arguments:
2. You don't know what it is like to lose a child. My son was murdered when he was still so very young - he never really had a chance to live and enjoy life. There are so many things he will now miss out on which he should have had a chance to experience. Well, I think that his killer should be executed. If you don't agree, then you don't really sympathize with my position.
Clearly, the family of a victim of murder go through tremendous suffering and grief - nothing can replace a lost human being. But however much these relatives are suffering, our pity for their plight in no way serves as a rational basis to believe their claim that the murderer should be executed. No matter how serious their grief, that does not make it more likely that it is moral to use capital punishment.
We can also turn that example around:
3. You should not find my client guilty of murder and sentence him to be executed. He grew up in terrible proverty, raised only by his mother who was rarely around because she spent all her time working at menial jobs to just make enough money for rent and food. In fact, the defendant is all that poor woman has left of her family, and she will be devastated if he is taken away from her.
When a person is on trial, their guilt or innocence should be determined based upon the facts of the case, not on how the outcome will affect those who care about the accused. And if capital punishment is moral and justified, then it should be applied regardless of the affect on loved ones - otherwise, people with large families would not get executed and those who have no one will receive the death penalty, resulting in unequal punishments for the same crimes.
We should, however, distinguish between the above argument in example #3 and the similar, but distinct attempt often made in trials to provide mitigating circumstances. Something very similar to the above might be offered in court as a reason not to kill the defendant, but instead to impose some lesser sentence. Our courts recognize both aggravating circumstances which serve to increase penalties and mitigating circumstances which serve to decrease penaltis.
Here is another example:
4. I may not be as smart as you are - I couldn't afford to go to college and I can't understand the fancy arguments you find in books. But I have read my Bible and I know what it says. More than that, I know it is true because you don't have to be a smart person to get that. Even a poor person like me, with little education and reading, can see that God exists - so why don't you?
Certainly we should have sympathy and respect for a poor person who has had little education and who has trouble understanding difficult books, but who nevertheless works hard at understanding and growing in their religion. However, none of this provides good reason to think that their claim of a god existing is credible.
Of course, it should be noted that is is possible to create a similar argument which is indeed valid. For example:
5. Jack missed his final exam, and normally it is not permitted to make up final exams. However, on the way to the test, he was hit by a car and broke several bones. So, while the exam was being given, he was in the hospital. Because of that, you should give him a chance to make it up.
This would be a reasonable argument, and few teachers would refuse to accept it. So what's the difference? Remember that this is a fallacy of relevance - and in this case, unlike the earlier ones, the premise is relevant to the conclusion.
The fact that a victim of a crime suffers is not necessarily relevant to whether or not a particular punishment is moral or justified. The fact that a person has had a poor education is not relevant to whether or not their beliefs are valid. But the fact that an unforseen accident has struck a person, preventing them from meeting their obligations, is relevant to whether or not we should give them another chance to do what is required of them.
Other Appeals to Emotion: