This week I will look at the ad misericordiam fallacy, the fallacy of appealing to pity. Perhaps the best example I have come across is one used by my friend Francis Beckwith; In his book Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights, Beckwith cites the following letter to the editor:
The fallacy in this letter is not difficult to spot; it is an argument that appeals to pity. The question is whether a law which would draft adults of a particular age into the military is just. To show it is not just one would need to offer arguments which appeal to facts and correct moral principles for this conclusion. The writer has not done this; instead Mrs LT has simply pointed out she is against the draft, she is a widow in poor health and if all of her children were drafted, sent to a war and killed she would not cope. Because decent humans are empathetic when we read a letter like this, we feel pity for the woman and sympathise with her, this sympathy is then mistakenly transferred to what she has said so that we accept her conclusion. Despite the fact no real reasons for accepting it were offered.
To grasp the fallacy here consider a situation where a mother’s adult children had all conspired to commit a horrific crime and were about to be incarcerated. The fact that the mother is a widow, in ill health and would find it very emotionally difficult to cope with her children “going away” does not provide grounds for thinking it is unjust for her adult children to go be incarcerated. To establish that it would be unjust if they were incarcerated we would need some reasons for thinking either that the children were innocent or that the sentence was disproportionate or excessively degrading.
The appeal to pity attempts to enlist support for a particular conclusion by getting people to sympathise with or pity the plight of the person making the argument rather than seeing the cogency of their argument. In this way it is a bit like the ad hominem fallacy. Just as the ad hominem fallacy seeks to persuade by using psychological or emotional transference which fools the hearer into transferring disapproval of a person onto the person’s arguments or their conclusion, appeals to pity seek to fool the hearer to transfer their feelings of sympathy and empathy for a person onto that person’s argument or conclusion.
Appeals to pity are a text-book fallacies yet it is surprising where you find them – even professional philosophers offer them. When I did my first course in Ethics at the University of Waikato as an undergraduate, we studied different moral issues and read articles from both sides of the debate on each issue. When it came to the issue of homosexuality, the article we were assigned, written by Richard Mohr, contained a long section on how gay people are often stereotyped. It went to great lengths to argue that gay people are common and in many respects like us. It mentioned horrific cases of gay bashings, some of which resulted in death. What struck me then as now, was there was little actual argument for the claim that homosexual conduct is permissible. Most of the article consisted in attempts to get the reader to feel sympathy for gay people, to empathise with them and so forth. Now I agree whole-heartedly that it is wrong to assault people, it is wrong to stereo-type people inaccurately; I feel disgusted when people do this but none of this remotely provides a reason for thinking homosexual conduct is permissible.
This would be pretty obvious if we were to change the example. Suppose we were asking the question as to whether Catholicism is a homophobic religion. Suppose I responded in the negative by pointing out that many people have stereotypes of Catholics. Suppose I also pointed out that Catholics have, in some countries, been persecuted and mistreated. And that there is a long history in English law of prejudice against Catholics – that much history has been written with an anti-Catholic bias. Suppose I took you around to my Catholic friend’s house and you got to meet him and his Catholic flatmates and you saw that they were normal people, a lot like you. Would this suffice to show that Catholicism was not homophobic? Would this be adequate proof ? Obviously not.
Appeals to pity are extremely common in the media. A few years ago I was witness to a case where a women signed up her son for an insurance policy which did not include pre-existing conditions. Later her son had some serious medical problems due to a pre-existing condition. She asked the insurance company to pay. When it refused the media put pictures of the sick child on TV, they noted the struggle the women faced caring for her child, they talked of the financial difficulties the women faced and so on – all things which one can legitimately feel sympathy for. None of them, however, really spoke to any proof that the insurance company was acting unjustly. Nothing in these examples demonstrated that the policy covered the condition.
The Presence of Emotions is not Always a Fallacy
It is worth pointing out that while an appeal to pity is a fallacy, this does not mean that emotions can never play a legitimate role in our reasoning. Beckwith, again, gives an example. He gives the example of government who builds a nuclear waste dump in the middle of an urban area. The nuclear waste dump is highly radioactive and exposes people to unjustified risks. In order to raise awareness, the opponents of the dump tell the stories of people living nearby who died of radioactive related poison. They do this to prick the consciences of state officials. Is this an invalid appeal to pity? Beckwith argues no; In Politically Correct Death he states,
Notice that this moral cause is not based on pity, but is based on an appeal to a government’s fundamental obligation to protect its citizens from significant harm. The emotional stories help to convey to the general public the type of harm from which the government is obligated to protect us. Of course, the use of these stories would be a fallacious appeal to pity if there was no statistical evidence to show that living near a nuclear dump site posed significant risk to the citizenry.
I think Beckwith’s observations are correct; empathy plays an important role in moral awareness but his comments show the importance of context. If a person argues for a conclusion simply by generating pity for someone, and ignores facts or principles that would make the appeal irrelevant, then it is fallacious. If it is used to highlight a fact that is relevant then it is not.
A good example of what Beckwith is talking about is a news clip I saw a few years ago. Isreal had launched a military raid against militants in Palestine, the news was very clearly opposed to Isreal and showed footage of a dead child. This was truly shocking and predictably brought reactions of anger and outrage but note that without its context it told us nothing about the actions of Israel at all. Before it could we would need to know who killed the child and whether it was deliberate or accidental. If it was accidental, how much care had been taken to avoid civilian causalities? When the child was killed, was he located in a close vicinity to a place where an attack on Israel was being launched? If so, what was the severity of the threat of this attack and how many people had it killed? Was the child being used as a human shield and so on. When the image is displayed in a context where these other factors are answered and those answers show wrong conduct on Israel’s part then the fact of his death can drive home vividly the wrongness of Israel’s actions. Without these factors answered, however, it is simply a fallacious appeal to pity. One ignores the moral questions and simply tells a horrifying story. People are so disgusted at what they hear (or see in this instance) that they transfer their disgust at a particular action onto a person without any actual reason to do so.
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