Appeal to Pity Fallacy: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:05 Red Herring Arguments
  • 0:39 Definition of Appeal to Pity
  • 1:57 The Structure of an…
  • 2:37 Exceptions to…
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk

Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school

The following lesson covers an argumentation technique that attempts to distract from the truth by making a person feel sympathetic to the arguer. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check for your understanding.

Red Herring Arguments

I'm sure that at some point during our schooling we've seen or been a part of the following scenario:

Student: 'Can you please round up my grade?'

Teacher: 'I'm sorry, but my policy is not to round up.'

Student: 'But I studied really hard for this test and my parents will be mad if I don't get a good grade.'

Unfortunately, in situations like this, we tend to shift attention away from the actual issue and onto something else entirely. Arguments that attempt to divert our attention from the real issue are called red herring arguments. In this lesson, we will discuss one particular subset of a red herring argument known as the appeal to pity fallacy.

Definition of Appeal to Pity

In the example we just saw, the student attempts to distract from the real issue, which, in this case, is explaining why he didn't do well on the test, by appealing to his teacher's emotions. An attempt to distract from the truth by using pity or any other related emotion is called argumentum ad misericodiam, meaning argument from pity or misery, or simply put, an appeal to pity. This is an appeal to pity fallacy, which means an argument made to another person's sense of pity, misery and other related emotions like sympathy, love, regard, mercy, compassion and condolence.

While the exact origin is not definitively known, this fallacy of logic is also referred to as the Galileo Argument. One possible explanation for this title is that it is a reference to when Galileo was branded a heretic for his writings about Earth, which directly conflicted with Christian theory at the time. As a result of his theories, Galileo was placed under house arrest but was still allowed to keep writing. The implication of this title is that people may be tempted to give more weight to Galileo's theory because of how unfairly he was treated.

This fallacy is also closely related to the fallacy known as an appeal to emotion or argumentum ad populum. While an appeal to pity targets specific emotions, an appeal to emotion is more general and preys on any strong feelings, positive or negative.

The Structure of an Appeal to Pity

The structure that this fallacy of logic is:

Person 1 argues claim P

Person 1 deserves pity because of circumstance X

Therefore claim P is true because of circumstance X
Note circumstance X is irrelevant to claim P

Let's go ahead and give another example to reinforce the structure. Suppose the following conversation took place:

Boss: 'You're late for work. I'm going to have to write you up.'

Employee: 'Please don't write me up. If I get fired I'll lose my house and not have any way to feed my family.'

While the claim made by the employee may have been completely true, it attempts to replace evidence of why the employee may have been late with an appeal to an emotion.

Exceptions to Appealing to Pity

Not all uses of an appeal to pity are fallacious. There may be examples where an appeal to pity is closely linked to the subject of the argument or is the actual evidence for the acceptance of the claim. Let's use an example from before but with a slight change:

Boss: 'You're late for work. I'm going to have to write you up.'

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