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A woman flying to Spain from Peru landed in Colombia for a connecting flight. An immigration official suspected there was something wrong with her travel documents, but before they could question the woman, she walked away and quickly disappeared into the crowded airport. Officers from the Colombian National Police were alerted, and they searched the airport for the elusive woman. She was eventually spotted in a waiting area on the second floor concourse by officers scanning the security cameras. The traveler was taken into custody and brought to the document verification center. Upon further investigation it was determined that her Spanish passport was indeed forged.
Investigating officers notified the woman that she would be deported back to Peru. She protested, arguing that it was her signature on the documents, it was her fingerprints on the passport, and it was her photo on the ID. “Yes, madam, but the documents are forged. You will not be returning home. You will be placed on a flight back to Peru, where you can plead your case to a Peruvian judge.” Upon hearing her fate, the woman began to cry and pleaded with the authorities to let her return to Spain. She argued there were two very small children of hers back home and no one in Spain would be able to care for them. Why were the officers so cruel and heartless to deny these two little children the love and care of a mother? What would become of her children? The cameras continued to roll as the woman was led down the corridor to be put on a flight back to Peru.
Ad Misericordiam Definition
When caught in the possession of forged documents, the traveler engaged in behavior that many people resort to—she tried to argue her case by appealing to the emotions of the officers. By diverting attention to her small young children who would be without a mother if she had to face a judge in Peru, the woman was hoping to elicit in her interrogators feelings of pity. In logic, this ploy is known as argumentum ad misericordiam, the ‘appeal to pity’. In American vernacular it is also known as the typical ‘sob story’. A sob story, or the appeal to pity, can be a pretty persuasive argument because the arguer is not providing logically relevant reasons used to support a conclusion, but rather is attempting to evoke feelings of sympathy or pity that is designed to get the listener to accept the conclusion of an argument not otherwise supported by any evidence (Patrick J. Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic, 6th ed., 123).
We are emotional beings, and we feel very deeply and passionately about any number of issues. There are times when the strong feelings we have about something supersedes our ability to use sound reasoning when arguing our case. Arguments are marshaled using emotions rather than reason or evidence in support of a conclusion. Sometimes arguments used may elicit fear. (“If X legislation is not passed, it will lead to widespread murders of innocent people.”) Other arguments are made on the basis of intimidation. (“If you support proposition X, we are going to protest your business and close you down for good!”) Still other arguments are made on the basis of feelings of reverence for a certain way of doing things. (“We have a tradition in this church that dates back 125 years. There are no good reasons to change it now!”) Finally, many arguments are made using flattery as the basis for persuasion. (“You are simply too educated and intelligent not to see the merits of my position.”)
The ad misericordiam fallacy uses emotions of sympathy or pity. If the arguer is successful in evoking those feelings, the hearer may be more inclined to accept the conclusion of the argument. In our example above, if successful, the woman from Spain would have elicited pity from the members of the Colombian National Police, and they would have overlooked the fact that she was carrying forged documents. Feeling pity for the small children, they would have allowed her to continue her journey to Spain, overlooking any criminal ramifications.
The person who appeals to pity is exploiting the feelings of the hearer rather than putting forth convincing evidence that the claim they are making is true or that the action they are advocating has merit (T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning, 45).
The following diagram illustrates the appeal to pity (Hurley, 122):
It should be pointed out that there are instances when eliciting feelings of sympathy or pity is acceptable and appropriate. These situations are known as arguments from compassion or principles of charity. In these cases, one does not come to a belief on the basis of feeling pity, but one engages in a course of action on the basis of sympathy or compassion (Damer, 45). Television cameras may pan the faces of cute or sad looking animals in commercials seeking donations for animal shelters. Relief organizations may show footage of young children, devastated neighborhoods, or displaced families as they appeal to donors for financial assistance. The goal is not to proffer an argument, but move you to action.
Examples of Committing the Fallacy
There are any number of ways this fallacy is committed. Here are some examples:
- A teenager is pulled over for going through a red light. He pleads with the officer not to give him a ticket or else his parents will take away his driving privileges, which will cause him to lose his job, and consequently, he’ll have to drop out of community college because he won’t be able to pay his tuition.
- In a press conference, a politician implores the American people to support his proposed legislation as he sheds tears saying it is the only sensible thing to do.
- A mother pleads with her boss not to terminate her employment for consistent tardiness because she is a single mom with four children and has to cook, dress, and send the kids off to school every morning, causing her to be late.
- Defense attorneys argue before the jury their client committed the crimes that she did, because she has a history of being abused throughout her childhood.
- A student makes the case to his professor that although his grades are poor, he should pass the course because of the many personal challenges he has at home living with an alcoholic father and verbally abusive mother.
How to Avoid Committing the Appeal to Pity Fallacy
It may be tempting for some to want to win the sympathy of others by appealing to their sense of guilt or pity. In arguing the case for the sanctity of life, for example, many of the counterarguments that you will hear has to do with issues raising sympathy for the pregnant mother rather than the issue pertaining to the nature of the unborn. To avoid this fallacy one need avoid appealing to the emotions of the hearer. Arguments are to be based on sound reasoning and evidence and not simply on an appeal to one’s feelings.
For more information on how you can study logic and logical fallacies, visit the Southern Evangelical Seminary’s website at www.ses.edu.
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Damer, T. Edward. Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments 3rd ed. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1995.
Hurley, Patrick J. A Concise Introduction to Logic, 6th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1997.