Appeal to Pity (Ad Misericordiam)


The argument attempts to persuade by provoking irrelevant feelings of sympathy.



"You should not find the defendant guilty of murder, since it would break his poor mother's heart to see him sent to jail."


"Is it not better to be unjust than just, when the just man, while obeying the law not to resist arrest, may be beaten, kicked, clubbed, insulted, and abused, by those arresting him?"



Logicians have a reputation for being cold, heartless, and unemotional. No character has captured this stereotype better than Mr. Spock, as played by Leonard Nimoy on the television series Star Trek. Leonard Nimoy makes logicians seem almost alien and inhuman. There are, of course, cases in which appealing to human suffering is fallacious, namely those in which the appeal is used to distract attention away from the issue at hand. In deciding guilt or innocence of a person on trial, the question is "Did he do it?" His feelings, or the feelings of his mother, are irrelevant. Equally irrelevant are the feelings of the victims of a crime. However much the victims may be suffering, their suffering does not justify convicting an innocent defendant.

That said, the Ad Misericordiam fallacy is able to masquerade as good reasoning precisely because in most cases considerations of human suffering are very relevant to the issue at hand. Should we take steps to reduce poverty? Should we permit doctor-assisted suicide for terminal patients in great pain? Should our foreign policy support dictators who abuse human rights? If we are not concerned with human suffering, there would be no motive to be rational. The most important thing we reason about is how to alleviate suffering. We want to reason well precisely because this will improve our chances of success. Logicians are not heartless and unemotional. Just the reverse: the more compassion and sympathy one feels, the more one understands the importance of doing something effective to help. We must reason well in order to know what to do.


Source: Plato collected examples of this fallacy, but did not name it. The Emotional Appeals category of fallacies was created by Isaac Watts, Logick; or, The Right Use of Reason (1725), who labeled them argumentum ad passiones. Curiously, while Appeal to Pity would appear to be the paradigm fallacy in this category, the term "ad misericordiam" seems to have entered the vocabulary some time during the 20th Century. The earliest reference I can find to the phrase "ad misericordiam" as a label for this specific fallacy is the short story "Love is a Fallacy," by Max Schulman, appearing in his 1951 anthology The Many Loves of Doby Gillis.


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