Special Pleading


The argument defends a position by claiming that the opponent lacks the necessary perspective (experiences or credentials) to appreciate the position (or the arguments in support of it). This lack allegedly makes the opponent unqualified to critique the position.



An extreme, but nevertheless important, version of Special Pleading claims that no one has the necessary perspective or relevant credentials. This extreme version of Special Pleading is often introduced with phrases such as "Who are we to say..." or "How can we know..." This is a tactic often used to argue that no action can be judged morally wrong, since no one has the perspective to be able to judge another person's moral code.



"Your opposition to capital punishment is insensitive. Since you have never had a loved one killed, you can't appreciate the feelings of victims."


"Who is the Pope to say birth control is immoral. He doesn't play the game, so he can't make the rules."


"My opponent can't know what's best for our fair community. He wasn't born and raised here, like I was."


"OK boomer." (Currently in common use.)



 It is reasonable to suppose that people who have had personal experience with a problem will be more informed about it, and will have better arguments on how to cope with the problem. I would certainly give more credence to a book on racial prejudice in the United States if I knew the author was an African-American who had grown up in the United States and had suffered the effects of racial prejudice first hand. But this reasonable supposition bleeds into an irrational concern for who is entitled to speak on a topic, rather than with what the speaker is saying. One does not have to be black to abhor and condemn racial prejudice. Anyone who is adequately informed about a topic is surely entitled to venture an opinion on that topic. For those who are not adequately informed, the ideal way to confront their ignorance is to allow them to venture opinions, too, but then to point out their errors. Continued discussion leads to continued education. Regrettably, the fallacy of Special Pleading is not used to advance understanding of the concerns of special groups. Rather, like many other fallacies, it is used merely to shut down conversation.

The fallacy of Special Pleading presupposes that some differences between groups are so great that the human capacity for empathy cannot cross them. In fact, all human beings are very much alike. Our ability to empathize with others is usually greater than this fallacy gives us credit for.

Most of the above examples are clear enough, but the last one may require some explanation. To the uninitiated, the meaning of the phrase is not obvious on its surface. The phrase is therefore open to a wide variety of interpretations - and I have heard several. However, the phrase seems to mean something like this: "As a baby-boomer, you are now old and about to die. Hence, you will not live long enough to suffer from...(fill in the blank with a concern about the future, e.g. global warming, increasing income disparity, loss of jobs due to automation, etc.)...so, I have no obligation to listen to your opinions on that topic."

I am assured that the phrase is deployed only to shut down conversations with people who are being intransigent in their opinions, are not really listening, and are repeating talking points rather than offering sincere arguments. Such people are annoying, and past a certain point not worth talking to. It is regrettable that sometimes the only possible reply to a fallacious argument is another fallacious argument (usually in the ad hominem category). Speaking as a boomer myself, I reluctantly concede that "OK boomer," as a reply in this situation, is probably preferable to "You're an ass****."


Source: The Oxford English Dictionary cites examples of the phrase "special pleading" being used to label sophistical argumentation from about the middle of the 19th Century. One such citation is to Francis Bowen's 1864 Treatise on Logic. I first became aware of this fallacy from W. Fearnside and W. Holther, Fallacy: the Counterfeit of Argument (1959).


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