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Appeal to Pity

Traditionally known as argumentum ad misericordiam, in this fallacious argument it is implied that agreement should be forthcoming out of sympathy for the pitiful state of the one making the argument or of someone related to the argument in some way. It is often categorized as ignoratio elenchi, i.e. a fallacy of irrelevance.

Instead of defending an argument on its merits, this fallacy evades the pertinent issues and makes a purely emotional appeal. Too often a person who is unable to cite relevant facts in support of his claims may resort to a plea for sympathy.

Sahakian, Ideas of the Great Philosophers, p. 16-7.


  1. “Before you criticize the President, recognize that he has the hardest job in the world. He must stay up late at night, worrying about our well being, trying to find a way to act in the welfare of all of us. The fate (and weight) of the free world rest heavy on his shoulders. How about some consideration for the poor man!” (Paul & Elder, The Thinker’s Guide to Fallacies, p. 22.)
  2. “A lawyer, for example, would commit this fallacy were he to show that a man is unfortunate or had bad luck or deserves sympathy when he should be showing that he was innocent or illegally charged; or if he shows that a man had served his country well when what is needed is proof that he is innocent of tax evasion.” (Clark & Welsh, Introduction to Logic, 1962, p. 141)
  3. “[M]edical personnel working for hospital detoxification units or inpatient programs often hear clients beg for medications to alleviate withdrawal symptoms long after the withdrawal has ended, or repeatedly ask for mood-altering meds for some unsubstantiated pain. It is difficult to turn down a tearful client with a ‘feel sorry for me’ voice. So, sometimes mood-altering prescriptions are given when they are not needed.” (Taleff, Critical Thinking for Addiction Professionals, pp. 85-6.)
  4. “A student missed taking a term test and pleads with her professor to be allowed to take a makeup exam. Her excuse is that if she doesn’t get a makeup exam, she will not get an A in the course, and therefore she will not be able to get into law school, and it will all be the professor’s fault. She cries and pleads that this failure will ruin her life, and those of her two young children, who both have Crohn’s disease.” (Walton, Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation, p. 291.)
  5. “Streaks of pain etching his youthful face, the boy drags his withered legs along the sidewalk, two crutches biting into the pavement one short step ahead. The minutes seem like hours, but the thinly built boy finally makes it to his destination, hangs up his coat and prepares for his day’s activities. When a handicapped boy pains himself by walking grueling distances on hard wooden crutches, it proves that the handicapped will go out of their way to improve their lives. Now we ask you to go a little out of your way to help the handicapped.” (Engel, Fallacies and Pitfalls of Language, p. 157.)


With sympathy, 1) identify the proposed proposition itself and secure its position as the focus of debate. Though the amelioration of suffering is certainly a noble goal, suffering should not trump or supplant evidence for or against a
proposition. Furthermore, it is often the case that the easing of suffering in one case will have the unintended consequence of increasing it for others (e.g. moral hazard). If so, 2) these countervailing considerations should be brought to bear.


Going all the way back to Aristotle, the most effective persuasion has been thought to be the result of a combination of logos, pathos, and ethos. While some insist that argument should be an austere, Vulcan enterprise, if the logos, or logic, of an argument is sound, it’s hard to fault an advocate for also employing other tools in her efforts to persuade. It’s when pathos takes the place of or obfuscates the logos that the appeal to pity is rightly called a kind of fallacious reasoning.

“Logos, often called the ‘logical element of persuasion,’ is that element of persuasion in which logic is used to influence others. Pathos is that element of persuasion in which psychological or emotional factors are used to influence others. It could be called ‘the psychological mode of persuasion,” or the “pathetic proofs.” Ethos is that element of persuasion arising from the influence of the speakers; the factors of speech delivery, personality, and position or reputation in life. Style is that element of persuasion derived from the power of language to influence others. Choice of words that make a speech vivid, sentence structure, and other rhetorical devices constitute style. The full power of a particular speech is derived from the successful combination of these four elements and is modified by the attitudes and conditions of the members of your audience.” (Huber & Snider, Influencing Through Argument, p. 177.)

On emotion versus logic…

“Whenever a person attempts to make a point, get a view accepted, not by presenting cogent reasons, but by arousing the gut emotions of the audience, we have a grandstand appeal or the fallacy of grandstanding. Although the name “grandstand” derives from this setting of persuading the masses, we shall regard any argument whose persuasive force depends on arousing gut emotions and not on the cogency of its reasons as an instance of the grandstand appeal, whether or not it is addressed to a mass audience, a small group, or even a single person.” (Freeman, 1988, p. 69.)

Other textbooks portray appeal to pity as fallacious on the grounds that such an appeal to mer emotion is a failure to give (actual factual) evidence. some of these textbooks are pretty hard on the ad misericordiam argument, stating or implying that appeals to pity (compassion, sympathy, and the like) are inherently fallacious. The idea seems to be that emotions or feelings are worthless as evidence. This approach suggests a tendency, often prominent in Wester thought since Plato, to condemn the emotions as inherently misleading or untrustworthy. The general approach presumed here is one of driving a sharp wedge between emotion and reason, as reminiscent of the Stoic view of emotions found, for example, in Seneca.” (Walton, Appeal to Pity, p. 5.)

Is there an appropriate appeal to pity?

“Hurley does not build the inherent fallaciousness into the definition of the type of argument categorized by the name argumentum ad misericordiam. Instead he defines it as evocation of pity to try to get a respondent to accept a conclusion, presuming that this type of tactic in argumentation is generally or inherently fallacious. The Clark and Welsh definition leaves more room for the appeal to pity to be used nonfallaciously. It seems to leave open the possibility that an appeal to pity might be all right logically if it appealed to emotion, but did not do so in place of offering proof for a thesis.” (Walton, Appeal to Pity, p. 7.)

For example…

“An appeal for contributions to help starving children in a disastrous famine, sent out by a relief agency, features an arresting picture of a pathetically straved child with a distended belly. This child’s name is given, and the details of his situation are described graphically. The statement is made that if this child does not receive help soon, she will die. A form is enclosed that the recipient of the letter can use to send money. ΒΆ The argument conveyed in this letter has the form of a sequence of practical reasoning: Here is a bad situation, and if you bring about the designated action, you can help relieve the bad situation. As such, we do not want to say that this appeal to pity is a fallacious argument, even though it would prudent to ask some critical questions about the ability of the relief agency to use the money sent in actually to deliver food to the starving disaster victims. But in this case, the appeal to pity is relevant, because it is a legitimate way of evoking a strong enough emotional response so that the respondents will really understand the scope and nature of the bad situation and will therefore make a contribution to help relieve it.” (Walton, Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation, p. 291.)

David Hume on the appropriate and inappropriate imposition of the passions.

“What may at first occur on this head, is, that as nothing can be contrary to truth or reason, except what has a reference to it, and as the judgments of our understanding only have this reference, it must follow, that passions can be contrary to reason only so far as they are accompany’d with some judgment or opinion. According to this principle, which is so obvious and natural, `tis only in two senses, that any affection can be call’d unreasonable. First, When a passion, such as hope or fear, grief or joy, despair or security, is founded on the supposition or the existence of objects, which really do not exist. Secondly, When in exerting any passion in action, we chuse means insufficient for the design’d end, and deceive ourselves in our judgment of causes and effects. Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it.” (Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature)