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.
- “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.)
- “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)
- “[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.)
- “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.)
- “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.