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What is the Appeal to Pity Fallacy?
Appeal to Pity is a logical fallacy which occurs when…
Instead of providing evidence, an individual attempts to win an argument by exploiting their opponent’s feelings of pity or guilt.
In other words, when someone appeals to pity they might as well hold up a sign saying: Please, I need your sympathy!
The logical structure behind Appeal to Pity arguments is as follows:
X is true
It would be terrible if X was not true
Therefore X must be true
They may also take the following form:
Person 1 is accused of X
It would be terrible if Person 1 is guilty
Therefore Person 1 is innocent
Appeal To Pity Fallacy Examples in Real Life
A police officer is about to issue a ticket to a man who was speeding. As the officer checks his license, the man responds:
“I was just taking my son to the movies. He turned 7 today and it’s his first time going to the cinema. C’mon now officer, you wouldn’t ruin this special occasion, would you?
Explanation: In this example, the father makes an appeal to pity to justify why he shouldn’t receive a ticket in the hopes that the officer would be dissuaded. In relation to the logical structure of the appeal to pity fallacy, this is what really happened…
> Person 1 is guilty of speeding
> But it would be terrible if Person 1 is guilty and issued a ticket (his son’s birthday ruined)
> Therefore, Person 1 should be innocent.
Appeal To Pity Fallacy Examples in Movies
An example of the appeal to pity fallacy can be observed in the movie Transformers (2007). In one particular scene, Shia Lebouf who plays Sam Witwicky begs his teacher for an A grade.
Below is the transcript; notice the appeal to pity as he attempts to justify why his teacher should give him an A instead of a B minus.
Sam Witwicky: “Look, can you do me a favor… can you look out the window for a second? See my father? He’s the guy in the green car.
Let me tell you about a dream, a boy’s dream and a man’s promise to that boy. He looked him in the eye and said: “Son, I’m gonna buy you a car, but I want you to bring me 2,000 dollars and three A’s.”
I got the $2,000 and two A’s.
Okay, here’s the dream.. your B minus, Pfff! Dream gone. Kaput!
Sir, just ask yourself… what would Jesus do?”
Appeal to Pity Fallacy Examples in Politics
“We shouldn’t stop our foreign aid efforts. If we cease to lend a helping hand to these third world nations then we are condemning all those poor people to a life of poverty, disease, and despair! You don’t want all those people to starve to death do you?”
EXCEPTIONS; when it is not a Fallacy…
An appeal to pity is a fallacy, but an appeal for pity is not. Here are two examples to clarify…
Widow: “There is no point in this war! If my son is drafted to the military and is killed, then how will I survive?”
Explanation: This argument is fallacious because the premise ‘there’s no point in this war’ is supported by an appeal to pity.
Widow: “I am an old woman who needs support. If my son is drafted to the military and is killed, I will not be able to cope. ”
Explanation: This is an appeal for pity; it is not used to support an assertion. Therefore, it is not fallacious.
More Examples of the Appeal to Pity Fallacy
- “But professor, I’m already on probation! If I don’t pass this course then my student status here will be in jeopardy!”
- “I think you should follow through on your decision. Your mother would have wanted that, she loved you more than anything else in this world.”
- “Sir, I need this job badly, I have a wife and three kids to feed.”
- “You really think he would be capable of such an act? Look at him, that poor thing!”
- “Your honor, before you reach a verdict I want you to consider the fact that my client is the sole provider of his elderly parents, one of whom was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness.”
There’s nothing wrong with considering someone else’s situation. Empathy is actually a good thing. However, an appeal to pity has no place in rational discourse.