What Is Appeal to Pity Fallacy? | Examples & Definition

Reasoning updated on  February 19, 2024 4 min read

The appeal to pity fallacy occurs when an argument relies solely on soliciting sympathy in a situation that requires rational analysis. Instead of focusing on evidence and reasoning, an argument that commits this fallacy tries to sway opinions by eliciting pity or guilt.

Appeal to pity fallacy example
During conflicts, it’s common for state propaganda to portray a country as a defenseless victim of unprovoked attacks to garner backing for military endeavors or validate government actions. This approach bypasses a balanced discussion on the motivations and strategies of all the involved parties, as well as the broader implications of various courses of action.

The fallacy is also known by the more formal name argumentum ad misericordiam, meaning “argument from compassion” in Latin. Fallacious appeals to pity are easy to find in many contexts, such as advertising, politics, law, and fundraising.

What is the appeal to pity fallacy?

The appeal to pity fallacy is found in arguments that seek to manipulate opinions by invoking sympathy or compassion instead of relying on pertinent evidence or logical reasoning. It is used to influence opinions or decisions without adequately engaging with the substantive merits of the argument.

The appeal to pity fallacy is an informal logical fallacy, meaning that it’s a content-level error in inductive reasoning that renders an argument unsound.

Because the appeal to pity fallacy works by diverting attention from the main topic of debate, it also falls into the category of fallacies of relevance (as opposed to other groups such as fallacies of ambiguity or false-cause fallacies).

An appeal to pity fallacy is also a type of appeal to emotion fallacy, meaning that it attempts to persuade by overriding reasoning through the use of evocative words, imagery, or anecdotes that target a specific feeling.

Are appeals to pity always fallacious?

Emotional appeals, including appeals to pity, are an important component of persuasive communication and aren’t inherently fallacious. Aristotle considered pathos (emotional appeals) to be one of the three pillars of rhetoric, along with logos (logic or reason) and ethos (the speaker’s credibility).

However, appeals to pity are fallacious when they are irrelevant to the subject of debate, or when they are used as a substitute for evidence or logic in the context of persuasion. Arguments that rely exclusively on appeals to compassion to sway opinions are considered manipulative and poorly reasoned.

Appeal to pity example
In campaign speeches, politicians running for office frequently describe their humble upbringings and personal struggles. This strategy evokes sympathy from some voters, eliciting support based on an appeal to pity rather than focusing on the logical reasons to vote for a candidate, such as well-reasoned policy plans, experience, or qualifications.

Empathy often plays a crucial role in understanding the emotional and ethical aspects of an issue. However, it must be applied appropriately, complementing logical reasoning and evidence rather than overshadowing them.

Appeal to pity fallacy examples

Examples of fallacious appeals to pity can be found in the courtroom when the emotional impact of a case is presented inappropriately:

  • Undermining evidence and logic: When appeals to pity distract from or diminish the role of logical consistency and substantial evidence, they are fallacious.
  • Irrelevant to the context: When appeals to pity are used in situations unrelated to the case’s legal considerations, they are fallacious.
Appeal to pity fallacy example in court
A defense attorney argues, “The defendant, having endured poverty as a child, deserves leniency for committing insurance fraud. It would be unjust to penalize someone whose life was shaped by such hardship, regardless of the nature of the crime.”

This argument exemplifies the appeal to pity fallacy because it diverts attention from the crime of insurance fraud to the irrelevant subject of the defendant’s difficult childhood, appealing to the audience’s sympathies rather than making a reasoned argument from the law.

Outside the courtroom, examples of the appeal to pity fallacy can be found in many realms of persuasive rhetoric.

In politics, speakers often rely on fallacious appeals to pity to garner support for their actions or positions.

Appeal to pity fallacy example in politics
“Our nation’s legacy of fighting for freedom justifies the new security laws we’re introducing. To oppose these laws is to forget the price our veterans have paid for our liberty.”

This statement is an instance of the appeal to pity fallacy, as it leverages the nation’s history of striving for freedom to immunize the government from critique over its new security legislation.

The argument attempts to prevent any criticism or discussion of the proposal’s legality or potential outcomes through this emphasis on veterans’ sacrifices.


Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Idioms

Parts of speech

Fallacies

Diamond in the rough

Irregular verb

Slippery slope fallacy

Idioms

Gerund

Sunk cost fallacy

Piece of cake

Infinitive phrase

Red herring fallacy

Better late than never

Infinitive

Appeal to authority fallacy

Salt of the earth

Adverb

Circular reasoning fallacy


Frequently asked questions about appeal to pity fallacy

What is an example of appeal to pity fallacy?

The following example of an appeal to pity fallacy demonstrates how this fallacy replaces reasoned analysis with sympathy-inducing imagery:

Legislators debate a proposed bill that would require users to register online accounts with their legal names and government-issued IDs. A proponent of the bill tells the story of one teenager who was bullied online and argues, “Too many of our young people are bullied online by anonymous users, and too many of their lives have been ruined. We must protect our children from such dangers if we have any humanity.”

This example of an appeal to pity fallacy focuses exclusively on descriptions of online bullying and its effects on children without addressing the proposed bill’s logistics, potential efficacy, or implications for free speech and privacy.

What is the difference between the appeal to pity fallacy and red herring fallacy?

The appeal to pity fallacy and the red herring fallacy have similarities and differences:

  • The red herring fallacy introduces irrelevant information that diverts attention from the main subject. It encompasses the appeal to pity.
  • The appeal to pity fallacy distracts specifically by evoking feelings of sympathy or guilt in an audience. It’s a specific type of red herring fallacy.

What is argumentum ad misericordiam?

The appeal to pity fallacy is also known as argumentum ad misericordiam, which is Latin for “argument from compassion or pity.” It involves evoking sympathy to sidestep the core issues of an argument and avoid presenting solid evidence or reasoning.

What are some other common fallacies related to the appeal to pity fallacy?

Several fallacies are related to the appeal to pity fallacy, including the following:

  • Red herring fallacy: Diverts from the main argument with irrelevant distractions; encompasses the appeal to pity among other many fallacies
  • Appeal to emotion fallcy: Evokes emotions rather than presenting evidence and reasoning; the appeal to pity is a subtype
  • Appeal to fear: Distracts from the core issues of an argument by focusing on fear; similar to the appeal to pity but focuses on a different emotion
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Magedah Shabo

Magedah is an author, editor, and educator who has empowered thousands of students to become better writers.

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