Appeal to Pity Fallacy | Definition & Examples

The appeal to pity fallacy occurs when someone attempts to persuade others by provoking feelings of guilt or pity. Instead of presenting factual information and evidence to support an argument, one may try to play on people’s feelings. However, this is a manipulative tactic because feelings of pity are usually irrelevant to the point being made.

Appeal to pity fallacy example
“Could you please change my grade from D to C? I worked really hard for this assignment. I even pulled an all-nighter to finish on time, and my parents will be so disappointed”.

The appeal to pity fallacy is also known as argumentum ad misericordiam or argument from pity and can be observed in various contexts like marketing, political campaigns, and law.

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What is the appeal to pity fallacy?

The appeal to pity fallacy occurs when someone substitutes logical evidence in an argument with a claim intended to elicit pity or guilt. However, feelings don’t serve as evidence for the truth of a claim. When we accept a conclusion regarding what should be a logical issue just because we feel sorry, we fall for this type of fallacy.

Appeal to pity is an informal fallacy. In other words, the content of the argument fails to provide adequate reasons for believing the truth of the conclusion. More specifically, it is a fallacy of relevance: these fallacies appeal to evidence or examples irrelevant to the argument at hand.

Appeal to Pity Fallacy

The appeal to pity fallacy is a variation of the appeal to emotion fallacy. If we can’t find a way to support our view with solid arguments, it may be tempting to arouse emotions in others so that they accept our conclusion. Although there is nothing wrong with using emotions when we argue, it is a fallacy to use emotions as a diversion or as proof that what we say is true or correct.

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Are appeals to pity always fallacious?

An appeal to pity is not always fallacious. In fact, an appeal to pity is a variation of the rhetorical strategy known as appeal to emotion (or pathos). People may try to capitalise on any number of our emotions to persuade us, including pity. Such appeals may be legitimate as long as they are presented along with sound evidence.

Appeal to pity example
Let’s say you want to persuade others that adopting a rescue dog is better than buying a purebred. You could use statistics to describe how many dogs end up in shelters every year nationwide as logical evidence that adoption is a solution to this.

Additionally, you could appeal to people’s sense of pity by describing how shelter dogs long for a loving family and a warm bed, yet they’re often overlooked in favour of purebred dogs.

In general, whether or not an appeal to pity is fallacious depends on how relevant the pity evoked is to the matter in question. When discussing personal stories or experiences that are relevant to a broader issue, like human trafficking, emotions can play a legitimate role in understanding and empathising with others’ perspectives. It is the absence of supporting evidence that makes an appeal to pity fallacious.

Appeal to pity fallacy examples

In a court of law, the appeal to pity fallacy is often used to distract from the facts of the case and to gain sympathy from the judge, jury, or members of the public.

Appeal to pity fallacy example in court
“Your Honour, esteemed members of the jury, my client is accused of the serious crime of embezzlement. However, I urge you to take a look at the heart-wrenching circumstances of his life until now. My client had a terrible childhood. A few months ago he lost his wife to a tragic accident, leaving him with the care of their two children. This man has suffered enough. If you find him guilty, his life and the lives of his children will be ruined”.

Here, the attorney is trying to make the jury feel sorry for the defendant so that they give him a favourable verdict. However, this is a way to distract the jury from the evidence and legal arguments related to the charges. One’s difficult life circumstances are not always relevant when determining whether someone is guilty of a crime. It may be relevant in trying to decide what sentence is fair, but a just court of law should base its decision on evidence and legal principles, not emotional manipulation.

Propagandists rely on fallacious appeals to pity in an attempt to make their audiences more receptive to their divisive message.

Appeal to pity fallacy example in politics
“We hear that most illegal immigrants are not violent criminals. Ask the victims or relatives of people who have died or have been injured by illegal immigrants how they feel about this argument”.

In this example, the speaker is using the suffering or pain of victims or their relatives as evidence to support their argument. However, the natural sympathy we feel for the victims and their families does not prove the conclusion to be true (i.e., that all illegal immigrants are violent criminals).

By evoking feelings of sympathy, the speaker tries to dismiss the original argument (i.e., that not all illegal immigrants are violent offenders) without providing any factual evidence or logical reasoning. While the suffering of victims and their relatives should be acknowledged, it does not necessarily invalidate the argument.

Logical discussions should be based on data, statistics, and rational reasoning rather than appeals to emotion. Furthermore, the impression that most victims or their relatives believe something to be true does not make it so (this is an example of the ad populum fallacy).

Other interesting articles

If you want to know more about fallacies, research bias, or AI tools, make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

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Frequently asked questions about the appeal to pity fallacy

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

While both the appeal to pity fallacy and red herring fallacy can serve as a distraction from the original discussion topic, they are distinct fallacies. More specifically:

  • Appeal to pity fallacy attempts to evoke feelings of sympathy, pity, or guilt in an audience, so that they accept the speaker’s conclusion as truthful.
  • Red herring fallacy attempts to introduce an irrelevant piece of information that diverts the audience’s attention to a different topic.

Both fallacies can be used as a tool of deception. However, they operate differently and serve distinct purposes in arguments.

What is argumentum ad misericordiam?

Argumentum ad misericordiam (Latin for “argument from pity or misery”) is another name for appeal to pity fallacy. It occurs when someone evokes sympathy or guilt in an attempt to gain support for their claim, without providing any logical reasons to support the claim itself. Appeal to pity is a deceptive tactic of argumentation, playing on people’s emotions to sway their opinion.

What is an example of appeal to pity fallacy?

An example of appeal to pity fallacy is the following appeal by a student to their professor:

“Professor, please consider raising my grade. I had a terrible semester: my car broke down, my laptop got stolen, and my cat got sick.”

While these circumstances may be unfortunate, they are not directly related to the student’s academic performance.

Sources for this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, November 13). Appeal to Pity Fallacy | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved 9 April 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/fallacy/appeal-to-pity-fallacy/

Sources

Walton, D. (1997). Appeal to pity : Argumentum ad misericordiam. http://ci.nii.ac.jp/ncid/BA50492192

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specialises in writing about research methods and research bias.

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