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Seller of Violets, 
	part of the series “London Street Arabs,” 1890 
	Dorothy Tennant; H.M. Stanley (nee Dorothy Tennant, <cite>London Street 
	Arabs</cite> Cassell, 1890), np.
Ad Misericordiam (Apppeal to Pity) Examples & Self-Quiz with Answers

Abstract: Argumentum ad misericordiam (appeal to pity) examples are provided and analyzed for credibility in a self-scoring quiz.

Ad Misericordiam Examples Practice:

(1) Study the features of the ad misericordium from this web page: Ad Misericordiam: Appeal to Pity.

Argumentum ad Misericordiam Fallacy: the logical error committed when pity or a related emotion such as sympathy, mercy, or compassion is illicitly appealed to for the sake of getting a conclusion accepted.

(2) Read and analyze the following passages.

(3) Explain with a sentence or two as to whether or not you judge an ad misericordiam fallacy to be present.

Ad Misericordiam Example Exercises:

  1. “John Barleycorn” lithograph (detail) George 
	Barnett Smith, _Illustrated British Ballads_ (London: Cassell, 1881), 328 In the early 19th century many British farm workers opposed tariffs on grains which would have caused the prices to increase:

    “The poverty and starvation of the agricultural labourer inclined him to see his interest in cheap bread, and although he had not direct political weight, his miserable condition was an effective argument … for the anti-Corn-Law champions, who pointed in triumphant pity to the hollow-cheeked serf of the fields, and produced him on platforms in his smock frock to say ‘I be protected, and I be starving.”[1]
    The presence of destitute laborers does, in a sense, provide a relevant reason for a conclusion that they deserve help. Some contemporary informal logicians accept the examples cited in this passage to be non-verbal communicative speech acts which do constitute an argument; other traditional logicians would not agree since no premises and conclusion are explicitly being stated. If we assume some arguments are nonverbal states of affairs, then an ad misericordiam would be said to occur, but the argument would not be fallacious in this case since the unfortunate circumstances of the laborers mentioned are logically relevant to their societal well-being. No fallacy occurs.

  2. The following argument from far-right-wing political extremism claims that Muslim immigrants are dangerous persons:

    “One of the things the left claims … is that most illegal immigrants are not violent criminals. We hear the same argument when it comes to Muslims, that not all members of the religion should be judged by the acts of a violent few. Ask the victims or relatives of people who have died or been injured by radical Islamists how they feel about that argument.”[2]
    The appeal to pity for the victims and relatives of attacks by religious radicals or by illegal immigrants is of great consequence but is not a relevant premise for the conclusion that all religious radicals or illegal immigrants are violent criminals and should be banned from this country. Thus, the ad misericordiam fallacy is present in this passage. The sympathy we have for the victims and their relatives is not evidence for the false conclusion that all illegal immigrants or religious radicals are violent criminals. As well, the impression that most victims and their relatives believe something does not indicate that it is true; hence, the ad populum fallacy (appeal to popularity) can be said to occur.

  3. An argument that Andrew Carnegie, the 19th century industrialist and philanthropist, would have accomplished more good if he were to help the poor and destitute rather than help educate citizen by building libraries across the U.S. is proposed:

    “If Mr. Andrew Carnegie is altruistic, as he pretends to be, why does it not occur to him to spend his surplus in ameliorating the terrible condition of the destitute? Is he ignorant of the suffering of the poor; is he not informed by the daily press of the almost incredible misery which proceeds from inadequate hospital accommodations in nearly every city of America? … But Mr. Carnegie, eager as he professes to be to rid himself of the burden of excessive riches, closes his eyes and ears to the sights and appeals of misery, and empties his bags into the lap of sufficiency. Instead of building hospitals, and asylums, and cleansing plague spots, and founding homes for the decrepit, the blind, the deformed, the incurable, he establishes libraries in small and large towns …”[3]
    The unnamed author of this argument concludes Carnegie should help poor, suffering, and ill people instead of building libraries throughout the country. The appeal to pity is relevant to the author's conclusion; however, the argument is misguided since Carnegie supported many other additional charities, including foundations, and universities with almost 90% of his fortune. Since the question is moot as to whether or not he could have helped more people by one way or the other, the charge of the fallacy of ad misericordiam is open but arguable. This example is reminiscent of the adage expressed by Ann Thackeray:
    “ [I]f you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour. If you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn.”
    [Lady Anne Thackeray Ritchie, Mrs. Dymond (Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1886), II-95.]

  4. During the Great Depression the Populist politician Huey Long criticized President Roosevelt's New Deal:

    “So it has been that while millions have starved and gone naked; so it has been that while babies have cried and died for milk; so it has been that while people have begged for meat and bread, Mr. Roosevelt's administration has sailed merrily along, plowing under and destroying the things to eat and to wear, with tear-dimmed eyes and hungry souls made to chant for this new deal so that even their starvation dole is not taken away, and meanwhile the food and clothes craved by their bodies and souls go for destruction and ruin.”[4]
    The excessive misery portrayed in this criticism of Roosevelt's policies mark this argument as an ad misericordiam fallacy.

  5. “Southwark: Sir Edward George Clarke,” chromolithograph by 
	Sir Leslie Ward _Vanity Fair_ 23 (March 13, 1880), 154-155 The following argument is part of Sir Edward Clarke's defense of Scotland Yard's Chief Inspector George Clarke who became ensnared in a fraud case in 1877:

    “[H]ow often the young lad who has scarcely left his home and home-training has stood in the dock to receive the sentence that blast every hope of his life, because he has been led and tempted into crime … I am not speaking of the consequences to my client of the ruin of the reputation that I defend to-day, the agony of those who have loved him as the husband and father, and of those who have honoured and cherished him as a friend …”[5]
    Sir Clarke appeals to mercy for Chief Inspector Clarke on the basis of other accused youths relative inexperience in the world — not to mention that the accused Sir Clarke is loved by others, is a husband and father, and so on. The barrister cites factors irrelevant to the accused innocence or guilt. Hence, the fallacy of ad misericordiam occurs.

  6. The following passage argues that a deceased author's book should be purchased in order to aid his surviving family:

    “We regret, however, most sincerely that it is our painful duty to add that the author [Fred H. Johnson] of the volume submitted to our opinion [the book A Winter's Sketches …] is now no more. We shall be glad if we can induce our readers to purchase this work, and to assist Mrs. Johnson in providing for her family.[6]
    The argument is that the author of a book died, so we should buy the book, not because it is worth buying, but in order to help his family. The fallacy of ad misericordiam occurs. If the family needs assistance, assistance can be offered directly.

  7. A literary critic gives the following reasons for his dislike of the novels of George Gissing:

    ““Again and again Gissing asks you to admire some seedy clerk … I should listen to his tragic outburst about his invalid wife and his eight starving children without a grain of pity; and end the interview by advising him curtly to take his family to the workhouse and himself with them.”[7]
    Although the critic most likely exaggerates the appeals to pity of the characters in Gissing's novels, no fallacy is present because these appeals to the pitiful circumstances of the characters within the plot of the novels are not, in themselves, the reasons for disliking the books. The description of the circumstances, rather than the circumstances as actual occurrences are said to represent poor writing. So the ad misericordaim fallacy is not present since the wretched circumstances of the characters in his novels are not, in themselves, directly related to the worthiness of his novels.

  8. College student S.C. Migliavacca was arrested for driving his automobile at an excessive speed across a University of California campus:

    ““But if you put me in jail for 20 days it will ruin my college career,” protested S.C. Migliavacca … to Judge Harry W. Pulcifer.

    ‘You matched your college career against one night's entertainment, and you lost,’ remarked the judge.”[8]
    The ad misericordiam fallacy occurs since Mr. Migliavaccs's college attendance is not logically relevant as to whether or not he broke the law. His defense for violating a traffic law is claimed to be its likely effect on his college career.

  9. On the question whether monies presently awarded to retired English Naval Officers should be ended by King William IV, Sir James Graham opined in the House of Commons:

    ”The sinecures complained of were the colonelcies of marines, which were held by the most distinguished officers in the service. Would the House deprive such men as Lord Saumarez and Sir Sidney Smith, of the only especial reward they received for their long and arduous services?[9]
    Since no evidence other than sympathy from some members of the House of Commons for old distinguished officers is adduced for the granting of an “especial reward” of a continuing financial benefit for no work, the fallacy of ad misericordiam occurs.

  10. In a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, the following letter requesting the publication of a poem is written to a magazine editor:

    “Camberwell, June 4

    SIR — May I hope, may I entreat, that you will favor me by perusing the enclosed lines, and that they may be found worthy of insertion in the Cornhill Magazine. We have known better days, sir. I have a sick and widowed mother to maintain, and little brothers and sisters who look to me I do my utmost as a governess to support them. I toil at night when they are at rest, and my own hand and brain are alike tired. … Do — do cast a kind glance over my poem, and if you can help us, the widow, the orphans will bless you! …

    Your faithful servant,

    The writer requests that she be paid for her poem by the editor of a magazine because she needs the money to support her family. The appeal to pity is real but irrelevant as to whether or not her poem is worth publishing.

  11. “Old Miseries: Being Nervous and Cross Examined by Mr. 
	Garrow,” etching 1808, (detail) Thomas Rowlandson, 
	The British Museum, #1869,0213.100 A 19th century barrister defends a youth who killed his parents:

    “[An] ingenious counsel … asked an Old Bailey jury to be merciful to his client because he was young and an orphan. There was no doubt about the prisoner's youth — he was only twenty … and if it could not be denied that he was an orphan the fact carried less weight that it might have done because the charge against him was ‘the murder of both his parents’!”[11]
    The fallacy of ad misericordiam occurs. The counsel does not address the relevant question as to whether or not the client committed the murders but instead bases his appeal to pity on the consequence the murders resulted in his client becoming an orphan.

  12. A 19th century Puritan minister warns against the appeal of the Methodist Church as follows:

    “In most places where Methodism comes in for an assault on existing churches, its strength consists in its weakness. … [I]f the accused [churches] even repel these aspersions the cry of persecution is raised — ‘See, here we are a poor, feeble, inoffensive band, persecuted and crushed by the hand of the strong.’ And with unreflecting minds such a wicked appeal to sympathy has its effect.”[12]
    The Puritan minister argues that the Methodist Church is fallaciously using the argumentum ad misericordiam fallacy to attract people to join its congregation.

  13. A child responds to unfair punishment:

    “When unfairly or overseverely punished, a child is apt to struggle against the maltreatment┬┐and against incipient guilt feelings about having committed an offense which evoked strong parental disapproval — by angrily protesting, aloud or silently, e.g., ‘I don't deserve this, you didn't warn me that I was doing anything wrong; you don't love me anymore so I don't love you; you are the bad one, not I.’”[13]
    Given that the punishment is unfair or oversevere, then the child's appeal to sympathy would not be fallacious. However, for the child to conclude that the parent does not love the child or that the parent is a bad parent on the basis of this one occurrence would be an instance of the fallacy of converse accident (i.e., the fallacy of overgeneralization).

  14. “Harriot Wilson,” 
	(detail) _The Pennsylvania Hermit_ rpt. (Philadelphia: Smith & Carpenter, 1842?), 
	pamphlet In 1785, Elizabeth [pseud. Harriot] Wilson was sentenced to death for the murder of her twin infants; a pardon being issued too late, tragically she was hanged. While in the Chester, Pa. jail, she reportedly wrote:

    “O Lord! help my poor Soul, and shew an eye of pity to thy distressed servant, that is begging at thy door for mercy, for her never dying soul! O Lord of life and glory! turn not thy ear from me! O my heavenly father! but grant me mercy! mercy! mercy! O Lord! that I may say in peace. Amen to this world.”[14]
    Elizabeth Wilson asks for mercy in a petitionary prayer in the hope that her request be effective. Many traditional logicians would conclude she is not trying to prove that she ought to have her soul saved, and since the intent of her speech act is not argumentative, no fallacy occurs. However, some informal logicians argue that speech acts have propositional content, and her appeal to pity in order to be be forgiven would constitute an ad misericordiam fallacy since her distress is not a claim of innocence and so is not relevant evidence for her salvation.

  15. In the mid-1800s, Elizabeth Barrett Browning aroused public opinion of the cruel conditions of children working in British factories and mines with her poem, “The Cry of the Children”:

    ““It is good when it happens,” say the children,
     ”That we die before out time.”

    For, all day, we drag our burden tiring
     Through the coal-dark, underground;
    Or, all day, we drive the wheels of iron
     In the factories, round and round.

    And all day the iron wheels are droning,
     And sometimes we could pray,
    ‘O ye wheels’ (breaking out in a mad moaning),
     ’Stop! be silent for to-day!’””[15]
    Although a poem is normally regarded as nonargumentative expressive language, Browning's poem is an argument appealing to sympathy for the extraordinary working conditions for children in the factories and mines of 19th century Britain. An argumentum ad misericordiam does occur, however, and historically the poem was taken as reasons against the often cruel working conditions of children at that time. The argument is not fallacious since the “premises” are directly relevant to the conclusion.


Links go to page cited

Title Image: Seller of Violets, part of the series “London Street Arabs,” lithograph, 1890; Dorothy Tennant from H.M. Stanley (nee Dorothy Tennant), London Street Arabs London: Cassell, 1890), np.

1. George M. Trevelyn, British History in the Nineteenth Century (1782-1901) (London: Longmans, Green, 1925), 268.
Image: “John Barleycorn” lithograph (detail) George Barnett Smith, Illustrated British Ballads (London: Cassell, 1881), 328

2. Cal Thomas, “ Oh, Maryland,” 98 no. 353 Index-Journal (24 Mar. 2017), 8A.

3. Junius [pseud.], The Impending Crisis ([Philadelphia?]: Commonweal, 1903), 332-333.

4. Huey P. Long, “Speech to the American People, March 7, 1935,” in A History of the U.S. Political System: Ideas, Interests, and Institutions eds. Richard A. Harris and Daniel J. Tichenor (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC CLIO, 212), v.3: 215.

5. Sir Edward Clarke, “The Detective Case,” Selected Speeches (London: Smith, Elder, 1908), 381-382.
Image: “Southwark: Sir Edward George Clarke,” chromolithograph by Sir Leslie Ward Vanity Fair, vol. 23 (March 13, 1880), 154-155.

6. “Review: A Winter's Sketches in the South of France and the Pyrenees By Fred H. Johnson,” The Medical Times and Gazette vol. 2 (July 26, 1862), 93.

7. Douglas Goldring, Reputations: Essays in Criticism (London: Chapman & Hall, 1920), 127.

8. Margaret Stacy, A Study of Fallacies (Berkeley: A-To-Zed School, 1925), 16.

9. “Minutes: House of Commons, March 25, 1833,” Hansard's Parliamentary Debates: Series 3 Vol. 16 (March 25, 1833), 1056, 1058.

10. William Makepeace Thackeray, “Thorns in the Cushion,”Roundabout Papers in The Complete Works of William Makepeace Thackeray, (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1902), IX:36.

11. Charles Kingston, Dramatic Days at the Old Bailey 3rd ed. (London: Stanley Paul, 1920), 48.
Image: “Old Miseries: Being Nervous and Cross Examined by Mr. Garrow,” etching 1808, (detail) Thomas Rowlandson, The British Museum, #1869,0213.100

12. Parsons Cooke A Century of Puritanism and A Century of Its Opposites (Boston: S.K. Whipple, 1855), 328.

13. Irving L. Janis, Stress: Psychoanalytic and Behavioral Studies of Surgical Patients (New York: John Wiley, 1958), 171.

14. Elizabeth Wilson, Faithful Narrative of Elizabeth Wilson Who Was Executed At Chester, January 3d, 1786 Charged with the Murder of Her Twin Infants (Philadelphia, Pa.: [s.n.], 1786), 15.
Image: “Harriot Wilson,” (detail) The Pennsylvania Hermit rpt. (Philadelphia: Smith & Carpenter, nd.), pamphlet.

15. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “The Cry of the Children,” in The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning Vol. II (London: Smith, Elder, 1889), 208-209.



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