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
(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:
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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 …”
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.]
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
The excessive misery portrayed in this criticism of Roosevelt's policies mark
this argument as an ad misericordiam fallacy.
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
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.
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.
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.
A literary critic gives the following reasons for his dislike of the novels of
““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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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! …
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
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
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.
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.”
The Puritan minister argues that the Methodist Church is fallaciously
using the argumentum ad misericordiam fallacy to attract
people to join its congregation.
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
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
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.”
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.
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!’””
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.
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: