Overview of Ad Misericordiam Arguments

Ad Misericordiam
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Ad misericordiam is an argument based on a strong appeal to the emotions. Also known as argumentum ad misericordiam or appeal to pity or misery.

When an appeal to sympathy or pity is highly exaggerated or irrelevant to the issue at hand, ​ad misericordiam is regarded as a logical fallacy. The first mention of ad misericordiam as a fallacy was in an article in the Edinburgh Review in 1824.

Ronald Munson points out that "[n]ot all mention of factors which appeal to our sympathies is irrelevant [to an argument], and the trick is to distinguish legitimate appeals from spurious ones" (The Way of Words).

From the Latin, "appeal to pity" 

Examples and Observations

  • "Your Honor, my incarceration is cruel and unusual punishment. First, my prison-issued shower sandals are grossly undersized. Secondly, the prison book club consists mainly of prisoners who club me with books."
    (Sideshow Bob in "Day of the Jackanapes." The Simpsons, 2001)
  • "This appeal to our emotions need not be fallacious or faulty. A writer, having argued several points logically, may make an emotional appeal for extra support. . . .
    "When an argument is based solely on the exploitation of the reader's pity, however, the issue gets lost. There's an old joke about a man who murdered his parents and appealed to the court for leniency because he was an orphan. It's funny because it ludicrously illustrates how pity has nothing to do with murder. Let's take a more realistic example. If you were a lawyer whose client was charged with bank embezzlement, you would not get very far basing your defense solely on the fact that the defendant was abused as a child. Yes, you may touch the hearts of the jurors, even move them to pity. Yet that would not exonerate your client. The abuse the defendant suffered as a child, as woeful as it is, has nothing to do with his or her crime as an adult. Any intelligent prosecutor would point out the attempt to manipulate the court with a sob story while distracting it from more important factors such as justice."
    (Gary Goshgarian, et al., An Argument Rhetoric and Reader. Addison-Wesley, 2003)

Germaine Greer on Hillary Clinton's Tears

"Watching Hillary Clinton pretending to get teary-eyed is enough to make me give up shedding tears altogether. The currency, you might say, has become devalued. . . 

"Hillary's feeble display of emotion, while answering questions from voters in a cafe in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Monday, is supposed to have done her campaign the world of good. If it has, it's because people have wished a tear into her stony reptilian eye, not because there actually was one. What caused her to get all mooshy was her mention of her own love of her country. Patriotism has once more proved a valuable last refuge for a scoundrel. Hillary's clipped diction did not falter; all she had to do was take the steel edge off her voice and our imaginations did the rest. Hillary was human after all. Fear and loathing fled New Hampshire, Hillary scored against the run of play, and all it took was the suspicion of a tear. Or so they say. Can the moral of the story be: when you're up against it, don't fight back, just cry? As if too many women don't already use tears as a power-tool. Over the years I've had to deal with more than one manipulative student who produced tears instead of work; my standard response was to say, 'Don't you dare cry. I'm the one who should be crying. It's my time and effort that's being wasted.' Let's hope Hillary's crocodile effort doesn't encourage more women to use tears to get their way."
(Germaine Greer, "For Crying Out Loud!" The Guardian, January 10, 2008)

An Argument That Raises a Warning Signal

​​"Plenty of evidence has been presented that the ad misericordiam is both a powerful and deceptively misleading tactic of argumentation well worth careful study and evaluation.

"On the other hand, our treatment also suggests that it is misleading, in various ways, to think of the appeal to pity simply as a fallacious argument move. The problem is not that appeal to pity is inherently irrational or fallacious. The problem is that such an appeal can have such a powerful impact that it easily gets out of hand, carrying a weight of presumption far beyond what the context of dialogue merits and distracting a respondent from more relevant and important considerations.
"While ad misericordiam arguments are fallacious in some cases, it is better to think of the argumentum ad misericordiam not as a fallacy (at least per se, or even most importantly) but as a kind of argument that automatically raises a warning signal: 'Look out, you could get in trouble with this kind of argument if you are not very careful!'"
(Douglas N. Walton, The Place of Emotion in Argument. Penn State Press, 1992)

The Lighter Side of Ad Misericordiam: The Job Applicant

"Seated under the oak the next evening I said, 'Our first fallacy tonight is called Ad Misericordiam.'
"[Polly] quivered with delight.
"'Listen closely,' I said. 'A man applies for a job. When the boss asks him what his qualifications are, he replies that he has a wife and six children at home, the wife is a helpless cripple, the children have nothing to eat, no clothes to wear, no shoes on their feet, there are no beds in the house, no coal in the cellar, and winter is coming.'
"A tear rolled down each of Polly’s pink cheeks. 'Oh, this is awful, awful,' she sobbed.
"'Yes, it’s awful,' I agreed, 'but it’s no argument. The man never answered the boss’s question about his qualifications. Instead he appealed to the boss’s sympathy. He committed the fallacy of Ad Misericordiam. Do you understand?'
"'Have you got a handkerchief?' she blubbered.
"I handed her a handkerchief and tried to keep from screaming while she wiped her eyes."
(Max Shulman, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Doubleday, 1951)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Overview of Ad Misericordiam Arguments." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-ad-misericordiam-1688966. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Overview of Ad Misericordiam Arguments. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-ad-misericordiam-1688966 Nordquist, Richard. "Overview of Ad Misericordiam Arguments." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-ad-misericordiam-1688966 (accessed May 29, 2023).