Professing Themselves to be Wise, They Became Fools Part 2

In Part 2 of this series, I will write about the appeal to pity fallacy. An appeal to pity is when the arguer appeals to unfortunate circumstances rather than giving good reasons to support their argument.

We might see this in a murder trial where, rather than giving good reasons that the accused did not kill another person, the defense attorney appeals to the judge and jury’s sense of compassion and sympathy by describing the hard life of the accused, how poverty drove him or her to a life of crime, or how the accused was picked on in school or abused by an alcoholic father. The defense might even bring the mother or siblings of the accused up as witnesses to weep and plead for a lesser sentence (if not an acquittal). This is fallacious because rather than making an attempt to show that the facts point to the innocence of the accused, or at least a reasonable doubt concerning their guilt, the defense is trying to minimize the affects of justice by making judge and jury feel pity for the accused.

Pity by itself doesn’t change reality. Having great pity for a cancer patient will not cure the cancer and having great sympathy for the homeless does not provide shelter. Likewise, pity or sympathy for a person’s plight should not affect the just and fair evaluation of a person’s performance. If it did, then it would not be the performance that was being evaluated. Instead, it would be the person’s plight that was being evaluated.
-Ric Machuga, Common Sense Logic, 6th Edition

This is not to say there is anything wrong with being compassionate. That’s almost always a virtue, not a vice! However, compassion is not usually a great test for truth, and we should always seek the truth of the matter.

An appeal to pity is sometimes made by those arguing against the existence of God. Examples of the problem of evil often (but not always) make fallacious emotional appeals to the terrible things that go on this world that would not happen if an all-powerful, loving, and good God really existed.

A classic example is Rowe’s fawn. In this parable, an innocent fawn stops to get a drink from a stream. As the fawn is drinking a dead tree topples over, landing on the fawn. The fawn does not immediately die, but its back is broken, and even if this were not enough to paralyze the fawn it is pinned beneath the weight of the tree, unable to move. The fawn is slowly eaten alive by forest scavengers. The unbeliever would use such a story to prove that the biblical God cannot exist, because if He did He would not allow this kind of evil to happen.

Similar arguments are centered on natural disasters with high death tolls, the existence of parasites, the proliferation of war, and so on. Many times the emotional impact is intensified by personal testimony of the long and excruciating death of a loved due to a chronic disease, or the prolonged abuse of a person or or their loved one in spite of impassioned pleas for divine aid or devout religious observance.

These tales of woe are emotionally gripping, but contrary to the skeptics' claims, such examples actually tell us nothing about whether God exists or not. In fact, they assume things that they cannot possibly know such as whether or not God has a morally permissible reason for allowing evil. I won’t delve too deeply into moral arguments at this time, since those will be presented in future posts, but it is difficult (if not impossible) to even explain evil without a transcendent moral law-which strongly implies the existence of a transcendent moral law giver, best explained by God. The bottom line is that when the primary aim of an argument is to provoke an emotional reaction, rather than appealing to objective facts, it becomes an unreliable aid in discovering truth.

I’m sorry to disappoint the reader who is hoping for a rigorous debate of the problem of evil. I only brought it up to help illustrate examples of the appeal to pity fallacy. In the next post, I will write about the nose counting fallacy.

Ecclesiastes 7:19 ESV

Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.


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