One of my favorite elements of teaching Logic is finding good and bad reasoning out “in the wild” as I like to say. Looking at argument forms or fallacies in the classroom is not unlike looking at pathogens or organisms in a lab. Finding them in their native environment is, for academics like me, something of a thrill. I just finished teaching a module on common logical fallacies (argumentation that contains characteristic errors) and, as usual, found myself staring at the real thing. The fallacy is Argumentum ad Misericordiam – the appeal to pity.
Being humane creatures, we ought to feel pity when confronted with tragedy. Bombarding stray dogs with trash or driving a car so that it throws the maximum amount of rain water at a homeless man are evidences of evil character. It’s true, in the era of social media, it is possible to feel pity-fatigue. The abundance of small tragedies in a large network of friends can make one numb. But this is evidence of the pity impulse working well, and being simply overworked. So pity itself is not a fallacy. It isn’t a mistake. It becomes a fallacy when it is the only justification for a course of action. You should feel pity for the stray dog, therefore…. therefore what? Converting good, appropriate pity into action is notoriously tricky. We even have pithy one-liners describing it: “If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish he will never go hungry.” Feeling pity for the hungry man may lead to two different courses of action, the fish or fishing training. Sometimes it is quite difficult to discover the right action. Often the task requires painstaking analysis and study. And as a professor I realize – studying is hard. Much harder than the immediate and effortless feeling of pity. Even though it is effortless to feel and is a powerful motivator, pity alone is not able to indicate which is the best course.
Usually I discuss the ad Misericordiam fallacy (going from pity to action with no intermediate steps) within the context of manipulation. If I tug on your heartstrings, I can sway your actions. I usually present it as an exercise of power used by a demagogue.
Fast Forward to last night – I watched the violent and controversial film, Machine Gun Preacher, about the life of Sam Childers. Gerard Butler plays Childers as a driven and passionate man, reacting to the humanitarian tragedy in Sudan, particularly with regard to displaced and kidnapped children. Eventually he takes up arms against the kidnappers. It’s quite a tale. Butler’s performance was particularly effective as he showed the character’s frustration with his friends and family back in America. When he was in Sudan he could put all of his time, money, and courage into helping the orphans and fighting their oppressors. But at home he was unable to inspire the same level of urgency or abandon with his family and neighbors. He would leverage everything, drain his savings, sell his company and vehicle. He pressured business associates to do the same, often bringing along pictures of the children he was helping.
It suddenly occurred to me that unlike the demagogue cynically using emotion to acquire power, Childers was caught in an honest Argumentum ad Misericordiam. His frustration was dependent on the assumption that everyone should have the same response to the suffering that he did. He made the leap from pity to action in a very particular way – one that had its own merit (or lack of it). He assumed (incorrectly) that the only appropriate response to the situation was the one he was currently pursuing. No wonder he found his family and neighbors strangely cold to the suffering of others. They must, he reasoned, not care about these children.
As our nation navigates yet another tragedy involving the suffering of children, we do ourselves no favors if we fall prey to or employ the fallacy of ad Misericordiam. Sometimes we must resist the demagogue, if such a person appears. But more often we may fail to realize that the connection between pity and responsive action is not obvious. And it is far too easy to misunderstand those who respond differently. Far too easy to believe that they never felt the pity at all. But above all, it is a worthy cause to do the hard work of analysis and study to discover the best way to connect our pity with actions. Not to offer an Argumentum ad Misericordiam to our own selves.