“Mr. Jones lost the last election because his opponent used a smear campaign to discredit him. Mr. Jones lost the election before that because of voter fraud. Mr. Jones lost the election before that because nobody knew who he was. Don’t you think it is about time you voted for Mr. Jones?”
An appeal to pity occurs when a person tries to make us do something out of sympathy for him or because we pity something associated with him. This is a propaganda technique. Propaganda is any strategy used to spread ideas or beliefs. Propaganda is not all bad, even though the term seems to have been stigmatized. The strategic spreading of ideas and beliefs is not necessarily wrong. However, while propaganda itself is not inherently bad, it can be used to manipulate a person’s actions by playing on their emotions. This is referred to as manipulative propaganda.
An appeal to pity is an example of such manipulative propaganda. A person utilizing this fallacy will most likely include emotionally charged language in his appeal, in hopes that our emotions concerning an issue will get us to agree with the person’s conclusions. This strategy diverts attention away from the evidence for a position and from reasoning through an issue. An appeal to pity can also fall under the broader category of “an appeal to emotions” due to its reliance on emotions.
On a personal note, I find this fallacy to create a false dichotomy in which it is assumed that I must agree with the issue or cause in order to show sympathy or kindness to the affected person. I can offer help and show love to a person without agreeing with his ideology or with his current choices in life.
Appeal to pity can aim to create a feeling of guilt and/or the accusation of being divisive if you don’t do as asked. Look at the following two examples:
“Senator Justice will enact a bill to further fund second-chance facilities for animals that many fat-cat congressmen have overlooked. He will help stop the abuse and neglect of these innocent animals by giving them another chance on life. Don’t you want to help too? Vote for Senator Justice.”
In this appeal to pity, the listener is implicitly told that if he does not vote for Senator Justice, then he does not want to help stop the abuse and neglect of innocent animals (creating division). Notice the emotionally charged language utilized in this campaign ad: “fat-cat congressmen,” “abuse and neglect,” and “innocent” Also, the appeal to pity here does not say exactly how the funding will be used to give these animals another chance on life or if the current funding for this endeavor is being utilized well. It assumes the listener won’t ask those questions, because of course they want to help innocent animals and to chastise fat-cat congressmen.
Sometimes an appeal to pity is a little harder to spot. This can be due to the fact that we are already sympathetic towards the issue or idea. It can also be because the appeal is not as upfront. Here’s an example from The Fallacy Detective book:
“After a debate touching on their own four-legged friends, senators [of the California senate] voted to forbid condominiums and mobile home parks from completely banning pets.
Supporters said the bill would help many Californians, including older residents, whose lives could be brightened by animals.
Arguing for the bill, Senate leader John Burton, D-San Francisco, recalled that his on mother was greatly comforted by her little dog after Burton’s father passed away.
‘That poodle was a companion of my mother, who naturally, after the death of my father, was living at home alone,’ Burton said. - The Sacramento Bee, August 23, 2000.”
In this scenario, the senator is using an example of his own mother being comforted by her dog, but fails to mention this particular example’s evidential value to the argument of pets and condominiums/mobile home parks. Did his mother live in a condo or mobile home park? Did she have to fight to keep her pet? What was her line of reasoning that she should keep her pet? Should the government get involved? These are questions the listeners are not supposed to ask. They are supposed to become wrapped up in the sentimentality of the story. While it’s okay to have those sympathetic feelings, we should still be asking good questions about the proposed bill, right?
From my own experience with presidential campaigns (the last couple decades), I can almost guarantee we will hear these kind of stories utilized to appeal to our pity, and therefore to try to get us to vote for a candidate. Again, it’s not that the evidential value of individual experiences is not important, but it is how the stories are being relayed that is important. Are they being lined out as actual evidences for a position? Or are they being used to pull on our ‘heart strings’ in place of evidences? The latter is an appeal to pity.
Be on the lookout for the fallacy of an appeal to pity. Ask yourself what the candidate or campaign ad is specifically implying about you if you do or do not vote for them.
 Hans and Nathaniel Bluedorn. The Fallacy Detective: Thirty Six Lesson on How to Recognize Bad Reasoning. (Muscatine, IA: Christian Logic, 2002, 2003), 169