While pity is an admirable human quality, it does not provide the best basis for argument. When we turn to pity instead of reasoned discourse to support a particular contention, we commit the argumentum ad misericordiam.
In asking yourself if this man is to be convicted, ask yourself what it will mean for him to be locked up in prison, deprived of his liberty, and turned into an outcast from humanity.
(The question is whether he is guilty or not, not what conviction will do to him.)
When we are called upon to settle questions of fact, we should be weighing up the evidence on each side and attempting to arrive at the truth. The introduction of pity does nothing for the argument. While it might reasonably influence our actions, it should not influence our judgement. The consequences to various parties of the truth or falsehood of a statement does not bear on that truth or falsehood. Whether a man is sent to prison or to the South Seas for a holiday does not alter the fact itself. An ad misericordiam is committed if pity is appealed to in the settlement of questions of truth and falsehood.
Can we continue to afford Jeeves as our groundsman? Look what will happen if we don’t. Imagine the state of his wife and his children with Christmas coming up and the cold snows of winter about to descend ask instead, ‘can we afford not to employ Jeeves?’
(Yes we can. Of course, we might decide to afford him, which is quite a different thing.)
Quite apart from its use in courts of law – where no self-respecting defence lawyer will venture without his handkerchief – the ad misericordiam pokes its head into any argument where facts have consequences. No one would allow the possible fate of an individual to influence our conviction about so obvious a fact as 2 + 2 = 4, but where there is less certainty we might be tempted to allow our pity to give the benefit of the doubt.
Hearts and flowers are a prerequisite of public policy. No question of simple fact can be settled without consideration of the effect it might have on the sick, the old, the feeble, the blind and the lame.
If we decide that foreign aid is ineffective, and does not raise living standards, then we are condemning people in the poorer countries to a life of degrading poverty, squalor and disease.
(If foreign aid is ineffective, the fact condemns them to these con-sequences. Maybe we should do something else about it.)
The appeal of the ad misericordiam is in our recognition that pity should have a place in guiding our actions. The point of the fallacy is that it has no place in our determination of truth and falsehood. When it steps from one territory to the other, reason changes place with it.
Its allure is hard to resist. The whole of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one giant argumentum ad misericordiam. Here is Scrooge, making an honest living, assailed (along with the reader) by the appeal to pity. Bob Cratchit commands a skill as a clerk and scribe, and is perfectly free to seek employment elsewhere at market rates if he is dissatisfied with what Scrooge offers. But no; ghosts rise up to torment his employer with the ad misericordiam, and the hapless Scrooge is morally compelled to reach a decision quite contrary to economic reality. A more valid response to this treatment would have been ‘Bah! Humbug!’
You will have a great time making your opponents squirm under the ad misericordiam. Your audience is not too interested in the fine distinction between fact and fiction, so you can easily make those who reach different conclusions about the truth of things seem like the most hard-hearted of Victorian landlords for doing so.
If you really believe that high wages keep teenagers from getting jobs, then all I can say is that you will have on your conscience the thousands of poor families who struggle to find the means for life’s necessities. May God have mercy on your soul!
(Even if he does, the audience won’t. When faced with this treatment, turn it right back. What about the suffering and humiliation of those poor teenagers, unable to find work because of your heartless opponent? You can’t expect to win with duelling pistols when your opponent is using a howitzer.)