Logically Delicious is part of a continuing series within Thinking About Thinking. I’m hunting Bad Takes in The Wild, and exposing the logical fallacies that fester within.
In last week’s edition of Logically Delicious, we looked at No True Scotsman, and I framed it as “a sort of combination of moving the goalposts and special pleading – distinct fallacies that will get their own entries in due time!” This week, let’s take a look at one of those other fellas.
THE FALLACY: Special Pleading
Special Pleading is when someone argues that there should be an exception to a rule, but the exception is irrelevant to the rule itself. When committing this fallacy, you are arguing for special treatment based on characteristics which do not have a material basis. This fallacy is most often seen in the form of “Can’t you make an exception, just this once?” followed by the extolling of one’s own character. Although it is most often used this way, special pleading can also be used to exclude. Jim Crow laws would be an example of this – people were refused service at businesses due to factors that had nothing to do with the transaction itself.
A readily available example of this fallacy in action comes from an episode of NPR’s “This American Life.” In this clip, a producer of the show talks about a friend who asks retailers if he can have what he calls a “Good Guy Discount.” The idea is that he argues “I know this is the price, but look – I’m a good guy, you’re a good guy, can’t you take a little something off the price to help good guys like us out?”
I like this example because it is quite literally pleading for a favor based on the notion that being “a good guy” (an unquantifiable measure!) is worthy of special treatment. The example also works because prices do sometimes have exceptions. Sometimes items go on sale, or they’re sold at a clearance price that’s lower than normal because the item is being discontinued, or discounts are offered for certain groups of people who typically have lower incomes, like seniors or students. These types of exceptions all share a common theme of having a material basis – there is a concrete reason for lowering the price. And although in some scenarios – such as buying a car, or shopping at a flea market – haggling over price is expected, “being a good guy” is entirely irrelevant to the price of a given item, so asking for it to factor into the equation is a case of special pleading.
WHY IT’S WRONG
Special pleading is wrong because it’s not rooted in anything. Many rules do have exceptions, but these exceptions should all be rooted in a material reality. Special pleading seeks to create exceptions based on irrelevant factors.
WHAT IT IS NOT: A legitimate exception to a rule
Let’s illustrate this with a concrete example.
When driving, all motorists must stop at red lights. However, legal exceptions are made for the drivers of emergency vehicles in the line of duty. The reason for this is clear – if an ambulance transporting a patient had to stop at every red light, there exists a very real risk that the patient will die from lack of proper medical care. If fire trucks stopped at red lights, fires could grow out of control before firefighters could arrive on the scene. Given these factors, laws regarding right-of-way are altered in certain circumstances involving emergency vehicles.
This is not special pleading because there is a concrete, material purpose for these exceptions.
If, on the other hand, an off-duty EMT drove through red lights in their regular vehicle and then argued that they should be able to do this because they are an EMT, that would be special pleading. As there is no active emergency, there is no reason to grant an exception based on profession.
HOW TO CONFRONT THE FALLACY
When you notice special pleading, ask your interlocuter what relevance the characteristics they’re describing have to the rule. Make them explain why, in material terms, an exception should be made based on these characteristics. If they can’t do so, there’s a good chance there’s some special pleading going on.
Until next time … keep thinking!
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