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Special Pleading: Why it is Not Valid

November 1, 2009

Special Pleading: Why it is Not Valid


Major Paine stands to speak: “As a retired officer who has served our nation in times of war and twice wounded I think that it is outrageous that our roads are in such a poor state.” Major Paine sits down and Doctor Proctor stands to speak. “As the Head of the Surgical College for 10 years I say that there are not enough traffic officers to keep the streets free of traffic.”


Were you impressed by these speakers? Did they convince you that their case was valid? They are highly qualified people with standing in the community. One is a Doctor and the other a retired Major twice wounded? They have credentials and credibility that should impress anyone so should we take more notice of their opinions.


The problem is that though both men have impressive qualifications and experiences those experiences and qualifications have nothing to do with what they are talking about. If Major Paine had said that he relevant experiences in road design that would be valid. Also if Doctor Proctor had expert knowledge of the traffic system his view would have more weight. Instead the two men used irrelevant qualifications and experiences to impress the crowd rather than mount an argument supported with evidence. It may seem like this is obvious and shallow but read though Letters to Editor of Newspaper or Blogs and you will find examples of this type of arguing.


Special Pleading is when some tries to use irrelevant experience, qualifications and social status to add weight to an assertion. It is a shallow tactic that has similar properties to prejudice because we are being misled to presume that the pleader is better qualified to speak. This is a positive prejudice for the speaker (or writer) to gain an advantage that is not due. We are being asked to accept that the argument must be true because a superior person has said it. Such an acceptance makes a mockery of the notion that evidence is even required. Instead a learned elder in any field is as good as if not better than the actual person who knows something about the subject.


‘So what?’ you may say. You can see though this. Well that may be true where it is obvious, such as in the examples above, but often the Special Pleading is tied up in complicated sentences and paragraphs. A person may make a long justification for conscription and the third sentence mention that they are an author of a book. Three sentences later you may still be impressed by the revelation that you cease to listen to what may be a shallow justification. Another person may say that they are a doctor, Member of Parliament or a survivor of a train crash before speaking about a different subject. What they are really seeking is an advantage through status.


Blaming the people who use special pleading may not be fair as some people may be totally unaware that they are using this tactic. The impressive qualification may have been accidentally mentioned in the past and it created a sense of status. Social standing and status cannot be underestimated as it can equate to a level of power, the ‘Power’ to influence people. So Special Pleading is an extremely addictive tactic once used successfully. Yet even if the Special Pleader is not unscrupulous they are self deluded into the prejudice that their opinions have greater weight due to the pleading.



If we do not know what Special Pleading is then we are more susceptible to its influence. A person who claims to have given their entire life to a cause may be trying to say that they have seniority. A fine argument if he had actually done something to advance the cause in that time but less so if nothing was achieved in those years. Another person who shows a battle scar may be a hero but does it make them qualified in every subject matter? A person may even be a great film star or cricketer but it does not automatically make them the best person to take up a seat in parliament? The answer to these is based upon the relevant skills, qualifications and experiences but never upon the irrelevant. Special Pleading in itself will not make the evidence that the person put forward as invalid only test the evidence objectively can do that.

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