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Appeal to pity: A case study of theargumentum ad misericordiam


The appeal to pity, orargumentum ad misericordiam, has traditionally been classified by the logic textbooks as an informal fallacy. The particular case studied in this article is a description of a series of events in 1990–91 during the occupation of Kuwait by Iraqi forces. A fifteen-year-old Kuwaiti girl named Nayirah had a pivotal effect on the U.S. decision to invade Kuwait by testifying to a senate committee (while crying) that Iraqi soldiers had pulled babies out of incubators in a hospital in Kuwait, and left them to die. Subsequent investigations revealed no basis for this claim, and that it was part of a public relations campaign, financed mainly by Kuwaitis, to get support for the invasion. The normative question studied in this case is whether or not the argument in it can correctly be evaluated as a fallacious appeal to pity. Part of the general issue is what is meant by the key word ‘fallacious.’

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The author would like to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for support in the form of a Research Grant, and Victor Wilkes, for assistance in collecting data. Thanks are also due to Alan Brinton and Michael Gilbert for critical comments and suggestions that proved to be very helpful.

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Walton, D. Appeal to pity: A case study of theargumentum ad misericordiam . Argumentation 9, 769–784 (1995).

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Key words

  • argumentation
  • fallacy
  • appeal to emotion
  • conversation analysis
  • informal logic
  • bias
  • dialectical shift