Special pleading is a fallacy of informal logic whereby a party to a controversy exempts himself (or one whom he has a special interest in protecting) from a criticism that he applies to others, without adequate justification for that exemption.
The logical structure of a special pleading typically follows this form:
- Person X criticizes opponent O on grounds G.
- X could be criticized on the same grounds.
- However, X is exempt from G.
Types of exemptions claimed
One engaged in special pleading might claim exemption from grounds G above in a variety of ways:
Offering an Irrelevant Difference
The usual form of special pleading is to cite a counter-ground that is simply irrelevant. The irrelevant ground might be either an alleged special circumstance or a unique or at least unshared perspective or credential. "How dare you criticize a (wo)man of my talent/education/training" is a crude example of the special-credential plea.
Ignoring Unfavorable Evidence
The other form of special pleading involves simply ignoring evidence unfavorable to one's position. One engaged in this form of special pleading concentrates only on one aspect of an issue, or a subset of aspects favorable to the person making the claim. Falsification of evidence is not involved here, but dissemblance might be.
- An adherent of a non-Christian religion might criticize Christianity on the basis of alleged difficulties in the Bible, while explaining away difficulties of at least the same level in his own religion's holy book by saying that his own holy book needs to be "interpreted correctly." Without adequate justification for applying different rules of interpretation to the two texts, that person engages in special pleading.
- An atheist might argue that a Creator needs a Creator, who needs a Creator, and so on, whereas the universe can simply exist. Without an adequate reason why the universe can simply exist, while God cannot, he engages in special pleading.
- Liberals hold conservatives to stringent purity tests but exempt other liberals, such as Jimmy Kimmel.
What Special Pleading Is Not
It is possible to hold different people to different standards without engaging in special pleading if a relevant difference allows it. For example, it is not necessarily special pleading to exempt a child from standards applied to adults.
In law, the introduction of an affirmative defense or other special circumstance intended to extenuate a crime or a tort, instead of denying that the crime or tort occurred or that the defendant did the deed, is often called a special pleading. Self-defense is the classic special plea in law. But this would not normally qualify as a special pleading in logic. Under the laws of most nation-states today, self-defense is directly relevant to a judgment of guilt for certain crimes, especially murder.
- The Nizkor Project, Fallacy: Special Pleading (retrieved April 9, 2007)
- T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments, 3rd ed., Wadsworth, 1995, pp. 122-124. Retrieved April 9, 2007, from The Fallacy Files
- Bruce Thompson, Special Pleading, in Bruce Thompson's Fallacy Pages (retrieved April 9, 2007)
- The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., Definition of special pleading (retrieved April 9, 2007)