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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.

Argument structure

The logical structure of a special pleading typically follows this form:

  1. Person X criticizes opponent O on grounds G.
  2. X could be criticized on the same grounds.
  3. However, X is exempt from G.<ref name=Nizkor>The Nizkor Project, Fallacy: Special Pleading (retrieved April 9, 2007)</ref><ref name=Damer>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</ref>

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.<ref name=Nizkor/><ref name=Thompson>Bruce Thompson, Special Pleading, in Bruce Thompson's Fallacy Pages (retrieved April 9, 2007)</ref> The irrelevant ground might be either an alleged special circumstance<ref name=Nizkor/> or a unique or at least unshared perspective or credential<ref name=Thompson/>. “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.<ref name=Heritage>The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., Definition of special pleading (retrieved April 9, 2007)</ref> 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.” Absent 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. Absent an adequate reason why the universe can simply exist, while God cannot, he engages in special pleading.

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.<ref name=Nizkor/> For example, it is not necessarily special pleading to exempt a child from standards applied to adults.

In law, the introduction of a 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.<ref name=Heritage/> 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.

See Also


special_pleading.txt · Last modified: 2020/03/12 18:38 (external edit)