Special Pleading is a fallacy in which a person applies standards, principles, rules, etc. to others while taking herself (or those she has a special interest in) to be exempt, without providing adequate justification for the exemption. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:
1. Person A accepts standard(s) S and applies them to others in circumstance(s) C.
2. Person A is in circumstance(s) C.
3. Therefore A is exempt from S.
The person committing Special Pleading is claiming that he is exempt from certain principles or standards yet he provides no good reason for his exemption. That this sort of reasoning is fallacious is shown by the following extreme example:
1. Barbara accepts that all murderers should be punished for their crimes.
2. Although she murdered Bill, Barbara claims she is an exception because she really would not like going to prison.
3. Therefore, the standard of punishing murderers should not be applied to her.
This is obviously a blatant case of special pleading. Since no one likes going to prison, this cannot justify the claim that Barbara alone should be exempt from punishment.
The Principle of Relevant Difference
From a philosophic standpoint, the fallacy of Special Pleading is violating a well accepted principle, namely the Principle of Relevant Difference. According to this principle, two people can be treated differently if and only if there is a relevant difference between them. This principle is a reasonable one. After all, it would not be particularly rational to treat two people differently when there is no relevant difference between them. As an extreme case, it would be very odd for a parent to insist on making one child wear size 5 shoes and the other wear size 7 shoes when the children are both size 5.
It should be noted that the Principle of Relevant Difference does allow people to be treated differently. For example, if one employee was a slacker and the other was a very productive worker the boss would be justified in giving only the productive worker a raise. This is because the productivity of each is a relevant difference between them. Since it can be reasonable to treat people differently, there will be cases in which some people will be exempt from the usual standards. For example, if it is Bill’s turn to cook dinner and Bill is very ill, it would not be a case of Special Pleading if Bill asked to be excused from making dinner (this, of course, assumes that Bill does not accept a standard that requires people to cook dinner regardless of the circumstances). In this case Bill is offering a good reason as to why he should be exempt and, most importantly, it would be a good reason for anyone who was ill and not just Bill.
While determining what counts as a legitimate basis for exemption can be a difficult task, it seems clear that claiming you are exempt because you are you does not provide such a legitimate basis. Thus, unless a clear and relevant justification for exemption can be presented, a person cannot claim to be exempt.
There are cases which are similar to instances of Special Pleading in which a person is offering at least some reason why he should be exempt but the reason is not good enough to warrant the exemption. This could be called “Failed Pleading.” For example, a professor may claim to be exempt from helping the rest of the faculty move books to the new department office because it would be beneath his dignity. However, this is not a particularly good reason and would hardly justify his exemption. If it turns out that the real “reason” a person is claiming exemption is that they simply take themselves to be exempt, then they would be committing Special Pleading. Such cases will be fairly common. After all, it is fairly rare for adults to simply claim they are exempt without at least some pretense of justifying the exemption.
Bill and Jill are married. Both Bill and Jill have put in a full day at the office. Their dog, Rover, has knocked over all the plants in one room and has strewn the dirt all over the carpet. When they return, Bill tells Jill that it is her job to clean up after the dog. When she protests, he says that he has put in a full day at the office and is too tired to clean up after the dog.
Jane and Sue share a dorm room.
Jane: “Turn of that stupid stereo, I want to take a nap.”
Sue: ‘Why should I? What are you exhausted or something?”
Jane: “No, I just feel like taking a nap.”
Sue: “Well, I feel like playing my stereo.”
Jane: “Well, I’m taking my nap. You have to turn your stereo off and that’s final.”
Mike and Barbara share an apartment.
Mike: “Barbara, you’ve tracked in mud again.”
Barbara: “So? It’s not my fault.”
Mike: “Sure. I suppose it walked in on its own. You made the mess, so you clean it up.”
Mike: “We agreed that whoever makes a mess has to clean it up. That is fair.”
Barbara: “Well, I’m going to watch TV. If you don’t like the mud, then you clean it up.”
Barbara: “What? I want to watch the show. I don’t want to clean up the mud. Like I said, if it bothers you that much, then you should clean it up.”