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Special pleading is a formal logical fallacy where a participant demands special considerations for a particular premise of theirs. Usually this is because in order for their argument to work, they need to provide some way to get out of a logical inconsistency — in a lot of cases, this will be the fact that their argument contradicts past arguments or actions. Therefore, they introduce a "special case" or an exception to their rules.
While this is acceptable in genuine special cases, it becomes a formal fallacy when a person doesn't adequately justify why the case is special.
Special pleading is an obsolete term in English law, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:
- A pleading drawn with particular reference to the circumstances of a case, as opposed to general pleading (1684).
- The putting forward of special pleadings; the art or science of drawing pleadings (1768).
In practice, that often meant arguing for a case to be dismissed, regardless of its merits, because of formal defects in the other side's documents. If you had a winning case, you might not bother; but if you wanted to get away with murder, you surely would.
A person accepts a certain set of criteria for judging something, and applies this in a way appearing consistent and completely exhaustive. Said person finds themselves somehow restricted by their own criteria, and declares their own case "special" without any real justification and excludes themselves from their own criteria to make their case.
This is a fallacy because they are claiming that they are exempt from certain principles or standards, yet they provide no good reason for their exemption. A real exception would either be easily justifiable or apparent in the conditions they make in the first place, such as "these standards apply to x, y, and z because of a, b and c" and people can then agree with this and the reasoning. Simply demanding that an exception be made is not enough.
- In the Thomistic cosmological argument for the existence of God, everything requires a cause. However, proponents of the argument then create a special case where God doesn't need a cause, but they can't say why in any particularly rigorous fashion. (One response to this argument, beyond pointing out the fallacy, would be to point out that nature itself could have existed eternally in some form just as they say God had existed eternally before creating nature. Although used before him, one modern philosopher who has applied this argument is Carl Sagan.)
- The seemingly hypocritical nature of some politicians regarding drug use or sexual misdemeanors. Specifically, the typical position is that alcohol and tobacco are OK, everything else is not OK, regardless of any scientific evidence about the relative harm of each drug.
- Biblical morality takes massive amounts of special pleading from Biblical literalists who insist that morality can only come from the Bible. They are very happy to follow some rules (shunning gay men) but not others (selling their daughters into slavery, stoning disobedient children, eschewing shellfish) — even though the Bible, which they claim can be the only source of their moral decision making, is quite silent on what parts of it you can happily ignore.
- Some conspiracy theorists believe that all conspiracies are bogus except their favourite one. This does not appear to be special pleading superficially, but if you investigate the logic behind the examined conspiracy theories you will find it inconsistent to believe in only one of them.
- In the Virginia personhood law, which grants the zygote the rights of an adult, item 7 states that "nothing in this section shall be interpreted as affecting lawful assisted conception." In in vitro fertilization, though, several oocytes are removed from a woman's ovary, bathed in semen and fertilized, let to develop into blastocysts, then selecting the ones that look "healthiest" to implant in the woman's womb. The several blastocysts left over are then treated as medical waste.
- Mitt Romney campaigned vehemently against Obamacare, but when reminded (repeatedly) that it was modeled after legislation he himself signed as governor of Massachusetts, he explained that that was totally different because it was a national plan, not a state plan.
The key to this being a fallacy is that there is no adequate reason for treating the situation differently. Since a different situation is, by definition, different, there is always some distinction to be made; the issue is whether this difference is sufficient. Obviously, the person making the argument thinks that it is sufficient, and stating that it is not will simply be dismissed as not recognizing the fact that this situation is totally different.
 See also
- Exception that proves the rule
- Moving the goalposts
- Cognitive dissonance
- Straw man argument
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