What is Special Pleading?


May 31, 2016

Defining Special Pleading
Special pleading (also known as a double standard) is an informal fallacy that occurs when an exception is created to a principle, law, rule, generalization, or something roughly similar to these when we would expect that principle (or whatever it may be) to apply to whatever is being excluded and no rational justification is given for why the exclusion is created.

For example, suppose two roommates (call them S and T) have study habits which conflict with one another. S studies best while in silence, while T studies best when music is playing in the background. Now let’s suppose that S imposes a new rule that T can no longer play his music while they are both studying. When T then asks for S’s reason for why he is imposing this new rule, S simply responds “It’s my room, too!”.

In order to see the problem with S’s response, we must recognize the underlying principle at work in this illustration, namely, the rule of thumb that most roommates accept, that in general, neither person’s interests are more important than the others. The problem is that we expect this principle to apply to S since it is inclusive of people, like S, who are roommates, yet S violates it without providing any rational justification for doing so. Now, this is not to say that there is no way to resolve this problem or problems like this, but it is to say that if S wants to free himself from the charge of special pleading he must first provide some rational justification for why he thinks the exclusion should happen.

More Examples of Special Pleading
Here are some further examples of special pleading:

1) A school implements a rule according to which all on-campus students must where their student ID’s visible and above the waist at all times otherwise they will receive detention. A student then violates this rule. Once the student is informed by a school official that he will be receiving detention, the student then contests this by saying that he shouldn’t be punished because he receives high marks.

2) S and T are debating whether or not exercise is more effective in promoting weight loss than dieting. S believes that exercise is more effective while T believes that dieting is more effective. In defending his view, S provides an argument in favor of it while T, in contrast, insists that he does not need to provide any sort of evidence to support his view because his view is the correct one.

3) A restaurant has a policy where all of its employees must wash their hands before leaving the restroom. One of the employees ignores this policy, believing that it shouldn’t apply to him because he is related to the restaurants owner.

Creating Exceptions To Rules, Principles, etc. Isn’t Always Fallacious
It’s also important to recognize that not all exceptions to principles, rules, etc. are fallacious. For example, most of us will recognize that under certain circumstances it wouldn’t be fallacious for a movie producer to pay two participating actors differently due to one of them being significantly more famous than the other. This is because although we would normally accept the principle that everyone should be treated equally, nevertheless, there comes in to play an additional, overriding principle that states that when a particular set of conditions are met it’s okay to treat two people differently when there is a relevant difference between them.

Even more than that, sometimes exceptions to principles, rules, or whatever are logically necessary. For example, take the generalization that Everyone is older than someone else. For any set of people that consists of members who were born at different points in history, obviously there will have be at least one exception to this principle, namely, to the person who was born most recently. Thus, exclusions to principles are sometimes necessary.

Defining Rational Justification
This brings us to the question of what is meant by the phrase ‘rational justification’. By ‘rational justification’ we simply mean a relevant reason that violates no intellectual duty. What is an intellectual duty? The basic idea here is that we have certain intellectual obligations to fulfill, and so long as our beliefs are formed, maintained and based upon those obligations, then they are rational for us to hold. Some examples of those obligations would include things like proportioning the strength of our beliefs to the evidence, trying to obtain reasonable beliefs, believing that things are actually a certain way when they appear to be that way and when we have no good reason for believing otherwise, etc.

Further, notice that this definition of rational justification does not entail that one’s reason for creating an exception are always true. This is because one can fulfill one’s intellectual duties and yet still have their beliefs turn out to be false.

To illustrate the point, suppose that your teacher imposes a rule that Students must take the midterm exam on Friday. He then imposes an additional rule that Students who are sick on Friday may take the exam upon their recovery. Now let’s suppose that you call in absent on Friday and tell your teacher that you are sick with stomach flu after showing some of the symptoms that are consistent with having that virus. Later that day you then go to a doctor to seek treatment for your sickness and your doctor tells to you that you don’t actually have a stomach flu, but rather food poisoning.

In this case, even though your reason for excluding yourself from taking the test on Friday turned out to be false, you are nevertheless not guilty of special pleading by excluding yourself from taking the test because you still fulfill the criteria needed for creating an exception, namely, being sick. It would then only be special pleading by you if you attempted to do things such as prevent other students who are also sick from taking advantage of the additional rule or if you failed to be sick and yet still tried to exclude yourself from taking the test on Friday without fulfilling some other criteria adequate for creating an exception.

Finally, understanding the definition of the phrase ‘rational justification’ is crucial because we may be tempted to confuse the formal, philosophical definition we’ve been using with its casual definition; a definition which denotes the degree of intelligence or obviousness of one’s justification. Simply put, what needs to be understood here is that the meaning of words we use casually do not always correspond with their formal definitions.

For example, in a casual dialogue it’s common to use the word ‘argument’ as a synonym for a fight or quarrel. Properly understood, however, an argument is completely unrelated to those things, rather, in a formal context, an argument simply refers to a series of premises leading to a conclusion.

Or to give another example, it’s common to use the word ‘introverted’ to mean shy or withdrawn. In a formal context, however, introversion merely characterizes a particular way a person may be predisposed to expend their mental energy.

In sum, it’s important to grasp that this formal definition of rational justification is far more modest than how it is understood casually. Having rational justification, will of course, not guarantee that the justification given for an exception is actually true or will be accepted by others, but nevertheless, having it will be a necessary ingredient in order to avoid being charged as being inconsistent.


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