Special Pleading

Type: Informal Fallacy


Rule: Xs are generally Ys.
x is an X.
x is an exception to the rule because it is I (where I is an irrelevant characteristic).
Therefore, x is not a Y.


The law requires everyone to follow the speed limit and other traffic regulations, but in Suffolk County, exceptions should be made for cops and their families, police union officials say.

Police Benevolent Association president Jeff Frayler said Thursday it has been union policy to discourage Suffolk police officers from issuing tickets to fellow officers, regardless of where they work.

"Police officers have discretion whenever they stop anyone, but they should particularly extend that courtesy in the case of other police officers and their families," Frayler said in a brief telephone interview Thursday. "It is a professional courtesy."

Source: J. Jioni Palmer, "PBA: Don't ticket cops", Newsday, 2004. (This links to Google's cache of the article which appears to be no longer available from Newsday's site.)



Police officers occasionally have to shoot and kill suspects. So, family members of police officers should never be charged with murder if they shoot and kill someone. It's a professional courtesy.


Many rules—called "rules of thumb"—have exceptions for relevant cases. The fallacy of Special Pleading occurs when someone argues that a case is an exception to a rule based upon an irrelevant characteristic that does not define an exception.


People are most tempted to engage in special pleading when they are subject to a law or moral rule that they wish to evade. People often attempt to apply a "double standard", which makes an exception to the rule for themselves—or people like them—but applies it to others. They usually do not argue that they, or their group, should be exempt from the rule simply because of who they are; this would be such obvious special pleading that no one would be fooled. Instead, they invoke some characteristic that they have that sets them apart; however, if the characteristic is not a relevant exception to the rule, then they are engaged in special pleading.

Analysis of the Example:

The rule in this example is the speed limit, which has exceptions. For instance, it is legally permissible for on-duty police officers, driving their official vehicles, to break the speed limit in pursuit of criminals or to answer emergency calls. However, off-duty officers driving private cars have no more reason to break the speed limit than do other citizens. The mere fact of being a police officer is an irrelevant characteristic rather than an exception to the law. A fortiori, it is an irrelevant characteristic to be a family member of a police officer. So, it is a case of special pleading to argue that off-duty police officers and their families should not be ticketed in circumstances in which a civilian would be.


T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments (Third Edition) (Wadsworth, 1995), pp. 122-124.