Fallacies involve incorrect or invalid reasoning. Red herrings are a category of fallacy in which the response to an argument doesn’t address the argument, but rather offers a distraction from it. One class of red herrings consists of appeals to emotion, in which a given feeling is used as the evidence for or against a given proposition.
Argumentum Ad Misericordiam
“Would YOU like to be Queen for a day?”
The forerunner to today’s reality show epidemic, Queen for a Day, premiered as a radio show in 1945, only moving to television in 1956, and lasted until 1964. The format involved three different women talking about financial, health, or other emotionally gripping hard times they had recently experienced, and what they most needed to deal with it — medical care, therapeutic equipment, or a major appliance. An applause meter registered the level of sympathy, and the winner had her wish granted, along with other merchandise. (The runners-up also received prizes; no one went away empty handed.)
The appeal to pity (argumentum ad misericordiam) is a red herring fallacy because it doesn’t in itself prove or disprove the proposition at hand. The contestant with the worst problems or greatest need isn’t necessarily the one whose needs are greatest — the winner is the one most able to win the audience’s sympathy.
Pleading with the teacher for a better grade because an “F” means you can’t be on the football team doesn’t mean you deserve a better grade — but that’s not to say the appeal to pity isn’t effective, or that it’s automatically wrong to make or change a decision because of pity. As dustman-philosopher Alfred P. Doolittle so artfully argues in Pygmalion:
I ask you, what am I? I'm one of the undeserving poor: that's what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he's up agen middle class morality all the time. If there's anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: 'You're undeserving; so you can't have it.' But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I'm a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I'm playing straight with you. I ain't pretending to be deserving. I'm undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it; and that's the truth.He won’t win Queen for a Day, but it’s a fine argument nonetheless.
In the law, appeals to pity are not supposed to be made during the trial (though you can sneak it in if you can camouflage it as part of another argument), but they're completely appropriate during sentencing.