Special Pleading in the Time of Cholera


As we move through these strange times, one fallacy to keep a close eye on is a special pleading. The short version is that a special pleading is an argument that a particular case doesn’t follow a generally applicable rule. Arguments about exceptionalism, uniqueness, and justifications for deviations from rules almost always fall into this pattern. 

Sometimes special pleadings are just examples of magical thinking or mindless optimism (i.e., “This terrible thing affecting the whole economy won’t impact me because reasons,”) but they are often more deceptive. They can be used to justify failing to implement unpopular responses recommended by experts or to institute sweeping uses of state authority. More prosaically, they are often used to excuse personal mistakes or lapses in judgment and checking oneself against self-justification is a useful exercise. And as various political actors try to relax pandemic-related restrictions, we are likely to hear more of them. We already hear plenty of examples in healthcare policy, usually as ways to argue why universal healthcare is uniquely impossible in the United States, and it would unsurprising if we didn’t hear more regarding the pandemic. 

But here’s the thing: sometimes a special pleading is justified. There are situations where the general rule might not apply. But you need to interrogate very closely what the reason that justifies it would be. Many of the purported justifications for a break from a rule are really a distinction without a difference. Before you claim that some situation is unique, spend the time to figure out why it unique, and tease out the implications of that uniqueness.