Appeal to Guilt




Also Known As: Guilt trip

An appeal to guilt is a fallacy in which a person substitutes something intended to create guilt for evidence. The form of the reasoning  is as follows:


Premise 1: G is presented, with the intent to create a feeling of guilt in person P.

Conclusion:  Therefore, claim C is true.


This is fallacious because a feeling of guilt is not evidence for a claim.  The emotion of guilt, like all emotions, is not itself fallacious. However, to accept a claim as true based on the “evidence” of feeling guilt would be an error.

This fallacy is often used to get a person to do something (to accept a claim that they should do something as being true) by trying to invoke a feeling of guilt. While it can be appropriate to feel guilt when one has done something wrong, the fact that a person has been caused to feel guilty does not show that the person should feel guilty.  The question of when a person should or should not feel guilt is a matter for ethics rather than logic, which takes it beyond the scope of this book.

There are cases in which claims that logically serve as evidence can also cause a feeling of guilt.  In these cases, the feeling of guilt is still not evidence. The following shows a situation in which a person should probably feel guilty but in which there is also evidence for the claim being made:


Jane: “You really should help Sally move.”

Hilda: “Moving is a drag. Besides, the game is on then.”

Jane: “Sally helped you move. In fact, she spent all day helping you because no one else would.”

Hilda: “Are you trying to guilt me into helping her?”

Jane: “Yeah, a bit. But you owe her. She helped you move, and you really should feel bad if you don’t lend her a hand.”

Hilda: “She’ll be fine. A lot of her friends are helping her out.”

Jane: “And they are helping her because she helped them. That is what friends do. If you value her friendship, then you should go with me.”

The above example is not fallacious. While Jane does hope Hilda will feel guilt and be motivated to help Sally, the fact that Sally helped Hilda does provide a reason why Hilda should help her. While it could be argued that helping people does not create a debt, this would be a matter for ethical debate rather than proof Jane has made a logical error.


Defense: While being incapable of feeling guilt would provide a perfect defense against this fallacy, the better option is to be on guard against attempts to misuse guilt to persuade you to accept claims. For people who have a conscience, care should be taken to not overcorrect. This is because, on some moral theories, there are occasions when guilt should be felt.


Example #1

Child: “I’m full.”

Parent: “You need to finish all your food. There are children starving in Africa.”

Child: “But broccoli is awful!”

Parent: “Those kids in Africa would love to have even a single piece of broccoli. Shame on you for not eating it.”

Child: “Okay, I’ll send them this broccoli!”

Parent: “No, you’ll eat it.”

Child: “But how does that help the starving kids?”

Parent: “Finish the broccoli!”


Example #2

Eric: “I need an iPad!”

Mother: “Don’t you already have one?”

Eric: “That was the old iPad. I need a new iPad.”

Mother: “You barely use the iPad you have now.”

Eric: “If you love me, you’ll get me one!”

Mother: “I don’t think you need a new one now.”

Eric: “How can you treat me like this? What sort of mother would let her son go to school without the latest iPad? You hate me!”

Mother: “Okay, I’ll get you one.”

Eric: “I need a new iPhone, too.”

Mother: “I just bought you one!”

Eric: “The new one is a different color. That changes everything.”

Mother: “Fine.”


Example #3

Bill: “You’re late. I planned dinner for when you were supposed to get home, so yours is cold now.”

Kelly: “I’m sorry. The meeting ran a little longer than I expected. But the boss had good news for me—I got a raise!”

Bill: “Oh sure, show up late for dinner and throw a raise in my face, now that I’m not working!”

Kelly: “I didn’t throw it in your face, I just…”

Bill: “You’re robbing me of my manhood!”

Kelly: “I’m sorry!”

Bill: “Well, you can make it up to me by buying me a motorcycle.”

Kelly: “Okay. I’m sorry about dinner and getting a raise.”

Bill: “That’s okay. You can use the raise to get me a really good motorcycle.”

Originally appeared on A Philosopher’s Blog Read More