What is Accident?

The fallacy of accident supposes that the freak features of an exceptional case are enough to justify rejection of a general rule. The features in question may be ‘accidental’, having no bearing on the matter under contention, and may easily be identified as an unusual and allowable exception.

We should reject the idea that it is just to repay what is owed. Supposing man lends you weapons, and then goes insane? Surely it cannot be just to put weapons into the hands of a madman?

(This fallacy, used by Plato, lies in not recognizing that the insanity is an ‘accident’, in that it is a freak circumstance unrelated to the central topic, and readily admitted to be a special case.)

 

Almost every generalization could be objected to on the grounds that one could think of ‘accidental’ cases it did not cover. Most of the general statements about the consequences which follow upon certain actions could be overturned on the grounds that they did not cover the case of a meteorite striking the perpetrator before the consequences had occurred. To maintain this would be to commit the fallacy of accident.

It is a fallacy to treat a general statement as if it were an unqualified universal, admitting no exceptions. To do so is to invest it with a significance and a rigour which it was never intended to bear. Most of our generalizations carry an implicit qualification that they apply, all other things being equal. If other things are not equal, such as the presence of insanity or a meteorite, the exceptions can be allowed without overturning the general claim.

 

‘You say you have never met this spy. Can you be sure he was never near you in a football crowd, for example?’

‘Well, no.’

‘When was this occasion, and what papers passed between you?1

(If I did meet him, it was an accident.)

 

Accident is a fallacy encountered by those in pursuit of uni-versal. If you are trying to establish watertight definitions of things like ‘truth’, justice’ and ‘meaning’, you must not be sur-prised if others spend as much energy trying to leak the odd accident through your seals.

Plato was searching for justice. John Stuart Mill, trying to justify liberty except where there is harm, or serious risk of harm, to others, found himself forever meeting objections which began, ‘But what about the case where . . . ? ‘ It is an occupational hazard. If you are to avoid accidents, avoid universal.

 

Promises should not always be kept. Suppose you were stranded on a desert island with an Austrian count who was running an international spy-ring. And suppose there was only enough food for one, and you promised him…

(The only amazing feature of these lurid stories is that anyone should suppose such freak cases to make the general rule any less acceptable.)

 

One of the famous examples of the fallacy is a schoolboy joke:

 

What you bought yesterday you eat today. You bought raw meat yesterday, so you eat raw meat today.

(With the generalization referring to the substance, regardless of its ‘accidental’ condition.)

 

The fallacy of accident is a good one for anarchists because it appears to overturn general rules. When it is claimed that you are breaking the rules, dig up the freakiest case your imagination will allow. If the rule does not apply in this case, why should it apply in yours? (‘We all agree that it would be right to burn down a tax office if this were the only way to release widows and orphans trapped in the cellar. So what I did was not inherently wrong…’)

The above article is from the book How To Win Every Argument by Madsen Pirie. The article is only for educational and informative purposes to explain and understand formal logic and logical fallacies. It is a great book, definitely worth a read!