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Informal Fallacies:
The Fallacy of Accident

Abstract: The fallacy of accident occurs when an uncharacteristic specific instance are claimed to logically follow from a generalization which does not properly apply to that instance. The fallacy of accident arises from believing a general premise which has a qualified meaning applies to all intimated circumstances without restriction or qualification.

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  1. Fallacy of Accident: the logical mistake of inferring atypical specific examples from a general premise which does not apply to those instances. The fallacy results from concluding that the scope of a generalization refers to uncharacteristic or incongruous examples.

    1. Another way of viewing the fallacy is that the fallacy of accident results from using a general statement which has an implicit qualified meaning as if it were not so qualified. Consider the following overly simplified example:

      1. E.g., “‘Thou shalt not kill;’ therefore, you should not fight for your country or control weeds in your garden.”

        The premise is actually a generalization which refers to the unlawful or unjustified killing of human beings, and this meaning is misconstrued in the conclusion to refer to different specific examples than those denoted in the premise.

        So this argument is actually two arguments which can be translated as:

        No persons should kill other people.

        No persons should kill others in wartime.

        No persons should kill other people.

        No persons should kill garden weeds.
        Note two important things:

        (1) The grammatical form of the premise appears to be particular, but in context it is intended to be a general statement: “No persons should not kill other persons.” So, some statements which appear to be particular are intended to be understood as general.

        (2) The grammatical form of the conclusion is a general statement but it is intended to be interpreted as a particular statement. The conclusion is considered “particular” relative to the more general premise because it refers to a smaller category of things.

        So, it's important to notice that the atypical instance in the conclusion can be, and often is, a generalization about individuals with smaller or less scope.

      2. Note also in the fallacy of accident a general premise proceeds to a particular conclusion where the particular conclusion is as an instance, example, or case in point of the premise. If the conclusion is not indicated to be an instance, then it is most likely some other fallacy.

        The following argument from the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca proceeds from a general premise to a specific conclusion but is the argument is not a fallacy of accident:
        “People are wont to concede much to the things which all men take for granted; in our eyes that fact that all men agree upon something is a proof of its truth. For instance, we infer that the gods exist, for this reason among others — that there is implanted in everyone an idea concerning deity. …” Seneca Ep. 17.6 (trans. Penn)
        The summary argument of this passage can be constructed as follows:

        All people agree that the gods exist.

        ∴ That the gods exist is a true innate idea.
        The conclusion of this argument is not an instance subsumed by the generalization as in the accident fallacy; instead, the informal fallacy is ad populum: simply because most people believe something, it does not logically follow that belief is thereby true.

      3. Even though people are said to be created equal in human worth from a moral and political point of view, it does not follow that they are created equal in other pursuits. Consider this example:
        “I am aware that it is quite a popular American notion that we are all born free and equal. … Men are not born free. They are born bound and limited by a thousand conditions. They are not born equal. … [T]here are not only these differences of natural ability with which we start in life, but there is the difference which comes from the development of these faculties, the acquired training.”[1]
        The fallacy of accident in this example is the mistake of confusing the implicit meaning of equal rights and opportunities of all individuals in the general premise with equal abilities and equality of outcomes of individuals in the particular conclusion.

        The passage is also an example of quoting out of context as the clause “all men are created equal” is taken from the second paragraph of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, a clause followed by series of phrases listing the senses of equality meant.[2]

      4. Some general statements have an implicit qualification of the time, place, or circumstance in which they are expressed. If the following seventeenth century advice from John Locke were to be given to today's student …
        “[N]o man can pass for a scholar that is ignorant of the Greek tongue.”[3]
        … the fallacy of accident would occur since the generalization is relevant to the times and circumstances in which it was written.

    2. The fallacy of accident arises from believing a general premise which has a qualified meaning applies to other circumstances without appropriate restriction. The practice of law is especially dependent upon understanding the subordination of diverse instances to legal principles.

      1. James Parsons, a 19th century law professor, explains:
        “It is the acquaintance with the precise limit of a rule, and an apprehension of the shadow-lines of demarcation that distinguishes the trained lawyer from the layman or unpractised thinker.”[4]
        Insight into the limits of application of the generalization is the key to understanding the denotation of the principle stated.

      2. Consider, for example, the rule that “all co-contractors must be joined in law suits involving a joint contract”:
        “[E]xceptions include … nominal or dormant partners, and infants or married women.”[5]
        Even though these exceptive individuals might have agreed to a contract, the court would find the contract nonbinding since a legal “disability to contract is an incident of their condition.” Consequently, understanding the limits of application of a legal principle is crucial in avoiding the fallacy of accident.

      3. In the following example, religious rules are used outside of their context of application:
        “The Ten Commandments prohibit theft and envy, the pillars of socialism — using political power to seize and redistribute private property — which the highly politicized left-wing crowd so loves.”[6]
        To imply that social organizations who advocate the means of production, distribution, and exchange be owned or regulated by the community as a whole are a result of thievery and enviousness is a result of the use of persuasive definition.

    3. Understanding the structure of the fallacy of accident clarifies insight into the following cliché:
      “It is the exception that proves the rule.”
      1. This statement means: “When exceptions are stated in a passage, there must exist a generalization which excludes them.” For example, Rousseau writes:
        ”To give alms is the action of a man, who may be supposed to know the value of what he bestows, and the want his fellow-creature has of it: a child, who knows nothing of either, can have no merit in giving alms.”[7]
        Noting the contrast of an exception to a generalization illustrates a limit of application to the scope of the generalization.

      2. Hence, both this proverb and the fallacy of accident are concerned with how a particular instance is related to a generalization.

    4. The generalization used in the premise of an accident fallacy is sometimes “a glittering generality”: a vague, vacuous, and often emotively significant universal statement whose open texture has such an uncertain sphere of application that any or some specific instances are either contradictions or of some indefinite reference.

      1. Consider the following statement:
        “The U.S. is a democratic society; therefore, every person is represented equally and minority rights are guaranteed for all citizens.”
        Note how a tyranny of the majority in a democracy can be inconsistent with the rights of a minority. Consequently, without some qualification, both entitlements cannot be representative of the stated political generalization.

      2. The following quotation from the former British satirical magazine Punch illustrates the difficulties of providing typical particular cases reflecting a glittering generality:
        “Always be ready with the glittering generality of some smart saying apropos of the subject under discussion: but discretely withdraw if you see some one is going to ask you what you mean. The epigram that that will bear analyzing is yet to be made.”[8]
        Often, glittering generalities are sweeping, vague, sentimental, high-sounding statements whose truth-value is indeterminate. When evaluated by themselves, they are not fallacies since they are not arguments. However, glittering generalities can become part of the either the fallacy of accident or the fallacy of converse accident (including the fallacy of hasty generalization).

  2. The informal structure of accident is often as follows:

    General statement or rule p is true in circumstances x.
    More particular statement or rule is true in circumstances y.

    The rule or general statement in the fallacy of accident can be of several different kinds.

    1. Empirical generalizations:

    2. Presuppositions:

    3. Moral principles or Maxims: You should never criticize another person's sincere beliefs, even when false, when those beliefs faithfully console a suffering friend.

      Therefore, on these occasions, it's best to lie to reduce a friend's suffering.

    4. Glittering Generality:

    5. Cliché: a trite or overworked expression. E.g., “No pain, no gain,” or “Go for it!”

    6. Aphorism: a concise statement of a truth, a maxim, or an adage. E.g., “Honesty is the best policy,” or “A new broom sweeps clean.”

    7. Adage:

    8. Proverb:

  3. How to Distinguish Accident from Other Informal Fallacies:

    1. Fallacy of Division: can come about when reasoning about statements describing the characteristics of parts and wholes of a group, assemblage, set, or thing.

      But as we have seen with the fallacy of accident a generalization is mistakenly claimed to imply atypical particular instances — not a relationship between a whole and its parts.

      In the fallacy of division a statement relating a thing with certain characteristics is mistakenly claimed to imply that its parts have the same characteristic as the whole.

      1. So a fabricated example of the fallacy of accident would be:

        Atypical particular instance:


      2. And in the corresponding fallacy of division a premise describing the characteristics of a whole mistakenly is claimed to imply the characteristics of its parts are the same.


        Atypical particular instance:

    2. Converse Accident, Hasty Generalization, Glittering Generality: In converse accident atypical instances are mistakenly claimed to inductively lead to a generalization. Hence, the argument proceeds from particular to general,


      in the fallacy of accident the argument proceeds from particular to general.
      1. So the following simple fabricated example of the fallacy of accident begins with a generalized premise to conclude with an atypical instance.

        Premise: Generalization:

        Atypical particular instance:

      2. And the corresponding converse accident reverses the statement order: it begins with an atypical instance and concludes with a generalization.

        Premise: Atypical particular instance:

        Conclusion: Generalization:

    3. Fallacy of Equivocation: is the fallacy whereby a word is used in different senses in a premise and a conclusion. A similar ambiguity can also be what makes the distinguishing characteristic abberant between a generalization and its atypical instance in the fallacy of accident.


    put quotation here---------------------


    1. Minot J. Savage, Social Problems (Boston: Geo. H. Ellis, 1886), 129.

    2. See, for example, Pauline Maier, “The Strange History of ‘All Men Are Created Equal’Washington and Lee Law Review 56 no. 3 (June, 1999), 873-888.

    3. John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education vol. I of Library of Education (Boston: Gray & Bowen, 1830), 236.

    4. James Parson, A Series of Essays on Legal Topics (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh, 1876), 32.

    5. Parson, “Legal Topics,” 33.

    6. Star Parker, “Liberal Fascists Ambush Chelsea Clinton,” Index-Journal 101 no. 5 (March 23, 2019), 9A. Also available here: “Liberal Fascists Ambush Chelsea Clinton,” Creator's Syndicate, Inc.

    7. Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emilius and Sophia: or, A New System of Education (London: H. Baldwin, 1783), 163.


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