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.
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.
- 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:
- 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
So this argument is actually two arguments which can be
No persons should kill other people.
∴ No persons should kill others in wartime.
Note two important things:
No persons should kill other people.
∴ No persons should kill garden weeds.
(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.
- 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.
The summary argument of this passage can be constructed as follows:
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.
All people agree that the gods exist.
∴ That the gods exist is a true innate idea.
- 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.”
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
- 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.”
… the fallacy of accident would occur since the
generalization is relevant to the times and circumstances in
which it was written.
- 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.
- 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.”
Insight into the limits of application of the generalization
is the key to understanding the denotation of the principle stated.
- 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.”
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.
- 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.”
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.
- Understanding the structure of the fallacy of accident
clarifies insight into the following cliché:
“It is the exception that proves the rule.”
- 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
Noting the contrast of an exception to a generalization
illustrates a limit of application to the scope of the
- Hence, both this proverb and the fallacy of accident are
concerned with how a particular instance is related to a
- 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.
- 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.
- The following quotation from the former British satirical
magazine Punch illustrates the difficulties of
providing typical particular cases reflecting a glittering
“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.”
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).
- 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.
- Empirical generalizations:
- 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
- Glittering Generality:
- Cliché: a trite or overworked expression. E.g.,
“No pain, no gain,” or “Go for it!”
- 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.”
- How to Distinguish Accident from Other Informal Fallacies:
- 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.
- So a fabricated example of the fallacy of accident would be:
Atypical particular instance:
- 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:
- 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
- So the following simple fabricated example of the fallacy
of accident begins with a generalized premise to
conclude with an atypical instance.
Atypical particular instance:
- And the corresponding converse accident reverses
the statement order: it begins with an atypical instance and
concludes with a generalization.
Premise: Atypical particular instance:
- 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
put quotation here---------------------