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Accident fallacy

An illicit generalisation in which a general rule is applied or formulated even though an exception would be applicable in that specific case.

For example:

It is illegal to injure a human being.
Therefore, it is also illegal for a surgeon to perform an emergency operation.

Even though this general rule is certainly justified as a general principle, there are specific circumstances in which the general rule can (or even must) be abandoned. An “emergency operation”, i.e. a surgical intervention designed to save a person's life, is certainly an example of such an exception.


Alternative names

  • Riding on principles
  • Secundum quid (et simpliciter)
  • A dicto simpliciter (ad dictum secundum quid)

Note on the name

Don’t be misled by the term “accident”. In this context it has little to do with the modern meaning of e.g. a “road accident”, but rather it refers to a non-essential aspect of something. It is intended to describe the opposite of “substance”. This specific meaning is still more prevalently used in it’s adjective form “accidental”.

It is best to remember that the word “accident” comes from the Latin word “accĭdens ”, which could also be translated as “circumstance”. The “accident fallacy” is a fallacy of not taking into account all the circumstances to evaluate a situation.


As a general principle, following universally valid rules – be they statutes and laws, ethical and moral principles or simply technical best practices or design guidelines – is first and foremost a positive thing.

However, one should not forget that all these rules have certain scopes and prerequisites and thus also boundaries, outside of which they can no longer be applied in a meaningful way. In other words, there are exceptions under which those general rules no longer apply, or at least only with caveats.

Thus, certain legal regulations such as the state’s monopoly on the use of force or private property rights find their limits when it comes to emergencies or urgent situations.

A principle that the author learned in connection with layout and design, and which illustrates this very well, can be formulated as follows:

“First learn the rules,
 then learn when to break them.”

The term “accident fallacy” thus refers specifically to the application of, and possibly insistence on, a general rule in a situation where such a “rule-breaking” would be (at least arguably) appropriate.

Reverse accidental fallacy

Instead of ignoring possible exceptions to a rule, one can also just look at the exceptions and try to infer an illicit rule from them. For example:

Our Italian neighbours are noisy and rude.
Consequently, all Italians are like that.

This is, of course, an almost perfect example of a hasty generalisation.

Other examples

Pacifism vs. self-defence

A relevant example of such a dilemma is the question of whether pacifist principles are also applicable when one country is attacked by another - i.e. whether principles such as not supplying weapons to conflict zones, or pushing for a peace settlement at virtually any price, are still morally justifiable even if this denies a country the ability to defend itself against an aggression and possibly forces it to accept a peace settlement under which large areas, including the people living on them, have to be ceded to the aggressor.

At the very least, in such a situation, the question should be raised whether these principles are still applicable or whether the situation does not justify an exception.

Deontological or consequentialist ethics

On a more abstract level, such questions lead to one of the fundamental dilemmas of philosophical ethics, namely the question of whether actions should be judged primarily according to whether they conform to generally valid rules (deontological ethics) or on the basis of what consequences result from them (consequentialism).

Both approaches are compatible in many situations, but contradict each other in others. Furthermore, both approaches can lead to absurd, obviously “unethical” actions when strictly applied. The “ethically correct” applicability of both approaches in different situations is therefore a rich source of discussion within the context of moral philosophy.

A good illustration of this conflict is the imperative to not to tell lies, which is absolute from a deontological point of view. From this perspective, it is therefore morally correct to always tell the truth, under all circumstances, even if this leads to recognisably negative consequences (see, for example, Immanuel Kant’s essay “On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives”).

From a consequentialist perspective, on the other hand, it is recognized that there are specific conditions under which the general rule is no longer applicable, but an exception must be granted. A common example of such a situation is that a lie must be possible if it is used to hide someone fleeing an act of violence from their pursuers, thereby saving their life. This is how Benjamin Constant argued in his reply “Des réactions politiques” (1797), which prompted Kant’s reaction mentioned above.

Rule of loyalty of subordinates

In hierarchical organisations, such as the police and especially the military, but also in companies or bureaucracies, there are strict chains of command in which the superiors issue instructions or orders to their subordinates. The general rule that these orders must be obeyed already results from the organic structure of these organisations, which is based on the “loyalty” of subordinates to their superiors. In many cases there is even a legal duty to obey, but where such a duty does not exist, one usually has to expect serious personal consequences if one refuses or fails to carry out orders.

Nevertheless, there are of course exceptions: If such orders violate law and order, even in the most hierarchical organisation, the person receiving the orders has not only the right, but the duty to refuse them. This applies all the more when higher moral principles are involved. In other words, even if the army command orders the killing of civilians in a war, and even if this order would be “legal” according to the applicable law, this does not release individuals from their responsibility for the crime that is committed.

Nevertheless, the justification that one was “only following orders” is repeatedly put forward (and just as often dismissed) when such crimes are finally tried in court. For example, this was the line of defence of Adolf Eichmann, one of the main organisers of the Holocaust. Unsurprisingly, it was not a successful defence either (see also: Eichmann trial).

Crimes against humanity or war crimes are of course extreme examples – already on a much smaller scale there are at least moral obligations to breach rules of loyalty: If, for example, one has knowledge of relevant misconduct by superiors, e.g. corruption or nepotism, this should be brought to the attention of the appropriate authorities – or if this is unsuccessful, also to the public (whistleblower).

See also

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