Dicto Simpliciter

written by Andrew Payne

posted by SES

There are several fallacies of oversimplification among the informal fallacies. One of these, dicto simpliciter, occurs when a general principle is applied to a special case without the needed qualification.¹ Like most fallacies, this fallacy goes by multiple names. Irving Copi, for example, gives it the more intuitive name of ‘accident’, defining it as consisting in the application of “a general rule to a particular case whose ‘accidental’ circumstances render the rule inapplicable.”² This name employs the rich metaphysical roots to this fallacy.

Though it is not our present aim to delve too deeply into the philosophical nature of things, we should pause to make clear what we mean by ‘accident’. What is not meant is that this fallacy was simply a mistake in judgement. All fallacies are ultimately mistakes; therefore, it would be odd for one alone to go by such a name. (That would be akin to finding the ‘fallacy’ fallacy.) In metaphysics, the term ‘accidental’ is contrasted with the term ‘essential’. For example, we could say that rationality is essential to humanity. By this it is meant that it is a property that cannot be lost without simultaneously losing the nature in which it inheres. This property is essential to humanity. By contrast, having two legs is not essential to humanity, and as such we can say that possessing two legs is accidental to human nature. A person who has lost a leg may be quantitatively less of a human, but he is no less qualitatively human.  

The fallacy can now be understood more clearly. The term ‘essential’ would be more usefully understood to speak of something universally true. What is universally true is very much not what is generally true. What is universally true is true in all cases at all times, irrespective of any accidental facts. In other words, there are no exceptions to universal truths. By definition, however, there are exceptions to general truths. Therefore, ignoring the difference between a general principle as a universal truth can result in crafting statements that are rendered false due to specific cases. Consider, for example, the general truth that winged-creatures fly. A person would be guilty of committing the fallacy of accident if he were to conclude from this fact that penguins, ostriches, or chickens could fly.  

The Latin name, dicto simpliciter, speaks of a ‘simple utterance’, or better, an unqualified saying. What might be misleading about this name is that the fallacy is not always a simple one. Often, as Copi points out, this fallacy shows up in instances of ethical discussions, wherein a simple principle is applied to all cases irrespective of a number of instances that require further qualification. Plato was often guilty of this when he (through the character of Socrates) demands a universal principle be found and applied to all cases. For example, in the Republic, a definition of justice is proposed that claims ‘justice is rendered in paying back what is due’ (Republic, 332a). Socrates proposes the following scenario. Suppose a person borrows a bunch of weapons from a friend who was sane at the time, but who subsequently went insane. Given the definition of justice that we must pay back what is owed, the question must be asked, is it just to return the weapons to their rightful owner, irrespective of what he might do with them in his insane state? In response, Copi wrote, “What is true ‘in general’ may not be true universally and without qualification, because circumstances alter cases.”³ To this he added that this fallacy “is often fallen into by moralists and legalists who try to decide specific and complicated issues by appealing mechanically to general rules.”⁴

In conclusion, as a fallacy of oversimplification, the dicto simpliciter fallacy is encountered most often in instances of hasty reasoning. Generalizations are not inherently false, but, if the proper qualifications are not taken into account, they can lead to false conclusions. To avoid this mistake, one must be wary of the nature of the generalization, and carefully take account of any possible exceptions to the rule.

  1. Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic, 3rd ed. (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), 86.
  2. Irving Copi, Introduction to Logic (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1968), 81. Vincent Smith defines it as follows: “This error consists in treating what is accidental to a subject as something essential to that subject.” Vincent Edward Smith, The Elements of Logic (Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1957), 265. As is usually the case with informal fallacies, the exact nature of the fallacy varies depending on the presenter.
  3. Copi, Logic, 81.
  4. Ibid., 82.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Southern Evangelical Seminary.

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