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Accidents Happen | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | February 19, 2006

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As did the hurricanes in New Orleans, the vice-president’s recent hunting mishap brings up the perplexing question of accidents in our lives. Though I do not intend to comment on the particulars of the incident in Texas, I do venture to say that few if any human lives are lived in which minor or major issues are not influenced by something that is properly called "accidental," that is, some actual result or event that occurred outside the intention of the persons involved in its incidence.

Chance or accident does happen in a finite and contingent world, the kind of world we live in. Without their possibility, we could not have the type of world we have. Properly speaking, a chance or accident has no "cause" that directly intended its particular result. This position does not deny a divine providence in which chance may also be an intrinsic element. This lack of a specific cause of the accidental result does not mean that no causes are involved.

We should not look on the fact of "chance" as, per se, a bad thing. Quite the opposite. We might win the lottery yet! And most marriages take place with the assistance of some "accident." One’s father never expected to meet one’s mother when he was driving down the road and chanced to help the distressed lady with the flat tire. Accidents, however, are real incidents in real lives, in real time, with real consequences. Once they happen, life goes on with them as part of its fabric and history.

If I lose a limb, for instance, because lightning struck a tree, broke off a branch which fell on my arm and smashed it, it is an accident. Neither the lightning nor the falling tree chose to do what it did, and I was passing by with no idea of what the lightning would do. Two actions or results, doing what they are supposed to do, crossed each other to produce a third unintended event, in this case, the effect on my arm. But I still lose the arm, every much as if a doctor amputated it with a saw and a knife because it was cancerous. I live in a world in which accidents happen, just as I live in a world in which my father accidentally met my mother and hence made me both possible and actual. Moreover, I also live in a world in which free choice can make certain events happen that are not "accidental," but specifically chosen.

An accident happens when two purposeful or natural events cross. I am driving down 30th Street going to the dentist. Meanwhile, Joe Smith is traveling the other way on 30th street going to work. Just as we passed, his steering mechanism breaks. He rams into the rear of my car. He does not intend the damage; I do not intend to be hit, but it happened.

We immediately examine whether anyone was "at fault." Maybe Smith was driving his car knowing something was wrong with the mechanism. Maybe he just had it checked but the shop did a shoddy job. Maybe he hit a hole in the road. We seek to find if the collision was a) really accidental, or b) if the result of fault or negligence. If we can honestly and totally eliminate human causality, the event was an accident as far as we can tell. We cannot "blame" anyone unless we can pinpoint some failure of responsibility. This position does not exclude us from falsely blaming someone, even for an accident, of course, but that is another problem

Intellectually, accidents, in fact, are mostly boring things. They only become interesting when a question of negligence or responsibility arises. Most people recognize that accidents happen. Whenever we see situations in which accidents are made blameworthy, we are in a dangerous philosophical environment. We seek to blame what is not blameworthy. We claim to control what cannot be controlled, at least by us. Only a totalitarian or utopian mind seeks to assign guilt to accidents.

Aristotle tells us that several things can reduce or eliminate our responsibility for what happens even at our own hands. We might be ignorant of the situation. We might be coerced or overcome by passion. These factors reduce or eradicate our responsibility, that is, our free will as a cause of this particular action or deed. The results of deeds done because of passion, coercion, or ignorance are either accidental or caused by another agent, as in the case of force. Everyone implicitly understands this situation.

But Aristotle also says that if we are in fact involved in a real accident in which we clearly are not at fault, we are still involved in the situation, albeit involuntarily. Aristotle says that we should be sorry for what happens even when we are accidentally involved. We should express our sorrow for the results, even if, by any objective standards, we could really have done nothing about it. The bottom line is that, unless some responsibility–itself located in free will–is legitimately assigned, no positive blame is attributable to someone.

But if we are not "responsible," why should we be sorry? Aristotle thinks that our lack of concern for the results of our morally un-blameable accident indicates a certain indifference to the results of the situation or even a certain willfulness on our part. It indicates that we were not really concerned with others. After all, many of the efforts we go through to learn properly how to drive, shoot, play, or work are meant to "prevent accidents." Why do signs tell us to "watch our step?" Obviously because something about this particular step might cause an accident. So we structure our world, within reasonable limits, to prevent what "might" happen to us or to others. We learn by experience what these places of danger are.

Take all the rules about buckling children in cars. What are they about? When I was a child, these laws did not exist. My father told us to shut up and sit still in the back seat. He did not buckle us in so we could not move. As a happy result, we were able to look out the window while riding in cars. Today few children see the side of the road till they are five, and this all in the name of safety, of preventing accidents. For every "Yes", there is a "No". Safety laws are efforts of the state to set up rules that help us to do what we want to do, drive safely and protect others. Whether all the rules work that way is another problem. Some people are killed when the air bag explodes in their faces and they cannot see where they are going. Accidents cause accidents.

But what I am concerned about here is a certain common sense about accidents. It is perfectly sensible to see if an accident was really involuntary in the proper sense of the word. But it is very dangerous when we begin to insist that every accident must be blamed on someone in the moral or legal sense. Behind such a mentality is the idea that everything has a human cause for its results. We begin to have a certain sense of omnipotence about our own powers.

Nothing, perhaps, is more poignant than the situation of people who are involuntarily involved in accidents. In retrospect, they think of many ways that they could have "avoided" the accident, say, by sleeping late, or by going some other direction, all of which were once indeed possible. One has a feeling that something is beyond his control, as indeed it is.

I have just had occasion with a class to reread the Oedipus trilogy of Sophocles. One of the problems with this story of Oedipus killing his father and marrying his own mother according to the oracle is that, as he often says in the plays, that Oedipus really did not know that he was doing these dire things. Yet, he certainly did the objective acts. He did murder a man who was his father in the belief that he was unjustly attacked by him. He did marry his mother, but did not know the truth about her. The situation is still "tragic" even if we recognize his moral innocence. This result is pretty much the situation with all "accidents" that have unwelcome results.

The main point that I want to make here is that accidents do happen both to good and bad people. The law at some level seeks to ferret out what is voluntary and what is not and to what degree. But once we have honestly eliminated any voluntary cause, the result of the accident still is there to be dealt with, both on a legal and on a human basis.

Most of our attention is devoted to actions for which we can assign praise or blame. In the case of a true accident, however, we cannot do this. Accidents bring out a more obscure aspect of the human condition, not that the fact of human misuse of free will is not itself a major issue in understanding why things are as they are. Clearly, nothing is wrong with seeking to minimize the occasions for accidents. We have done so in many areas. But we steadily find that the reduction of one group of accidents brings forth the possibility of another, often more dangerous set.

The problem of run-away horse and buggies was pretty much eliminated by the invention of the automobile. Automobile "accidents" cause about forty thousand deaths a year, the size of a small city. Were we to institute strict rules and regulations to eliminate such deaths, probably the whole economy would come to a standstill because of the stringency of the laws under which vehicles travel. If we all decided to go about on roller blades, the forty thousand would live. But many more broken legs would result and many a cargo would not be hauled, hence many more would starve.

So, as I say, we need to think about accidents. As in anything else, it is no neutral thing to think wrongly about what they are. In the course of a fifty-year period, there is almost no American family that is not different because of an automobile "accident" that happened to one of its members, and this does not even take into account the very prevalent household accidents, work accidents, play accidents, and the other kinds that happen to us on regular basis.

On a more transcendent level, are those who die by accidents any less in divine providence than those who die in their beds at ninety? Hardly. The pope’s encyclical on the need of personal, active charity, a need that cannot be exported to the state or outside agencies, the fact that we will always need this positive charity, points us in the right direction in our understanding of accidents. No human agencies can entirely eliminate this world’s ever-recurring accidents. This is why we have things like the Red Cross and first aid, which means that we can do something once accidents happen.

We need to understand what accidents are to know how to live when they happen to us, when we are involved in them. In some sense, accidental responsibility is more agonizing than moral culpability as no concrete blame can be assigned to indicate that it was someone else’s fault. The objective results are still there. Their very existence calls forth our concern, sympathy, and aid if we can give it.

The life that we lead in this world includes the effort to understand or make sense of all that might happen to us or to others. We need to understand crime, deliberately disordered acts, and negligence. We need to know what they are, what to do about them. But we need also to grasp accidents lest we confuse them with crimes and blame what is not to be blamed. Still, this is not to reduce them to nothing. They happen and must be dealt with, straight-forwardly, honorably, both in our souls when we realize that accidents are also a part of our reality and in our world when we must deal with the many, often dire, results of what is accidental, what is not really intended, but what happens none the less.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

Making Sense of Disasters | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Brighter Side of Hell | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Are We In the "Days of Chastisement"? | Sandra Miesel and Juanita Coulson
Author page for Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Read more of his essays on his website.

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