Fallacy of ‘we are only human’

Sil asked:

What kind of fallacy is it when someone says ‘we are only human’?

Answer by Maria Blommestijn

If taken as a statement it is obviously true, if it refers to humans not being gods: also true, if it is rhetorical (it probably is), it means we are not perfect and not all our actions will be successfull: true again! You might have an issue with the word ‘only’? That could be seen as stating that creatures more perfect then humans, or that god/ gods actually do exist. And that is only wrong if you happen to be an atheist.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I sense that there is a fallacy, or potential fallacy here.

Let’s say, that you ask me to look after a precious vase while you are away on holiday. While cleaning my study, I carelessly knock the vase over and it smashes into little pieces on the floor. When you discover what has happened, you angrily remonstrate with me.

‘Why didn’t you take more care of my vase?!’

My laconic reply, ‘I’m only human. I occasionally knock things over!’

You have every right to be angry. But what did I say wrong, exactly? I spoke the truth. I am only human. I do occasionally knock things over. We all do. But this wasn’t my vase, it was your vase, so I should have taken special care.

The fact that I am human is true. But it is also irrelevant, with regard to your objection that I didn’t take sufficient care.

What I might have said is something along the following lines. I took exquisite care of your vase, but a bird flew in through the window and knocked it over. That’s a kind of rare event that one can hardly plan for. You couldn’t reasonably have expected me to keep the windows tight shut (in summer!) just in case a bird flew in.

The fallacy in question isn’t exactly a logical fallacy, more a fallacy of informal reasoning. The fact that ‘I am only human’ is a bad excuse for your vase having fallen over, whereas ‘a bird flew in’ is a good excuse.

We are assuming, of course, that in telling you that a bird flew in, I am speaking the truth. Otherwise my excuse would have the same status, in logic, as a valid argument from a false premise.


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