I’ve recently been thinking about JL Austin’s donkey. It’s a philosophical scenario that reveals the distinction between an action done by mistake and one done by accident. All too often, we’re careless in our speech. It’s easy to conflate mistakes and accidents especially in those anxious and fearful moments when responsibility is falling upon you, and you need to say something to avoid the responsibility or at the very least to mitigate the blame associated with that responsibility. When our emotional walls rise in a panic, we tend to opt for the kitchen sink approach. Our torrent of words subordinate meaning to immediate psychic relief, and we lose control of language and surrender the only real possible path to peace—communication. The link between responsibility and communication has kept me meditating on the useful distinction between mistakes and accidents.
A little context on Austin’s donkey is in order. JL Austin was an early 20th century British philosopher. His work touched on many of the basic questions facing philosophy: truth, perception, and freedom. (Read more at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Importantly, he’s an early practitioner of the “ordinary language” approach to philosophy. (You can ask the internet to take you down a long dark road of debates about the merits and demerits of this approach if that’s your thing.) As for me, in a practical way, I’m on board. The basic idea of ordinary language philosophy is that words’ meanings come from the context of their use. There are two immediate consequences of this approach: (1) There’s no final, proper, or true meaning to a word; its meanings are always a product of its use, and these uses evolve. (2) Philosophical best practices require one to begin philosophical inquiry with what people actually say when they attempt to communicate with others. This rejects the philosopher’s favorite definitional game in which one defines a term precisely in order to avoid the messiness that is the human condition. With an airtight definition, the philosopher feels insulated from all potential objections that arise from the world we actually live in.
So that’s Austin. Now for his donkey. There’s a peculiar way that things from your past loom large in your mind. I once went back to my grade school many years after I’d graduated, and I was thrown by how small everything was. The wide halls of my memory were skinny; my elbows brushed against the brick walls every time my arms were not flat against my side. It turns out Austin’s donkey is another version of this for me. It’s been a decade since I first encountered Austin’s donkey. The fog of graduate school had mostly obscured it, so I relied on my poor memory to relocate it. Was it Cavell’s donkey? No, same idea, wrong generation. That’s right: it was Austin’s donkey. The story framed his piece on excuses. Yes but no. It is in his famous essay, “A Plea for Excuses,” but it’s nothing close to central. Actually, it’s just a footnote! Elbows against the wall. So here’s the footnote in all of its glory:
You have a donkey, so have I, and they graze in the same field. The day comes when I conceive a dislike for mine. I go to shoot it, draw a bead on it, fire: the brute falls in its tracks. I inspect the victim, and find to my horror that it is your donkey. I appear on your doorstep with the remains and say—what? “I say, old sport, I'm awfully sorry, etc, I've shot your donkey by accident”? Or “by mistake”? Then again, I go to shoot my donkey as before, draw a bead on it, fire—but as I do so, the beasts move, and to my horror yours falls. Again the scene on the doorstep—what do I say? “By mistake”? Or “by accident”?
There’s so much to love here. For starters, the very British “I say, old sport.” Second, the ludicrous scenario—why are we shooting donkeys at all? What does it mean to “conceive a dislike” for that poor, stubborn animal that might justify its execution?
So, to the point: Mistakes vs. Accidents. Importantly, Austin notes that neither of these terms necessarily seeks to totally evade responsibility; they are, rather, pleas to understand why the responsibility has fallen as it has. They’re not so much evasions of justice; they’re pleas for mercy.
To make a mistake is to admit that you’ve made an error. Think of it literally: you took something wrong. Here, I mis-took your donkey for mine. In confessing my mistake, I imply that everything I did after my mistake should not be attributed to my malice. That is, while culpable for the consequences of the actions, I should not be morally blamed for the action because in a critical way I never intended to do what it is that I actually did. Yes, I meant to shoot a donkey, but I certainly didn’t mean to shoot your donkey. The divergence between my intentions and the consequences came when I mistook your donkey for mine.
An accident is different even though the results might be the same. If this was an accident, I want you to know that my intentions and the consequences never aligned. A mistake is something wrong in one’s own perception or thinking. I see, hear, or interpret the situation incorrectly. An accident belongs to fortune—something beyond my control befell me. I saw the situation correctly, but after I took an intentional action something intervened and produced different, unforeseen consequences. (I would say bad consequences, but certainly our lives are equally marked by happy accidents as well). Here, my donkey suddenly takes a step to the left; the bullet wizzes by its ear and strikes your donkey instead. No mistakes were made. Every action operates on a probability, a certain amount of uncertainty, and unfortunately, this time the uncertain became the reality.
It matters if I did something intentionally or not. It also matters when the unintentional consequences of my actions happened by mistake or by accident. The lesson learned should be different. When I’ve made a mistake, then I know I saw things incorrectly. Assuming responsibility for a mistake requires me to understand not only what I missed, but also why I did. Two considerations should be part of your judgment of me. First, do I take responsibility for the consequences of my mistake? That matters because no matter my intentions, my actions have loosed suffering in this world. Anyone who hopes that confessing to a mistake absolves them of responsibility thinks like a child. The second consideration in judging me is to look at what steps I take to avoid the same type of mis-take in the future. This is critical to relationships, as every action is based on how we interpret the situation; it’s only right that we work at interpreting them better.
To judge me in the case of an accident is a little different. Again, I should take responsibility for the consequences of the accident. But when an accident has befallen me, I should be able to acknowledge the risk in my behavior. I must own the consequences because of my carelessness. Indeed, I might have taken many precautions before acting, but now that things are done, I must acknowledge that I acted without altogether eliminating risk—because you can’t if you’re ever to act at all! It was unfortunate that the risk, however miniscule, turned out to determine this situation. I should be judged by whether I own the risk I’d found to be acceptable and whether I adopt practices that are more sensitive to risk and more conscientious about the harm it might bring.
Turning over the distinction between mistakes and accidents in the last few days, I can’t help but think about how risk-averse I am. If a situation goes sideways on me, it’s rarely an accident. Usually I’ve made a mistake along the way. My intentions are often good, but at some point I saw things incorrectly; I acted on assumptions that were off. It follows that many of my failures are failures of understanding and not carelessness. Then again, writing that last sentence makes me suspect that I might be using “mistakes” as an excuse to avoid the many ways I fail to put in the proper care before acting.