A Whackadoodle logic lesson, in which I explain why reductio ad absurdum is not a logical fallacy, despite the many websites that claim it is; including a slightly R-rated example of how reducing an argument through ridicule actually works.
“Okay,” she nodded. “But I still get confused, is reductio ad absurdum a logical fallacy or not?”
“Reductio ad absurdum is not a logical fallacy,” I told her for the umpteenth time. “Reductio ad absurdum is a legitimate form of argument that attempts to establish a claim by showing that the opposite scenario would lead to absurdity or contradiction.”
“Yes, logic states that something can’t be both true and false at the same time; with reductio ad absurdum, I try to prove that your argument is false by arguing for it, thereby showing how ridiculous your argument is.
“I still don’t get it.”
“Okay,” I sighed. “Consider one of the most famous examples of reductio ad absurdum: Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, in which he argues that the English government is correct in ignoring the poverty in Ireland because the Irish already have everything they need to feed themselves. They don’t need land to grow food; they simply need to eat their own children. He even suggests that the perfect age for export is one year of age; they’d be plump, soft, and tender; having been fed only on their mother’s milk. Sort of like veal.”
“Gross,” she narrowed her eyes.
“Gross, memorable, and ridiculous,” I agreed. “But not so ridiculous when you consider that poverty in Ireland was extreme at that time. People were struggling to eat. They couldn’t feed their children, and the British land laws were not doing anything to help. According to some, those laws were doing a lot to hurt.”
“So did his argument make a difference?”
“Frankly, I am not sure. I think maybe it did. I do know that scholars have been studying his argument, and writing books about it since he wrote it in 1729.”
“That long ago?”
“Yes, that long ago.”
She took her own long moment before asking her next question. “So how is reductio ad absurdum different from ad absurdum, or ad hominem? Why are they fallacies when the reductio one isn’t?”
“Ad hominem actually means at the human. It’s just making fun of, or putting down, the person who is making the argument. It’s name calling. It’s deflecting. Just because someone looks a certain way, or talks a certain way, or believes a certain way does not logically mean that their argument is wrong. In a similar way, ad absurdum ridicules the argument, but without proving it’s opposite. You are just making fun of something, but you are not moving forward your argument. Both are therefore considered fallacies.”
“Because they both don’t advance your argument; they just create more confusion?” she asked hesitantly.
“Right,” I nodded. “Now, in reductio ad absurdum you actually prove your argument by making it’s opposite seem ridiculous, or contradictory.”
“Because something can’t be both true and false at the same time?” she managed.
“And it’s not a fallacy because you are actually proving your argument, not just making fun of theirs?”
“Hum,” she placed her chin on her fists. “So how does reductio ad absurdum actually work?”
“Usually with a lot of humor,” I smiled at last. “And it usually only works on people inclined to believe your argument in the first place. Humor gone wrong pisses people off. Humor used well can go viral. I just wish people would go after the argument instead of the people.”
“What do you mean?”
“Make fun of the argument, not the people.”
“You mean, like, go after the lie, not the liar?”
“Pretty much.” I could see that she still wasn’t quite sure, so I added. “You wanna try one? Might be fun.”
“Sure,” she sounded distracted.
“Okay,” I thought for a moment. “Let’s say that I am speaking to someone who is against mask mandates. If I was to use ad absurdum or ad hominem, I might just call them and their arguments ignorant and selfish. I might even point out how stupid they look without their mask, and how much better they would look wearing one. Can you guess where that kind of argument might lead?”
“It sure wouldn’t lead to agreement,” she conceded.
“So now let’s try using reductio ad absurdum,” I suggested. “In that case, I might say, ‘I don’t know why people are so upset about mandates. We all live under mandates all the time, and people barely notice. I mean, women are mandated by state decency laws to keep their boobies under wraps at all times, and you don’t hear me complaining. Plus, I don’t think my boobies can make you sick, but I am pretty sure that my germs can.’”
“I can’t believe that you just used that word,” she laughed.
“Boobies is a fun word, and guaranteed to gain attention. The important thing is, do you understand where my reductio ad absurdum argument might lead?”
She considered for a moment, “Laughter, probably embarrassed laughter. Followed by,” she paused. “A discussion about what mandates really are.”
“And what are mandates?”
“Nothing more than laws,” she said amazed. “And we live under laws all the time.”
“Laws are what hold this country together,” I agreed. “The point is, I would be focused on refuting the argument, not insulting the person. Reductio ad absurdum is what makes political satire so cutting and popular. It’s probably also be why so many people prefer getting their news from the comedy channel.”
“But,” she added, cocking her head. “I am not sure that your argument was reductio ad absurdum. Isn’t reductio ad absurdum arguing for something until that argument seems ridiculous. You weren’t arguing for mandates, you were just pointing out that mandates are nothing more than laws.”
“You’re right,” I had to acknowledge. “If I were to use reductio ad absurdum, my argument would have been more like, ‘Mandates remove my freedoms, and I want the same freedoms as that guy has; the guy who came on the bus the other day with no shirt, no bra, and his butt crack hanging out of his shorts. I mean, it’s really, really hot, and these mandates are destroying my health. I can’t breath, and I don’t know why he is allowed to take his shirt off and expose his tits, while I am not.’” We sat with my argument for a moment until I finally asked, “Scary isn’t it?”
“That someone might not see that I am ridiculing their argument, and simply pass a law that men can no longer ride public transports without shirts, while masks are still optional.”
“I think I get it,” she nodded thoughtfully. “But how would something like reductio ad absurdum work with abortion rights? I mean how can you ridicule an argument that says we need to care about the life of every child, even those that are not yet born?”
“Very carefully,” I said, very carefully. “Some things should not be ridiculed. However, it could be done by comparing apples to oranges, bad to worst, or felines to females.”
“Okay, now you lost me.”
“Have I mentioned that my nine month old cat is scheduled for an abortion in two weeks?”
“No,” she said irritably.
“I am just so glad that my feline has abortion rights in my state. I mean she was the victim of rape and incest. She is less than a year old, which I am pretty sure is statutory rape considering that she was too young to give consent, and she’s already given birth to three kittens. Kittens that I am pretty sure are the product of her brother, who also has a doctor’s appointment in two weeks. I mean, who knew that a cat can get pregnant when they are only three months old, and pregnant again less than three months after giving birth. Both cats were just dumped in my yard, and I decided to feed them; which I suppose is the feline equivalent of adoption. I mean, I love them, and I agree that all lives are precious. Not just human lives, but all lives are precious, but I sure can’t afford her kittens giving me grandchildren, and then great grandchildren, every three months. Consider the doctor bills alone! That is why her kittens also have a doctor’s appointment in two weeks. I mean at some point, we have to consider quality of life, and not just quantity of embryos.”
“Are you really equating cat rights with women’s rights?”
“Ridiculous, isn’t it? That my cats have more rights in some states than I do.”
“Yes, it’s ridiculous,” she threw her hand up in the air. “But how was that reductio ad absurdum? Isn’t reductio ad absurdum arguing for something until that argument seems ridiculous. You were just being thankful for your cat’s rights, but you were not arguing that we need to care about the life of every child, even those that are not yet born.”
“Okay, you’re right again. My cat story was more an ad absurdum argument because I just made a ridiculous argument without making the original premise appear ridiculous. So how would you make a reductio ad absurdum argument? How would you argue that an unborn child’s rights supersedes its mother’s rights until the argument seemed ridiculous?”
“I’d be terrified to even try.”
“Start by saying you agree with it.”
“That I agree that an unborn child has the same rights as a woman?”
“Yes, then follow it to its logical conclusion.”
She thought long and hard before she answered, “I think that some arguments should not be won by ridicule, and there are better ways to argue the point.”
“Oh, come on, give it a try,” I encouraged. “You could start by saying that at the moment of conception an embryo has the same rights as it’s mother. In fact, we need to outlaw those nasty contraception tools that don’t let the embryo embed itself in the womb. That’s like abandoning a child, and maybe, just to be on the safe side, we should create a new law that…”
“Create a new mandate you mean,” she interrupted, smiling.
“Good, we should create a new mandate,” I continued, “that requires women to register each and every one of their sex acts with the government, so that they can go on a special watch list, where we can protect all embryos and prevent people from inadvertently committing child abuse.”
“Let’s not stop there,” she added. “How about a mandate that requires men register every time they have sex, so that they don’t inadvertently abandon the kid.”
“Sounds good to me,” I smiled back. “Now how do we ensure compliance with our new mandates?”
“We offer people rewards for turning each other in whenever they don’t register a sex act with the government,” she sounded excited. “And we send out undercover agents to catch people in the act.”
“Sounds like a wonderful and lucrative career.”
“Maybe we could even insert body-cams into people, so that we can monitor them online at all times.”
“I predict a lot of new jobs being created by our mandates,” I teased. “Good paying, government jobs.”
“You know,” she said, after laughing at my joke. “I’m seeing a really weird science fiction movie originating from this reductio ad absurdum argument.”
“So am I,” I admitted, thinking about how pornographic, and therefore popular, it might be. I shook my head to clear it. “But I am not gonna be the one to write it. I think we’ve already made our point.”
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