Monday, July 14, 2014

Reductio ad absurdum

Reductio ad absurdum (Late Latin for “reduction to the absurd”) is disproof of a proposition by showing an absurdity to which it leads. It is a familiar form of logical argument.

A compelling example appears in the essay “Anatomy of the State,” by economist Murray Rothbard (pictured). Rothbard begins by stating that:

“... it is common to hear sentiments expressed which violate virtually every tenet of reason and common sense such as, ‘we are the government.’ ”

He shows an absurdity to which the proposition “we are the government” leads:

“[But if] ‘we are the government,’ then anything a government does to an individual is not only just and untyrannical but also ‘voluntary’ on the part of the individual concerned.”

He also gives examples, including:

“... if the government conscripts a man, or throws him into jail for dissident opinion, then he is ‘doing it to himself’ and, therefore, nothing untoward has occurred. Under this reasoning, any Jews murdered by the Nazi government were not murdered; instead, they must have ‘committed suicide,’ since they were the government (which was democratically chosen), and, therefore, anything the government did to them was voluntary on their part.”

He closes the paragraph with:

“One would not think it necessary to belabor this point, and yet the overwhelming bulk of the people hold this fallacy to a greater or lesser degree.”

The Takeaway: Reductio ad absurdum is a familiar (and usually very efficient) way to disprove a proposition.

See disclaimer.

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