Give me more absurdum on that reductio!

The philosophical lexicon is an old and funny web resource, and one of the most famous entries on it is the rhetorical strategy of "outsmarting" a dialectical opponent:

outsmart, v. To embrace the conclusion of one's opponent's reductio ad absurdum argument. "They thought they had me, but I outsmarted them. I agreed that it was sometimes just to hang an innocent man."

It's in reference to J.J.C. Smart's famous concession that Utilitarianism does entail that consequence, and so it should be just to do so.  In my department, we regularly make reference to the move.  Your view about perceptual justification entails external world skepticism?  Embrace skepticism – you never really know anything!  This view about justice requires that some people can be made slaves?  Embrace slavery as just – of course there are natural slaves!  Congratulations, you just outsmarted your critics.

A new case of outsmarting was just sent along to me by a colleague.  It goes like this.  Suppose that an asteroid is heading toward earth, surely to destroy it.  Does libertarianism make room for the use of tax money to be used to destroy the asteroid and save the world?  Or would that be excessively paternalistic about how we want to meet our end?  Or would it be theft, nevertheless? The Onion did a spoof on how Republicans would reject the plan on the basis of how the government's actions would get in the way of a free enterprise solution.  That was parody, but Sasha Volokh, over at the Volokh Conspiracy, has a different sort of reason, but of the same spirit and leading to the same conclusion:

I don’t speak for all libertarians, but I think there’s a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress’s powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective. I think it’s O.K. to violate people’s rights (e.g. through taxation) if the result is that you protect people’s rights to some greater extent (e.g. through police, courts, the military). But it’s not obvious to me that the Earth being hit by an asteroid (or, say, someone being hit by lightning or a falling tree) violates anyone’s rights; if that’s so, then I’m not sure I can justify preventing it through taxation.

Crooked Timber's already made the Poe's Law observation about this (too bad, because Poe's my thing these days), but this does seem the sort of reduction to absurdity that should make the full-bore libertarian hesitate.  Even J.J. Smart has a moment "which makes [him] wonder whether after all [he] really is a utilitarian."  Volokh, too, notes that "this does make me uncomfortable."   Yeah, me too. 

9 thoughts on “Give me more absurdum on that reductio!”

  1. A reductio can be either inductive or deductive. The absurdity in the reductio is supposed to force someone to reject a view not because it leads to distasteful or odd consequences, but because it is irrational. No one can simply "bite the bullet" with respect to the deductive version because to do so would involve assenting to both P and ~P. The inductive version, too, must show that the acceptance of a proposition leads to irrational consequences, and that "biting the bullet" with respect to the absurdity is an irrational act that immediately disqualifies that individual from the dialog. So, Volokh's claims that a reductio "doesn’t work against someone who’s willing to be absurd," and that he (she?) " may be willing to bite the bullet on this one" doesn't work as defense against the reductio. Volokh has admitted defeat by simply being irrational.

    Hi Jem,
    A nice observation.  I'd passed over Volokh's line about 'biting the bullet' because I couldn't parse it.  You've made better sense than I did of it.  But now I wonder if there's another interpretation of what  'absurd' means there. Instead of 'accepting a contradiction', it could simply mean 'accepts something counter-intuitive.'  We'd call the claims that there are natural slaves and that we have no knowledge of the external world 'absurd', because we think they're manifestly false.  I wonder if, Volokh is using the term that way (saying: OK I'll agree to something that even I see as counter-intuitive), instead of simply acceding to having to accept a contradition.  Or maybe Volokh's a dialethist?

  3. Scott,
    I think you're right about the 'counter-intuitive' interpretation (because who's really a dialethist anyway?) . But, I think the force of the reductio is lost if that's an acceptable version. At the very least, I think the reductio has to demonstrate some sort of inconsistency or conflict in beliefs that appeals to a requirement of rationality beyond simply having two intuitions conflict — a type of pragmatic law of non-contradiction . Perhaps we shouldn't call this a reductio ad absurdum, but ad ridiculum (the Colbert technique).

  4. That seems right to distinguish formal absurdum arguments from the informal versions of ridiculum , but I'm inclined to say that ridiculum is only a tacit version of formal absurdum, in that when you say:
        P1: If that's true, then I'm a monkey's uncle,
    for ridiculum, you've, for the argument to work, suppressed:
         P2: I'm not a monkey's uncle.
    For the argument to have critical bite, ridiculum must be a suppressed absurdum. The same goes, for example, with Johnson's refutation of Berkely by kicking a stone. (If Berkely's right, then there's no stone here…. so, OW!)  
    So we're in agreement in a way, because (as you note) either reductio requires the demonstration of an inconsistency.  I guess the issue of interpreting ridiculum is how to see the force of that inconsistency.  You say 'pragmatic' non-contradiction, one leading from intuitions.  But if it's contradiction, isn't it, in the end, formal?  (Ad ridiculum is a mode of presentation for ad absurdum?)  Is it different if it's intuitions?

  5. Yeah, I'm not sure what a 'pragmatic' non-contradiction in this case would even be or why I said it, because I don't mean performative contradictions like Johnson's. I do think that there is a difference between conflicting intuitions and contradictory propositions, however.
    For example, Gettier cases rely on intuitions to reject JTB, but don't involve explicit contradictions. Instead, their force comes from cases where the JTB conditions appear to be formally satisfied and yet we would be loath to ascribe knowledge to the subject because it would be "counter-intuitive" to do so. This seems to be more like the issue with Volokh — it just seems wrong.
    So, I think that examples like this show that some kinds of reductio (butting up against intutions) are different from other kinds (formal contradictions). The absurdity of the former kind is proportionate to the level of entrenchment of the intuition, but if one doesn't share that intuition then one can deny the strength of the reductio (biting the bullet). However, it would still seem to be irrational to do so if one actually does share the intuition (the belief variety of Moore's Paradox).

  6. Well, I will concede that there is a difference between some cases where there is an explicit contradiction and cases where saying the conclusion feels uncomfortable.  One worry about leaving it this way with the latter is that we risk committing what's called the assertional fallacy — just because it sounds weird to say, that doesn't mean it's wrong. 
    That's why the Gettier cases have got to have the intuitions yielding explicit beliefs that Jones doesn't know.  That's formal reduction.  The same, I think, goes with Moore-cases, but I have to admit that Moore's paradox stands as a kind of prohibition against 'contradictions in thought,' which seems to me to be a formal prohibition, still.

  7. Oh, and the assertional fallacy is precisely the sort of thing Smart invokes when he bites the bullet with Utilitarianism's consequences — just because it's an uncomfortable consequence does not mean it's wrong.  These are tests of our moral integrity.

  8. Reading over the Smart essay, I can't help but think that Kant had it right, and that troubles me.

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