Reductio ad absurdum is a method of argumentation that involves refuting a proposition by demonstrating an absurd outcome if the proposition is assumed true.
This method it involves extending the implications of an argument to a stage of absurdity, thereby disproving the validity or common sense of the argument itself.
Applying the principles of reductio ad absurdum in an argument can help us realize the pitfalls in certain arguments, thereby enhancing our judgment.
Reductio ad Absurdum Examples
1. “All Opinions Are Equal”
Consider the proposition that all people’s opinions hold equal value. No one’s opinion is better or more valid than anyone else’s.
On the surface, this may sound like a nice, idealistic, democratic argument to make.
But then, we can follow it to its logical conclusion.
This premise suggests that a Grade 10 student’s understanding of climate change, based only on personal belief without any scientific research or study, holds as much merit as the years of evidence-based research of climate scientists.
Obviously, the expertise of a climate scientist should outweigh the opinion of a Grade 10 student.
Here, we can see that the initial proposition is absurd.
2. Free Speech Absolutism
Let’s entertain the thought that everyone should have absolute freedom of speech without any limitations. Could we use reductio ad absurdum to make this argument seem absurd?
If there was absolute free speech, then it would become perfectly legal for a person to falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded cinema. People would be free to defame others without fear, and say horrible hurtful things all the time.
The ensuing chaos and panic could have serious consequences, leading to an absurd and dangerous situation. Perhaps, this premise is absurd.
3. Universal Income
There is a concept called Universal Basic Income (UBI), where every citizen is guaranteed a basic income. Imagine, then, that someone argues that everyone should get $20,000 a month from the government.
Under such circumstances, the motivation to work would decline significantly, which could, in turn, cause a drop in productivity and collapse of the economy. Money would be printed so fast that inflation would rise and money would lose its value. $20,000 would be reduced to nothing – fast.
This is an absurd consequence proving the impracticality of the proposed system, thereby utilizing the reductio ad absurdum approach.
4. Elimination of Privacy
Someone argues: “In order to increase security, we should completely eradicate privacy and let authorities monitor everything we do If you’ve got nothing to hide, there’s nothing to be afraid of”.
Following this argument, imagine a scenario where even your most intimate conversations with friends and family are broadcast for scrutiny.
This blatant invasion of personal space results in an absurd and dystopian scenario, effectively disproving the original proposition that we’ll all be safer and better off.
8. No Educational Standards
Consider a premise that removing all standards in education would promote creativity. In this case, students wouldn’t need to meet any specific requirements or acquire basic knowledge.
Without any accountability, teachers wouldn’t have much of an incentive to teach or raise their standards. Children wouldn’t have upcoming exams to study for or milestones to meet. School likely would become far less rigorous and academic.
Furthermore, this scenario could lead to medical doctors without understanding of anatomy or engineers lacking fundamental knowledge of physics. The resultant absurd scenario invalidates the original premise using reductio ad absurdum.
9. Abolishing All Laws
Take into consideration the idea that all laws should be abolished to provide maximum freedom. This is an argument put forth by anarchists.
If we extrapolate that, it means that dangerous actions, like driving excessively fast in a school zone, would be legal. The result would be chaos, potential harm to individuals, and the breakdown of society—a clear absurdity that disproves the original proposition.
11. Unlimited Screen Time
I like this example because it’s a common debate topic in schools. Let’s assume that your debating opponent is arguing that unlimited screen time for children is beneficial.
If we follow this to its logical conclusion, children would spend all of their time staring at screens, neglecting other important activities like social interaction, study, and physical exercise.
The absurdity of this outcome effectively demonstrates the mistaken nature of the original proposition.
12. Zero Taxes
We’ve all heard the argument that taxes are theft – the government shouldn’t be allowed to tax us! It’s our money. Let’s take this claim to its absurd conclusion.
Assume for a moment that governments abolish all taxes. If this premise were true, it would lead to a lack of public services such as schools, hospitals, roads, or even basic infrastructure due to absent funding. The ensuing scenario of crippling public service unavailability demonstrates the absurdity behind the original premise, aiding in its rebuttal through reductio ad absurdum.
13. Ignorance Is Bliss
Assume for a second that being ignorant makes people happier. If your opponent is arguing this point, you surely could reduce it to the absurd.
If this were true, schools should stop educating children to make them happier, which is an absurd proposition. Education is vital for development and progress; hence, this absurd conclusion negates the initial premise.
14. 100% Employment
There are some people that argue that governments and corporations should get together and guarantee a job for everyone who wants one.
So, let’s assume that we aim to guarantee employment for every single person to tackle unemployment.
Theoretically, this implies that companies would have to hire even unqualified individuals for specialized jobs.
The absurdity of having unskilled individuals in crucial roles invalidates the initial proposition using reductio ad absurdum.
15. Total Elimination of Cars
There are some people who argue that we should just stop emitting carbon emissions immediately in order to halt and reverse human-induced climate change.
The more alarmed among us might suggest the total elimination of cars, immediately, to tackle climate change.
If enacted without any alternative plan, such an action could result in people having to travel long distances on foot, including for emergencies. Our economy will shut down overnight. People will stop turning up to work. It would be chaos!
Surely, a phased, planned, but still urgent strategy for improved efficiency standards and better public transport would be more proudent.
The absurdity of this situation serves to highlight the fallacy in the original proposition.
16. Dissolution of Private Property
Consider a claim that private property be dissolved entirely for the sake of equality. This is, of course, the proposition of communism.
This one is easy to be demonstrated as absurd.
If every possession were community-owned, it would mean that your personal belongings such as your phone, clothes, or even your toothbrush could be used by anyone.
This results in an unmanageable situation, thus discrediting the original proposition through reductio ad absurdum.
17. No Rules for Children
Consider a parenting style that allows children to do everything they desire without any rules. Some may argue that this maximizes children’s freedom and autonomy, which is surely good for them. Right?
Of course not.
Kids might choose to eat candy all day and never sleep. There would be no structure in their lives, no responsible adult keeping them safe or showing them the appropriate moral and ethical behaviors to live in a society.
The absurdity of this scenario and its negative health implications substantiate the refutation of the initial parenting strategy using reductio ad absurdum.
18. Unlimited Breaks at Work
Assume a workplace policy that allows employees to take unlimited breaks. This might be a great perk of the job to attract the best talent and maintain team morale, right?
While this may initially sound appealing, carrying this to the extreme, employees could spend their entire working hours on break, resulting in no work ever being done.
Such an absurd situation discounts the validity of the original idea. Sure, people would get unlimited breaks. But wouldn’t this decimate productivity and undermine the original goal of improving the workplace? Perhaps, a re-framing of this rule is necessary.
Reductio ad Absurdum vs Slippery Slope Fallacy
There is often a fine line between reductio ad absurdum and the slippery slope fallacy. These concepts, while sounding similar, are two different argumentative methods, and understanding their differences is pivotal.
- Reductio ad absurdum attempts to disprove a thesis by showing that its logical conclusion is absurd or contradictory. This technique requires no additional steps between the premise and the absurd conclusion; the conclusion is a direct result of the premise.
- Slippery slope fallacy, often seen as an informal fallacy, is an argument that suggests taking a minor action will lead to major and sometimes ludicrous consequences. This type of argument typically relies on fear and hypothetical scenarios, rather than logical cause-and-effect relationships, often involving multiple steps, not directly linked, between the initial action and the theorized outcome.
So, while both involve reaching an absurd conclusion, reductio ad absurdum does so from logical consequences of the premise, whilst the slippery slope fallacy jumps to extremes without a justified trajectory.
It is often debatable whether your reductio ad absurdum counterargument might fall into the slippery slope fallacy. In fact, you might find that some of my above examples encroach into slippery slope territory.
|Feature||Reductio ad Absurdum||Slippery Slope Fallacy|
|Definition||A form of argument where a proposition is disproven by following its implications logically to an absurd consequence.||An argument that suggests taking a minor action will lead to major and undesirable consequences, without providing evidence for the chain of events.|
|Usage||Used to demonstrate that a statement is false by showing that a false, untenable, or absurd result follows from its acceptance.||Used (often improperly) to argue against a course of action by suggesting it will lead to a series of negative outcomes.|
|Logical Structure||If P, then Q. Q is absurd, therefore P is false.||If A happens, then B will happen. If B happens, then C will happen, and so on… leading to some undesirable Z.|
|Validity||Can be a valid form of argument when used correctly.||Often fallacious because it doesn’t provide evidence for the inevitability of the claimed chain of events.|
|Examples||“Assume there is no gravity. If that were true, we would all float away, which is absurd. Therefore, gravity exists.”||“If we allow students to use calculators in elementary school, they’ll become dependent on them. By the time they reach high school, they won’t be able to do basic arithmetic without a machine.”|
|Strengths||Can be a powerful tool for disproving false statements.||Can be persuasive, especially in situations where the consequences are uncertain or fear-driven.|
|Weaknesses||Can be misused or misunderstood if the absurdity isn’t a direct result of the assumption.||Lacks evidence for the chain of events it predicts. Relies on fear and speculation rather than logical reasoning.|
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]