A common fallacious response to a reductio ad absurdum

A common fallacious response to a reductio ad absurdum
Octopus
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Posted Feb 6, 2014 - 4:58 PM:
Subject: A common fallacious response to a reductio ad absurdum
Having fallen foul of the misunderstanding I will describe below one too many times, and seen many others fall foul of it also, I have decided to attempt an exposition on this misunderstanding that I can perhaps direct people to in the future, if need be.


I am looking for comments and criticisms on this exposition.



This post will contain the exposition, and the next post will address some responses that people have made when I have attempted to explain this error in the past.

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A common fallacious response to a reductio ad absurdum


This is an exposition on a common misunderstanding/mistake that some people make when others perform a reductio ad absurdum (or 'reduction to absurdity') on their reasoning. The exchanges in which it occurs will generally run along the following lines:


1. An arguer attempts to support a contention with a specific argument or piece of reasoning.


2. A rebutter attempts to demonstrate that the given argument/reasoning is flawed/problematic/incorrect, by pointing out that it would also hold for an alternative contention that is flawed/problematic/incorrect. That is, the rebutter performs a reduction to absurdity on the arguer's reasoning.


So far so good. But then what happens next is:


3. The rebutter is accused of “comparing” or “equating” the subject of the original contention with the subject of the alternative contention. This accusation meaning something along the lines of: 'you are suggesting that they are generally similar, or morally equivalent'.




First example


One of the reasons why this misunderstanding happens is that the real-life exchanges in which it occurs tend to be emotive, and this can cloud matters for some. So as a first example to clearly illustrate this error, consider this unemotive hypothetical exchange:


Eg1.
1. Arguer: Gandhi was an Indian because he had a six-letter surname. Only Indians have six-letter surnames.
2. Rebutter: But Hitler had a six-letter surname and he wasn't Indian he was Austrian. Therefore your reasoning is incorrect.
3. Arguer: Right, so you are comparing Gandhi to Hitler. Hitler was a mass murderer who committed atrocities such as the Holocaust, whereas Gandhi was a pacifist and a symbol of peace. Gandhi and Hitler are not comparable.


In this example it is very easy to see that the arguer is in error in step 3. To be more precise, by taking the arguer's argument, which boils down to:
- Only Indians have six-letter surnames.
- Gandhi had a six-letter surname.
- Therefore Gandhi was Indian.


and substituting Hitler for Gandhi in it, the ONLY similarity the rebutter is stating or implying that Gandhi and Hitler share is that they both possessed six-letter surnames. No other equivalences between the two are being stated or implied. No moral equivalence, no both-committed-atrocities equivalence - no other similarity at all.


So the rebutter hasn't “compared” them in the sense the arguer is complaining about. A sense which is something like: 'you are suggesting that they are generally similar, or morally equivalent'.




More examples


Now for two real-life (and therefore likely to be emotive) examples.


Eg2.
1. Arguer: Many people are only alive today thanks to IVF. Therefore when the Catholic Church says that IVF is wrong, it is basically saying to these people that they shouldn't be here, that their very life and existence are wrong.
2. Rebutter: Many people are only here today because their mother was raped. Would you similarly reason that whenever anyone says that rape is wrong, they are also saying to these people that they shouldn't be here, that their life and existence are wrong?
3. Arguer: So you are comparing IVF to rape. Good one.


Eg3.
Arguer: Homosexuality is not wrong as it occurs in nature. For instance, bonobos will have sex with other bonobos of the same sex.
Rebutter: Adult bonobos will also have sex with juvenile bonobos, so on your reasoning paedophilia is not wrong as that too occurs in nature. Your argument is a bit dodgy.
Arguer: I am disgusted that you would equate homosexuality to paedophilia. Homosexuality involves consenting adults who are not harming anyone, whereas paedophilia involves children who cannot consent, and is extremely harmful to them. Homosexuality and paedophilia are not comparable.


Hopefully the emotiveness of these examples did not cloud understanding the error made by the arguer in step 3, which remains the same as in the Gandhi/Hitler example.


In eg2 the arguer's argument boils down to:
- Saying that something that creates people is wrong means you are telling these people that their life and existence are wrong.
- IVF creates people.
- Therefore saying that IVF is wrong means you are telling the people created by it that their life and existence are wrong.


By substituting rape for IVF in it the ONLY similarity the rebutter is stating or implying that IVF and rape share is that they are both things that create people. No other equivalences between the two are being stated or implied. No moral equivalence, no other similarity at all.


So the rebutter hasn't “compared” them in the sense the arguer is complaining about. A sense which is something like: 'you are suggesting that they are generally similar, or morally equivalent'.


In eg3 the arguer's argument boils down to:
- If something occurs in nature it is not wrong.
- Homosexuality occurs in nature.
- Therefore homosexuality is not wrong.


By substituting paedophilia for homosexuality in it the ONLY similarity the rebutter is stating or implying that homosexuality and paedophilia share is that they both occur in nature. No other equivalences between the two are being stated or implied. No moral equivalence, no both-are-harmful equivalence - no other similarity at all.


So the rebutter hasn't “equated” them in the sense the arguer is complaining about. A sense which is something like: 'you are suggesting that they are generally similar, or morally equivalent'.




Summing up


To perform a reduction to absurdity of this type on an argument is NOT to “compare” or “equate” the subjects of the original and alternative contentions.


The ONLY similarities that the rebutter is stating or implying that the two subjects share, are whatever criteria or factors the arguer gave in their reasoning to support the original contention.


Here ends this exposition.

Edited by Octopus on Feb 11, 2014 - 5:30 PM
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Posted Feb 6, 2014 - 5:00 PM:

Addressing possible responses

1. Even if the accusation that the the rebutter has “compared” or “equated” the two subjects is mistaken, the rebutter is also making a mistake of their own by thinking that the subject of their alternative contention is sufficiently similar to the subject of the original contention, so that the arguer's reasoning would also apply to that alternative contention.

Consider eg1 again. Not only is the possession of a six-letter surname the ONLY similarity between Gandhi and Hitler being stated or implied by the rebutter, this is the only similarity they need share for this context. Even though Gandhi and Hitler differ in ways that, in general terms, are major and significant (such as in the ways the arguer listed), in this context these differences are irrelevant. And the reason they are irrelevant is because they have no bearing in the reasoning the arguer gave to support the contention that Gandhi was Indian. The reasoning that the rebutter is examining by performing a reduction to absurdity on it.

Consider eg3 again. Not only is occurring in nature the ONLY similarity between homosexuality and paedophilia being stated or implied by the rebutter, this is the only similarity they need share for this context. Even though homosexuality and paedophilia differ in ways that, in general terms, are major and significant (such as in the ways the arguer listed), in this context these differences are irrelevant. And the reason they are irrelevant is because they have no bearing in the reasoning the arguer gave to support the contention that homosexuality is not wrong. The reasoning that the rebutter is examining by performing a reduction to absurdity on it.

In summary, the factors/criteria that the arguer gave in their reasoning to support the original contention are the ONLY similarities the original and alternative subjects need share in order for them to be “sufficiently similar” for the arguer's argument to also apply to the alternative contention.

No matter how wildly the two subjects may differ in other ways, no matter how 'horrible' the subject of the alternative contention is, and how 'not horrible' the subject of the original contention is, there are no magic barriers or argument angels protecting the arguer's argument from also holding for this alternative contention.

If a person was to claim that non-relevant differences prevent the alternative subject from being able to be substituted for the original subject in the arguer's reasoning, and hence that the rebutter has not shown there to be anything wrong with the arguer's reasoning, then that person is engaging in special pleading.


2. Sometimes people don't state their full argument. The arguer may forget to mention certain criteria or factors that were a part of their reasoning even if they were not actually stated.

It is always possible that an arguer can intend an argument that is different in some way than the one they actually gave. But if this has happened and the rebutter failed to realise it then they failed to realise it. As long as the rebutter was applying their reduction to absurdity to the given argument then they have only stated or implied that the two subjects share the factors/criteria of the given argument, and none other.

If this has happened then the arguer can clarify what their intended reasoning to support the original contention was.


3. Maybe the rebutter isn't “stating or implying” more similarities between the subject of the original contention and the subject of their alternative contention beyond whatever factors/criteria were in the arguer's given reasoning. But I am going to infer that they do believe that the two subjects share more similarities than the ones they actually stated or implied. I am going to infer that the rebutter is trying to conflate or confuse the two subjects for his or her own dark purposes.

That suspicion is of course not impossible. Maybe in a specific case of these kinds of exchanges, that particular rebutter does have an agenda to conflate Gandhi with Hitler, or IVF with rape, or homosexuality with paedophilia, or to conflate whatever the subjects of the original and alternative contentions happen to be in that specific exchange. In which case the rebutter is a very naughty so and so, but that doesn't really change the issue at hand.

It doesn't change the fact that the arguer has given a faulty or incorrect argument to support their contention, and that the rebutter has validly demonstrated this. It doesn't change the fact that the arguer is incorrect to claim that by pointing out that their reasoning would also hold for the alternative contention, this in itself constitutes the rebutter “comparing” or “equating” the two subjects in the sense being claimed.

These errors on the arguer's part remain, irrespective of whether the rebutter had any additional motive beyond simply wanting to demonstrate that a dodgy piece of reasoning is a dodgy piece of reasoning.



Edited by Octopus on Feb 7, 2014 - 2:12 PM
Pastabake
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Posted Feb 7, 2014 - 10:36 AM:

I'm not so sure that I agree.

2. Sometimes people don't state their full argument. The arguer may forget to mention certain criteria or factors that were a part of their reasoning even if they were not actually stated.

There is a thing called 'benefit of the doubt'. Philosophy isn't debate, no one keeps scores and 'wining' a debate doesn't stop you from being wrong.

If a person was to claim that non-relevant differences prevent the alternative subject from being able to be substituted for the original subject in the arguer's reasoning, and hence that the rebutter has not shown there to be anything wrong with the arguer's reasoning, then that person is engaging in special pleading.

Are they really non relevent differences though?

I think in the example refering to homosexuality in nature you will always be pulling a fast one because the very relevant difference is 'consent'. To claim that this is not relevant is to claim (using your substitiution argument) that rape is no different from sex. So I fail to see how you can even claim that homosexuality and pedophilia are equivalent.

Part of the problem is that these rebuttals are by their very nature reliant upon an underhand use of emotivity. The example of Ghandi would only require the substitution of Harold for Hitler. In the example of Homosexuality, ask yourself if poo flinging would have had the same response, or whether people would have just said so what!.

The problem with your IVF example is that it potentially contains a strawman fallacy - "Therefore when the Catholic Church says that IVF is wrong, it is basically saying to these people that they shouldn't be here".

I feel that in most issues there is so much left unsaid and assumed that such substitutions of the type you've suggested perhaps don't help to move the discussion along in as much potentially derail it.

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Posted Feb 7, 2014 - 10:51 AM:

Patabake wrote:
I think in the example refering to homosexuality in nature you will always be pulling a fast one because the very relevant difference is 'consent'.


But the argument wasn't that homosexuality is acceptable because it occurs in nature and is consensual; the argument was only that it occurs in nature. Therefore, the argument is that "If X occurs in nature then X is acceptable", and so the reductio ad absurdum of paedophilia is a valid criticism. If the arguer intends to make a distinction between natural acts which are consensual and those which aren't then she needs to actually make this distinction and argue that "If X occurs in nature and is consensual then X is acceptable".

Oftentimes this additional premise is implicit, but one can hardly fault the opposition for being unable to read minds, and although it is good manners to be charitable in addressing an argument, it is perhaps more rigorous to require greater clarity. Sometimes assuming an implicit premise is unwarranted -- the arguer might not have actually intended for "consent" to be relevant to the measure -- and so it is useful to bring this issue to attention.

Edited by Yahadreas on Feb 7, 2014 - 11:00 AM
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Posted Feb 7, 2014 - 11:14 AM:

Pastabake wrote:
Are they really non relevent differences though?

I think in the example refering to homosexuality in nature you will always be pulling a fast one because the very relevant difference is 'consent'.

To claim that this is not relevant is to claim (using your substitiution argument) that rape is no different from sex. So I fail to see how you can even claim that homosexuality and pedophilia are equivalent.
Reading this makes it clear that I totally failed to get my point across.

No-one has claimed that they are equivalent. The arguer has accused the rebutter of suggesting this when the rebutter did not. I was trying to explain why the rebutter did not state or imply anymore similarity between them other than the fact that they both happen in nature.


Part of the problem is that these rebuttals are by their very nature reliant upon an underhand use of emotivity. The example of Ghandi would only require the substitution of Harold for Hitler. In the example of Homosexuality, ask yourself if poo flinging would have had the same response, or whether people would have just said so what!.
Whether or not the rebutter could have picked less emotive counter examples isn't really the issue. For better or worse, they did pick the substitutions they picked, and have now been accused of making comparisons and equatings that they did not make.

Though I agree that it is the emotivity that clouds the logic for some, and said as much.

The problem with your IVF example is that it potentially contains a strawman fallacy - "Therefore when the Catholic Church says that IVF is wrong, it is basically saying to these people that they shouldn't be here".
Both the arguer and the rebutter could be making OTHER errors in these exchanges. I wished only to examine a SPECIFIC one made by the arguer, the accusation that the rebutter "compared" or "equated" things that they did not.



So yes the arguer may have made more than one error; and in this example I agree that their argument may well be a strawman. Maybe the rebutter could have pursued this angle instead of using a reduction to absurdity to rebut the argument. But they chose the technique they chose. And then got accused of doing something they didn't do.


I feel that in most issues there is so much left unsaid and assumed that such substitutions of the type you've suggested perhaps don't help to move the discussion along in as much potentially derail it.
I think I covered this intended vs given argument point in post 2.



Thanks for your response anyway. It has at least shown me that my exposition isn't as clear as I hoped it was.

Edited by Octopus on Feb 7, 2014 - 2:04 PM
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Posted Feb 7, 2014 - 11:37 AM:

Yahadreas wrote:

Oftentimes this additional premise is implicit, but one can hardly fault the opposition for being unable to read minds, and although it is good manners to be charitable in addressing an argument, it is perhaps more rigorous to require greater clarity. Sometimes assuming an implicit premise is unwarranted -- the arguer might not have actually intended for "consent" to be relevant to the measure -- and so it is useful to bring this issue to attention.
Sometimes a premise is implicit, and sometimes it is not but it would be charitable to assume that it was intended even if not said, I agree.



But if I was the arguer of eg2 and intended an argument more like "Since IVF creates people AND isn't wrong, then when the Catholic Church censures it is telling the people it creates that their life and existence are wrong" then I would assume that the rebutter, by substituting rape into my argument, failed to realise my unstated but intended "AND isn't wrong" condition.



It is unlikely that the rebutter considers rape to be not wrong (or paedophilia consentual etc), so I would make the above assumption then clarify my intended argument.



And only if they still insisted that my argument would also hold for censurers of rape, would I claim that they are making some kind of moral comarison betwen IVF and rape. As they would, at the very least, be implying that both are not wrong.



The principle of charity can work both ways - both in how the original argument is addressed, and in how the attempted rebuttals are.
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Posted Feb 10, 2014 - 8:00 PM:

Octopus wrote:
Reading this makes it clear that I totally failed to get my point across.

No-one has claimed that they are equivalent. The arguer has accused the rebutter of suggesting this when the rebutter did not. I was trying to explain why the rebutter did not state or imply anymore similarity between them other than the fact that they both happen in nature.


I'm not really sure what your point is then. If they are not equivalent then the comparison is irrelevant and the rebuttal fails. The counter that pedophilia happens in nature, as if we are just meant to accept that it is bad in and of itself, is fallacious.

Perhaps rather than the Arguer saying "I'm disgusted ..." they should just say "So what ..." and in doing so force the rebutter into stating their claim in full rather than just bandying emotive words around?

Lets look at it another way. In example 1 the issue was the use of the name Hitler. To me this is a set up, an attempt to make the rest of the examples look legitimate. It's quite clear that the only property in question is the number of letters in the name and it's also quite clear that any other property of the name is irrelevant. It's an issue that can be resolved purely on factual grounds. This is clearly not the case in the other two examples and to deny that the specific choice of counter examples and the import of the baggage that they carry seems disingenuous.

To me the rebuttals are actually begging the question fallacies and as such don't even get off the ground.

"Yahadreas" wrote:
Oftentimes this additional premise is implicit, but one can hardly fault the opposition for being unable to read minds, and although it is good manners to be charitable in addressing an argument, it is perhaps more rigorous to require greater clarity. Sometimes assuming an implicit premise is unwarranted -- the arguer might not have actually intended for "consent" to be relevant to the measure -- and so it is useful to bring this issue to attention.

True up to this point - "Arguer: I am disgusted that you would equate homosexuality to paedophilia. Homosexuality involves consenting adults who are not harming anyone, whereas paedophilia involves children who cannot consent, and is extremely harmful to them. Homosexuality and paedophilia are not comparable."

As I've already pointed out. The fact that they're not comparable and why they can't be used as counters is that the relevance of padophilia is not that it's something that happens in nature, but that it is something that we're expected to unquestionably consider wrong.



Edited by Pastabake on Feb 10, 2014 - 8:15 PM
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Posted Feb 11, 2014 - 4:31 AM:

Pastabake wrote:
As I've already pointed out. The fact that they're not comparable and why they can't be used as counters is that the relevance of padophilia is not that it's something that happens in nature, but that it is something that we're expected to unquestionably consider wrong.


If someone argues that "If X occurs in nature then X is morally acceptable" then if it is true then it is true of any X, whether X be homosexuality or paedophilia or rape or whatever. If there is some X that occurs in nature and yet is not morally acceptable then the argument fails. The aforementioned paedophilia and rape are examples of acts that occur in nature and yet are not morally acceptable, and so is evidence that the claim that "If X occurs in nature then X is morally acceptable" is false. That something occurs in nature is clearly insufficient to satisfy its acceptability, and so that homosexuality occurs in nature is insufficient to satisfy its acceptability. The reductio ad absurdum makes this insufficiency explicit and so is a useful counter-example.

As I have said, a better claim is that "If X occurs in nature and is consensual then X is morally acceptable". This satisfies the case where X is homosexuality and the reductio ad absurdum of paedophilia or rape cannot be used as neither are consensual.

Edited by Yahadreas on Feb 11, 2014 - 4:52 AM
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Posted Feb 11, 2014 - 6:02 AM:

To greatly simplify your point;

1. Person A asserts statement G --> Y, where Y is the 'only reasonable' result of X
2. Person B shows H --> W, where W is ¬Y, or W -/-> Y, thus invalidating the 'only reasonable' clause
3. Rebuttle: G and H are non-comparable.

The fallacious response being aspect 3. the 'non-compatibility of statements G and H'.


Quite clearly, this is not 'fallacious' or incorrect. This is because the implicit assumption between 1. and 2. is that G and H are compatible, or comparable. If this were not the case, then statement H is the fallacious bit, and there was no argument in the first place.

Clearly any response 3. that shows that G and H are non-comparable, is a valid rebuttal of the logic. If either A or B can show fault whereby H is non-compatible, with G, then the logic between 1. and 2. is false. Thus returning us to point 1. If point 2. was non-compatible anyhow, then no reductio ad absurdum was created in the first place, and if point 2. was compatible, then the argument suffers no room for 3.

In this sense, the argument should stand on its own directly, or be false/invalid by the choice of H in statement 2.


Indeed, when I look through the exemplar arguments, I actually don't think they are exemplary at all! In fact I find most very poor and 'wooly logic' if best;


Arguer: Many people are only alive today thanks to IVF. Therefore when the Catholic Church says that IVF is wrong, it is basically saying to these people that they shouldn't be here, that their very life and existence are wrong.

Rebutter: Many people are only here today because their mother was raped. Would you similarly reason that whenever anyone says that rape is wrong, they are also saying to these people that they shouldn't be here, that their life and existence are wrong?

Arguer: So you are comparing IVF to rape. Good one.


Well clearly the initial arguers statement is just poor anyway. The statement 'many people are alive today thanks to...' does not logically lead on to 'the Catholic Church and their stance on IVF' - this premise is absurd.

One could explain through analogy the same type of argument as this thread is about;

Just because my husband borrowed the car this morning making me late for work, I didn't kill that child crossing the street, therefore I am not a murderer/manslaugheter.

i.e.

Somebody is alive today thanks to my husband, therefore when my boss says my husband was wrong for borrowing the car, it is basically saying that I am a murderer/manslaugheter.

This argument doesn't work in any case because the 'people still alive and/or dead' is a hypothetical, and non-factual scenario. Hence cannot be used in terms of justification anyway. Still, the premise is absurd before even going further.


1. Arguer: Gandhi was an Indian because he had a six-letter surname. Only Indians have six-letter surnames.
2. Rebutter: But Hitler had a six-letter surname and he wasn't Indian he was Austrian. Therefore your reasoning is incorrect.
3. Arguer: Right, so you are comparing Gandhi to Hitler. Hitler was a mass murderer who committed atrocities such as the Holocaust, whereas Gandhi was a pacifist and a symbol of peace. Gandhi and Hitler are not comparable.


Oddly, this is a 'reasonable' example. At least as far as points 1. and 2. are concerned. Point 3. is so totally out there, it doesn't even make sense as a response.

Rather than call that reductio ad absurdum, we might call that "Ignoratio elenchi" which is a deliberate appeal at diverting a process of enquiry by changing the subject.


Arguer: Homosexuality is not wrong as it occurs in nature. For instance, bonobos will have sex with other bonobos of the same sex.

Rebutter: Adult bonobos will also have sex with juvenile bonobos, so on your reasoning paedophilia is not wrong as that too occurs in nature. Your argument is a bit dodgy.

Arguer: I am disgusted that you would equate homosexuality to paedophilia. Homosexuality involves consenting adults who are not harming anyone, whereas paedophilia involves children who cannot consent, and is extremely harmful to them. Homosexuality and paedophilia are not comparable.


Again, within points 1. and 2. this is a perfectly valid answer.

Again there is an element of Ignoratio elenchi here, because the response revolves around the notion of consent, which is not part of the original premise. So in this sense it is a valid critique on the comparison of paedophilia and homosexuality (if the initial position was assuming implicit consent). Which via direct example, invalidates your assertion in this thread Octopus.

At the same time points 1. and 2. are robust on their very own. It's just the case that 3. is a valid non-comparison as well!


So to conclude, I don't find this thread duly highlighting of anything. If anything I believe it to be mildly confusing, since it hinges on the 'robustness' of original arguments made, not on the responses to the justification thereof, which could be seen to be valid critique of a sloppy rebuttal of an argument made.

I would not call this a; “common fallacious response”, I would call it; 'The sound application of reason!'
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Posted Feb 11, 2014 - 6:08 AM:

Gen11 wrote:
Again, within points 1. and 2. this is a perfectly valid answer.

Again there is an element of Ignoratio elenchi here, because the response revolves around the notion of consent, which is not part of the original premise. So in this sense it is a valid critique on the comparison of paedophilia and homosexuality (if the initial position was assuming implicit consent). Which via direct example, invalidates your assertion in this thread Octopus.

At the same time points 1. and 2. are robust on their very own. It's just the case that 3. is a valid non-comparison as well!


2. is the reductio ad absurdum; 3. is the fallacious response that he is trying to show as fallacious -- a point you clearly agree with.
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