Alternative—Life in Prison

Parliament was defending the death penalty on the grounds that the alternative—life in prison—was much more cruel than death. This claim was met with the following reply: On this view, those found guilty of first-degree murder ought to be given life in prison, and the death penalty should be given to those who commit some lesser offense. The first speaker could respond in several ways, because this reductio depends on background assumptions that the first speaker could question. First, he might deny that the most severe crime should receive the most severe penalty possible. If the first speaker sees life in prison as too cruel to be inflicted on anyone, then he might call for the abolition of life imprisonment and keep the death penalty as the most severe punishment. Alternatively, the first speaker could claim that, even though the death penalty is less severe than life in prison, it is still fitting in some other way for the most severe crime, first-degree murder. Finally, of course, the first speaker could simply accept the supposedly absurd result and apply life im- prisonment to first-degree murder, while using the death penalty for lesser crimes. In fact, however, the first speaker was unwilling to accept any of these alternatives. He simply tried a rhetorical trick and got caught.

These reductios are fairly good, but other reductios fail for a variety of reasons. To succeed in refuting a claim, a reductio ad absurdum argument must meet two main requirements. First, the result must really be absurd. Often opponents try to reduce a view to absurdity but really only draw out implications of the view that are not absurd at all. For example, in a famous debate in which Thomas Huxley defended a theory of evolution, Bishop Wilberforce asked Huxley whether he had descended from apes on his mother’s side or on his father’s side of the family. This question was intended to draw laughter from the crowd, and it did, partly because they and Wilberforce thought that any answer to the question would be absurd. Nonetheless, Huxley could respond that he had descended from apes on both sides of his family. Because that response was not really absurd—regardless of how absurd it seemed to Wilberforce—the bishop’s attempt did not really refute Huxley’s claim.

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