In mathematics, "reductio ad absurdam" is a type of proof that works like this: if you want to prove that something is true (or false), assume the opposite -- i.e., assume that it's false (or true) -- and then show that this assumption leads to an absurdity (typically a contradiction), from which you conclude that your assumption of the opposite was wrong, and that therefore the something is in fact true (or false). Indirect, but, in math at least, irrefutable. Outside of math, things are always a little messier, but a similar argument can be used in the case of moral or ethical issues as well -- if it can be agreed that a particular moral position runs into serious conflict with reality, then that alone should lead us to question the assumptions that led up to that position.
As a case in point, consider this review of G.A. Cohen's Why Not Socialism by Andy Lamey (entitled "The Thinking Man’s Marxist"). Cohen's brand of so-called "analytical Marxism" is immediately an oddity. To his great credit, he saw it as a contrast to what he apparently called "bullshit Marxism" -- namely, the vaporous rhetoric of the French post-structuralist, post-modern, post-post poseurs. But Marxist socialism, with its origins in Hegelian dialectic and its roots in a collectivist political backlash is, to say the least, a difficult fit with the arid, logical procedures of Anglo-American philosophical analysis. Nevertheless, Cohen tries to force the two together, with the result being the illustration of the moral reductio I've mentioned, at least as summarized by Lamey, who quotes Cohen as saying:
“The socialist aspiration is to extend community and justice to the whole of our economic life. As I have acknowledged, we now know that we do not now know how to do that.”
Cohen’s conclusion is thus a mixed one. We should endorse his two moral principles even though there is no sign they will lead to socialism any time soon. But perhaps they could have some application here and there, as in the education or health spheres. Or perhaps one day our circumstance will change and socialism will become possible. Cohen’s closing lines refer to markets as systems of predation. “Our attempt to get beyond predation has thus far failed. I do not think the right conclusion is to give up.”
There's a kind of pathos here -- Cohen, raised in the socialist faith and desperately hoping to cling to it at whatever cost, was still both rational and honest enough to admit that, as far as he or anyone could see, it was an impossibility. What he could not do was take that one next step in the reductio sequence -- re-examining the moral assumptions that had led him into this fatal conflict with the real world.
Cohen is by no means the only one brought to this sort of moral impasse, though he's more explicit about it than most. Others reaching the same dead end may decide that it's the world that's false -- or, in moral terms, not "good enough" -- rather than their beliefs, a kind of insanity, perhaps, that cultural processes akin to natural selection will tend to weed out. But there's no denying the depth of the crisis in which one is immersed when one's most fundamental values appear to be implicated in fundamental contradiction with reality. In a subsequent post, I want to look at the value that I think is primarily responsible for this kind of crisis: equality.