Doctrine of absurdity

The doctrine of absurdity refers to any strict interpretation of something to the point of violating common sense, e.g., following religious dictates, such as in pharisaism (emphasizing or observing the something’s exact rules or words, but not its spirit).

The absurdity doctrine, also known as the ‘scrivener’s error‘ exception, is a legal theory under which American courts have interpreted statutes contrary to their plain meaning in order to avoid absurd legal conclusions. It is contrasted with

“The common sense of man approves the judgment mentioned by Pufendorf [sic. Puffendorf], that the Bolognian law which enacted ‘that whoever drew blood in the streets should be punished with the utmost severity’, did not extend to the surgeon who opened the vein of a person that fell down in the street in a fit. The same common sense accepts the ruling, cited by Plowden, that the statute of 1st Edward II, which enacts that a prisoner who breaks prison shall be guilty of a felony, does not extend to a prisoner who breaks out when the prison is on fire – ‘for he is not to be hanged because he would not stay to be burnt’.”

Reductio ad absurdum, reducing to an absurdity, is a method of proof in logic and mathematics, whereby assuming that a proposition is true leads to absurdity; a proposition is assumed to be true and this is used to deduce a proposition known to be false, therefore the original proposition must have been false. It is also an argumentation style in polemics, whereby a position is demonstrated to be false, or “absurd”, by assuming it and reasoning to reach something known to be believed to be false or to violate common sense; e.g., as used by Plato to argue against other philosophical positions.



Filed under Logical fallacies

5 responses to “Doctrine of absurdity

  1. A criminal law is only effective if it is enforceable in the courts. The way the courts interpret the law becomes the law.


    • OT, but can’t resist: Pharisaism is an interesting case (I studied this at one time, from the inside). The logic is that the law is assumed to be word-perfect, so that if a loophole can be found within the wording, it must have been intended all along. I sometimes think tax loopholes, also, were intended all along.


  2. I think there are three separate things here:

    Recognising that there are circumstances in which a aw should be broken, for an over-riding reason and in circumstances where the legislators would not have wanted it to apply, as in the two cases cited

    Mathematical proof that depends on showing that the contrary assumption leads to the absurdity of contradicting the premises, as in the proofs that root2 is irrational, and that there is no highest prime

    Showing that some belief about the world leads to unacceptable conclusions and must be rejected. Thus the belief that Genesis 1 isliteral truth implies that it gets things in the right order, and this is contradicted by its positing day, night, and vegetation before sun, moon, and stars, and whales before land animals

    There is also a much-used distortion of the argument, the “logical conclusion” fallacy. Thus if someone thinks taxes should do more to reduce inequality, they may be told that this is absurd because the logical conclusion of their demand is the imposition of complete inequality, which in our kind of society at least is ridiculous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Doctrine of Absurdity does not authorise the breaking of the law as you have suggested. It says that the law should not be interpreted so as to produce an absurd result. It is a modification of the law rather than a breach of the law.


      • The case of the physician allowed to draw blood in the street for medical reasons can be described as interpretation of “draw blood”, but escaping from a burning prison is still escaping from prison, so I maintain this would be a case where we avoid absurdity by allowing the law to yield to circumstance. I would argue that all laws are written with such a possibility in mind.

        The “logical conclusion” absurdity that I presented is, I see on reflection, just a variety of Straw Man.


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