All posts by Scott Aikin

Scott Aikin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

Oh, the analogy

A long while back, I noted that most discussions about gay marriage are more like races to who could pose one of the three tired old analogies first.  The three variables are: race, polygamy, and bestiality.  If you can pose the analogy first, you have a kind of dialectical advantage — even if the analogy isn’t perfect.  This is because there’s a kind of defensive posture the opposition must take, once the analogy is posed — they have to answer this line of argument before they can proceed with their own, and this often takes more time and energy than we normally allot for our critical discussions.  And so, for familiar structural reasons (we always have a dearth of time an energy for critical discussion), those who wield the analogy first are those who often get to claim they came out the best.

So much for the strategic argumentative elements of argument by analogy.  There are a few other things to note.  First, all analogies, in the end, are limited.  They can find some relevant feature that’s the same, but they also must have their differences.  Analogies are not identities.  Second, the form of argument by analogy in this context is off of a deep principle of justice:

Treat like cases alike

The strategy with analogy is to identify the similarity between two cases and show that because we have an unproblematic precedent of treatment with one kind of case, we, assuming the deep principle of justice, treat the other case similarly.  And so, if discriminating against gays is like discriminating against blacks, we shouldn’t.  And if discriminating against gays is like discriminating against people who want to have sex with sheep, we should.  Everything hangs on the relevant similarities between the cases, and so, everything hangs on the aptness of the similarities between the cases.  And we should, being good, rational arguers, be open to the possibility that our analogies are weak and the opposition’s are strong.  That happens.

Will Saletan’s post over at Salon is an exercise in this kind of argumentative humility.  He takes the analogy between race and sexual orientation to be a good analogy, but he’s willing to note where there may be relevant moral differences between the two.  Primarily it’s about the issue of having children.

The central, categorical objection to gay marriage is that same-sex couples can’t produce biological children together…. Just because I don’t agree with an argument, however, doesn’t mean it’s irrational. Marriage has historically been a sexual institution. A rational person can maintain that a relationship between two people categorically incapable of producing children together—that is, two people of the same sex—can’t be a marriage. That argument doesn’t justify denying them the right to love one another openly, nor does it justify denying them the benefits and honors we bestow on couples for making lifetime commitments. But it can justify a person’s refusal to accept a same-sex relationship as a marriage.

Saletan’s giving the case for disanalogy it’s due.  He follows this noting:

The argument has plenty of problems. We let old people marry. We let infertile people marry. We don’t insist that married couples produce kids. We welcome adoption and stepfamilies. Gay couples can have kids using donated eggs or sperm. Many gay people are already raising children, and doing it just as well as straight people.

All of that is true. But I’d be remiss to omit the rejoinder from George and his colleagues: Sex is a much brighter line than fertility or intention to bear children. It’s certainly a less intrusive distinction to enforce.

This is now a point about legal treatment – the law isn’t about your intentions with the marriage, it’s about what can reasonably be expected in it.  In this regard, it is right that the case for analogy between race and sex-orientation discrimination is weaker.  But, again, analogies are not identities, and to hold them to the standard that the cases be identical is crazy.

In this respect, I think Saletan’s on the right track both argumentatively and politically to acknowledge that there may be differences between these cases.  But the differences are still insufficient to break the relevance of the analogy.

Persuasive explanations – Part 2

In more “They oppose us because of their dogmatism, we oppose them because of our principles” news, the Rutgers faculty opposition to Condoleeza Rice’s commencement address has been explained by Republican New Jersey assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini (here):

[It is] nothing more than a political firestorm fueled by their hatred of an opposing ideology, and President George W. Bush in particular.

Of course.  If what you mean by ‘hatred of opposing ideology’ is opposition to torture, objections to a poorly researched case for war, and reluctance to embrace American exceptionalism, that’s right.  Erm, but that’s not a ‘nothing more than’ sort of thing.

Persuasive explanation

Persuasive or rhetorical explanation is the non-argumentative strategy of increasing critical scrutiny on one side of an issue by way of explaining a disagreement or situation in terms of some failure on the other side.  So, for example, if we ask why S doesn’t give to charity, we might then place the burden of proof on those defending S to not only explain S’s actions, but also dispel the thought that S is selfish.  Or if S avoids a confrontation, we challenge the other side to show that S isn’t spineless.

Victor Davis Hanson has a rhetorical explanation for why the base of the Democratic Party has stuck with President Obama through all the controversies, ranging from Benghazi, to the IRS targeting Tea Party oufits, to the botched rollout of the ACA (AKA “Obamacare”).

In short, Obama will always poll around 45 percent. That core support is his lasting legacy. In a mere five years, by the vast expansion of federal spending, by the demonizing rhetoric of his partisan bully pulpit, and by executive orders and bizarre appointments, Obama has so divided the nation that he has created a permanent constituency that will never care as much about what he does as it cares about what he says and represents.

For elite rich liberals, whose money and privilege exempt them from the consequences of Obama’s policies, and their own ideology, he will always be their totem. He is iconic of their own progressivism and proof of their racial liberalism, and thus allows them to go on enjoying their privilege, without guilt and without worrying too much about how they got it or whether they might lose it.

Now, for sure, there has been some pretty scandalous behavior from the White House, and heads have rolled.  Nobody can, really, repeat Bob Dole’s “Where’s the Outrage?” challenge.  Perhaps an alternate story could be told about the outrage mongers.  In trying to keep their own base in a permanent state of fury, they’ve had to bloat anything that even hinted of error from the White House into the outrage du jour.  And it’s had boy who cried wolf effects on their credibility and the capacity of anyone to be properly outraged.  (For a recent example of outrage machines  making noise, take a peek at the Obama with his feet on the Oval Office desk story: HERE.)

Oh, and rich white liberals might support the President because they see his policies as overall in the right direction, even if he makes errors (even egregious ones) in the process.  That’s partly the Republicans’ fault, too. Most political support, you know, is made on the basis of comparative judgment.

How to turn your analogy to straw

Marco Rubio recently made an interesting analogy after the release of the CBO report.  He said that the likelihood of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) actually helping people is as great as the likelihood of the Denver Broncos coming back from their fourth-quarter deficit in the SuperBowl.

I know that there are still some who hold out hope that Obamacare will work, just like there were some in Denver this Sunday still holding out hope that the Broncos could come back and win in the fourth quarter.

Now, there is some debate on the matter, but let’s give Rubio the point for the sake of argument.  However, if we do, then Aaron Goldstein has a critical point to make:

But let’s not forget that the Broncos actually made it to the Super Bowl. The Broncos were the second best team in the NFL in 2013….

If Rubio is going to compare Obamacare to a football team he should invoke the 2008 Detroit Lions who went 0-16. Better still, the junior Senator from Florida could also speak of the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers who went 0-14. This would be a far more apt comparison because when it comes to Obamacare no one wins.

Ah, a lesson in how to turn an analogy into a straw man.  At least the Rubio analogy conceded that the ACA had something going for it (at least the Broncos had a chance to make points back earlier), but Goldstein refuses even that.  Beyond this, the point Rubio was trying to make with the analogy was one of prospects, like for the future, not retrospects, looking at the past.  Oh well, when the objective is to paint your political opponents in the worst lights, saving the actual point is beside the point.

Don’t strawman me… I was strawmanning, myself

(Former) Governor Mike Huckabee has been criticized for the things he’s said about women and birth control.  Here’s the line folks are focusing on:

They cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government

The reply is that the Governor did say those words, but the quote is “taken out of context”. As it turns out, the context is that of attributing this view to Democrats.  Here’s Matt Lewis at the Daily Caller clarifying the situation:

If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because [DEMOCRATS BELIEVE] they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it.

The context of the quote, I think, is correct in terms of the Daily Caller’s clarification. The video HERE.  Huckabee isn’t stating his own view, he’s making it clear what he thinks that Democrats think about women and birth control.  So to criticize him for holding this view is a form of straw manning.

That’s better, but not dialecticaly.  The defense is that the view in question is not one he takes himself, but one he attributes to his opponents on birth control.  (He follows these sentences with a call for further debate on the issue, clearly calling attention to the fact that he sees his opponents as having a wildly indefensible view.)  Note that the address was not to a mixed audience wherein a liberal might say back: that’s not our view, Governor.  The issue isn’t about controlling libido, but having the right to manage when and by whom one has a child.  Isn’t that an important issue?  Ever notice how straw-manning is easier when your opponent isn’t in the room?

So in defending himself against being strawmanned, Huckabee reveals himself  the straw-manner.

To use the full taxonomic vocabulary: My hypothesis is that Huckabee was hollow-manning (nobody on the Democrat side has had a thought like that, right?), and the defense is a form of iron-manning.

Fallacy Man

Existential Comics has a nice series on Fallacy Man, a guy dressed as Zoro who jumps into conversations to point out fallacies.  It’s a nice way to show the dialectical error of only pointing out fallacies – namely, that naming a fallacy form isn’t helpful feedback for the argument.  You’ve got to explain why a premise is irrelevant, or how some forms of inference are based on incorrect data.  Those are all dialectical requirements of reason – exchange.  The best part, of course, is that there’s also the problem of the fallacy fallacy. (You’ve got to read to the end of the comic.)

Now, the fallacy fallacy requires additional dialectical baggage, and I don’t see it in the comic posted.  Here’s the basic form of fallacy fallacy:

Premise: The opposition’s case for their view (P) is fallacious. (Then the list of the fallacy forms identified).

Conclusion 1: The opposition’s view, P, is false.

Conclusion 2: And, further, my view is true.

Now, so far, just listing all the fallacy forms you identify in the opposition’s case isn’t yet proof that their view is false or that your view is true.  BUT: there are a number of considerations that might undercut that.  Note, the opposition may have the entirety of the burden of proof.  And so, were the opposition to have the view that, say, there’s an elephant in the room, and they can’t prove it except fallaciously, then there’s reason to believe that there’s no elephant in the room.  (Otherwise, there’d be evidence).  Or consider this in a legal context — all the defense has to do is point out the failures of argument from the prosecution, because the burden of proof is entirely on those who argue for guilty.  In those cases, there are default conclusions, and when the case to the contrary fails, we revert to them.  So in those cases, fallacy fallacy is no fallacy. To further clarify John’s got a great post on the Fallacy Fallacy Fallacy.

Persecution anxiety

Bruce Chapman reports at AmSpec that Christians are widely persecuted around the world, and one of the prominent examples is the treatment of Coptic Christians in Egypt. Chapman says someone should do something about it.  That’s right.  Ah, but then he hypothesizes why people haven’t already done something about it:

One reason for neglect in Washington is probably the continuing secularization of the West. Political forces that demand that domestic religious organizations provide employees insurance for contraception, that Christmas manger scenes be banned from the town park and that graduating high school seniors not be allowed to invoke God in their valedictory addresses are not the kind of people who care much about Christian prisoners in the North Korean gulag or burning churches in Egypt.

Here’s the analogy behind Chapman’s explanation.  Those who oppose mangers in town squares and compulsory prayer are like those who put Christians in gulags and burn churches — they sympathize with the oppressors.  In Chapman’s eyes, secularism is religious oppression lite.

Chapman’s error is that those who oppose state-sanctioned religious displays do so precisely in the spirit of opposing oppression.  Sure, it may feel like being oppressed when the state capitol doesn’t have a manger scene – you’re not getting complete control over the state.  But that’s not oppression, that’s a reduction in your undeserved and disproportionate power.

And so the analogy isn’t just false, it’s entirely backwards — you get the kind of oppression of gulags and church burnings when you have a state that endorses only one kind of religious view.  You see, the secularization of the West isn’t motivated by the desire to oppress the religious, but by the desire to reduce religious oppression.