Tag Archives: Argument by Analogy

Reductio mad libitum

Mad Libs is a kids game, where a familiar story has a number of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and proper names taken out, and players provide their own without knowing the story.  It makes for great game time, and when you allow the kids liberal use of some naughty terms, things get pretty hilarious.  (Pro tip: ‘diaper’ and ‘butt’ are always an excellent nouns to use if you’re in a pinch. But only one per story, else you’ve overplayed your hand.)

Folks use a Mad Libs strategy sometimes when making an argument by analogy.  And so when one criticizes someone for saying something that sounds racist, you might say, “Replace all those times you said ‘Romanian’ with ‘blacks,’ and see how that sounds…”

The crucial thing for all the cases, of course, is that the replacement instances are of roughly the same type.  That’s why it’s an argument by analogy — if the two things aren’t analogous, then the exercise is pointless.

George Will’s new column at NRO is a defense of the Trump plan to gut and/or eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.  Will does make a few sensible points along the way — especially that the NEA is a regressive wealth distributor (most of the folks who get the support are already with money).  And, of course he leads with the old kulturkampf line about the government shouldn’t be using taxpayer money to fund things like the Piss Christ, Mapelthorpe’s photos, and other objectionable messes.  These, of course, are more arguments against how the NEA has been run, and less arguments against the NEA.  He closes, after conceding that art, for the most part, is a good thing, with the following:

Distilled to its essence, the argument for the NEA is: Art is a Good Thing, therefore a government subsidy for it is a Good Deed. To appreciate the non sequitur, substitute “macaroni and cheese” for “art.”

Holy moly!  OK.  I’ll limit myself to three things.

#1:  The argument overyields.  Now replace “art” with “national defense” or “law enforcement.”  Once the line is put that way, NO government program is defensible.  (Don’t tell small government Republicans!)

#2: We do have government subsidies for macaroni and cheese.  It’s called  the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  So many boxes of mac’n’cheese have been purchased with government help.  (Moreover, don’t forget the government support for the farming and manufacturing sectors that produced it!)

#3:  I smell some straw on that opponent.  With ‘GOOD DEED’, Will has conflated a good thing to do with a thing that is good for the populace, or is in the interest of the state.  Contributing to the common good, even if it is indirectly, is what this is about.  Calling it a ‘good deed’ is a mis- description of what the supporters of the NEH see the agency out to do.  This is not a distillation of essence, but rather a snifter of nonsense.

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.

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.

Almost, Douthat, almost. . ..

But it seemed that way because it was hard to imagine the Obama White House botching the design and execution of its national health care exchange. Building Web sites, mastering the Internet — this is what Team Obama does!

Except this time Team Obama didn’t. Like the Bush administration in Iraq, the White House seems to have invaded the health insurance marketplace with woefully inadequate postinvasion planning, and let the occupation turn into a disaster of hack work and incompetence. Right now, the problems with the exchange Web site appear to be systemic — a mess on the front end, where people are supposed to shop for plans, and also a thicket at the back end, where insurers are supposed to process applications.

The disaster can presumably be fixed. As Cohn pointed out on Friday, many of the state-level exchanges are working better than the federal one, and somewhere there must be a tech-world David Petraeus capable of stabilizing HealthCare.gov. And the White House has some time to work with: weeks before the end-of-year enrollment rush, and months before the mandate’s penalty is supposed to be levied.

Yep, it’s a disaster almost like Wolfie and J-Paul’s destruction of a nation, loss of millions billions of dollars, and bringing about an insurgency against the US occupation.

Almost, Douthat, almost. . ..

The Kim Jong-Un of rhetorical analogies

David Brooks, arguing that sequestration has put government spending well below ideal levels for sustainable economic culture:

Right now, we are the North Korea of fiscal policy.

That’s laying it on pretty thick.  Though, given the way Republicans talk about Obama being a socialist, it may be the only way to cut through the nonsense.

Some analogies are are like propositions that aren’t true

Sometimes when you make an analogy, you really just show how little you understand. Or, perhaps, how little you want to.  Charles Cooke at NRO thinks that taxing ammunition at a higher rate, perhaps at 50%, is not just bad economic policy, but is an infringement on basic rights.  He makes this point with an analogy.

When it comes to our basic rights, the rule of thumb is that as little as possible should be put in the way of their exercise. The Second Amendment is often treated differently from the other component parts of the Bill of Rights, but it damn well shouldn’t be. Unless you consider that the right to bear arms is less important in a republic than is the right to vote — which I most decidedly do notthen putting a special tax on firearms is no less outrageous than putting a tax on voting. Why one but not the other?

Notice, first, that this is an argument that, as we say in philosophy, proves too much.  If we’re really to take the conclusion seriously, then it should be that we shouldn’t tax gun or ammunition purchases at all.  If there’s no taxing voting, then there’s no taxing guns and gun-related stuff.   His argument isn’t one that proves that we shouldn’t tax ammo at a high rate, it’s that we shouldn’t tax it at all.

Second, notice that Cooke thinks that gun-rights are more important than voting rights.  I wonder what he thinks of Canada.  A real democracy? Germany or England?  If you click his link, there’s a paywall for the whole article — but he does answer one question.  With another question.  To the challenge why does he need military style firearms?  His reply is:

A better question: “Why don’t you want me to have one?”

Yep.  His argument is pretty much that his possession of a firearm ensures that his voting rights can’t be taken away.  Seriously, though, who’s he gonna shoot if his voter registration card doesn’t get recognized at the polling station?

Third, and finally, isn’t the difference between voting and buying guns and bullets is that with the latter, you’re purchasing a product?  It’s a financial exchange of goods and money, one that the government can tax as necessary.  It’s not that the argument by analogy proves too much, it’s that the analogy isn’t appropriately framed.

Consistently confusing criticism for censorship

Jeffrey Lord's post, "Gay Totalitarianism," over at The American Spectator is hampered by confusion.  Lord's main case is that liberals can't stand dissent, and want to shut down any opposing voice.  This has, in his view, been in bright highlight with the Chick-fil-a issue.  Here's his case in point:

Down in Southwest Florida liberal reporter Mark Krzos of the News Press was furious at seeing free speech exercised in his midst, whining on his Facebook page that "The level of hatred, unfounded fear and misinformed people was astoundingly sad. I can't even print some of the things people said."

So this means Mr. Krzos wants to shut down Occupy Wall Street? It gets better. Krzos went on:  "I have never felt so alien in my own country as I did today while covering the restaurant's supporters…. It was like broken records of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and a recitation of half-truths and outright lies…. Such a brave stand… eating a go**amn sandwich. "

So this guy feels "so alien" in his own country because he comes face to face with free speech? What country is Mr. Krzos living in? Cuba? North Korea?

I can't speak for Krzos, but on my interpretation, his alienation was at seeing speech he disagreed with, and that he felt he was powerless to address or argue against because of the way the beliefs of the speakers were formed.  It's not the freedom his lines were objecting to, but to (a) how the views stated were misinformed and hateful, and (b) that those speaking seemed to be only interested in those who speak for them, not the views of anyone else.  Krzos wasn't, by my lights, calling for the supporters of the chicken chain to be jailed or muzzled or anything like that.  He was criticizing them.  That's how you respond to speech when you recognize the freedoms — you use more speech to criticize it.  Ah, but Lord's on a roll, and can't resist the conservative argument-by-comparision-money-shot on speech issues:

As we have mentioned before, leftist intolerance for dissent and opposition is as old as the blood soaked guillotines of the French Revolution. Not to mention the Revolution's 20th century descendants from Communists to the Nazis (aka the National Socialists) to their more modern American cousins like all those progressives who hid for decades behind the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan or a few decades later appeared as Bill Ayers and his bomb-setting brethren in the Weathermen.

Whew!  When Lord makes historical comparisons, he doesn't hold back.  (Oh, love the "aka the National Socialists"… what's that even doing? Making a point about socialism?)   I said at the end of my previous post that there's a weird thing about many Burkean conservatives, that they see Robespierre behind every progressive.  This seems overkill, but maybe with the Robespierre line so abundant, you've really got to pile on to be sure that folks know you're using hot rhetoric.

Again, the point is that responding to dissent with criticism and responding to dissent with violence are different things, and Lord's case conflates them.  Responding to speech with more speech is a form of tolerance, actually — you face something you think is wrong, but you don't destroy it,  only criticize it.  But for the analogy to go through, you have to be responding with violence. 

Some analogies are dangerous

Sorry to all the NS readers for the long hiatus.  I'll be doing my best to blog more often, certainly over the summer.

Vanderbilt's head football coach, James Franklin, has had a pretty good run.  He took Vandy to a bowl game this last postseason, and he's got a good recruiting class coming in.  He also, as it turns out, shares a resemblance to me (or me to him), as I've been confused with him around Nashville more often than I'd like to admit.  (I wonder if he can say the same about me — though I doubt it, as I am a good 6 inches shorter than he is.)

He was recently gave an interview with a curious piece of analogical reasoning:

I’ve been saying it for a long time, I will not hire an assistant coach until I’ve seen his wife. If she looks the part, and she’s a D-1 recruit, then you got a chance to get hired. That’s part of the deal.

The analogy runs: wooing a woman is like recruiting a football star.  The better-looking the woman, the more competition and so the better you must be at social manouvering to successfully woo her.  The same goes for high-school recruits.  The better the recruit, the more competition and so the better you must be at getting them to like you if you are to get them to come to your school.  Here's Franklin running with the argument:

There’s a very strong correlation between having the confidence, going up and talking to a woman, and being quick on your feet and having some personality and confidence and being fun and articulate, than it is walking into a high school and recruiting a kid and selling him.

Both jobs, the argument goes, require a special skill — the schmooze — and so if we can see that you're good at one, we can reasonably expect you to be good at the other. 

Franklin has since apologized on Twitter for his comments, saying they were supposed to be humorous, but "fell a few yds short".  All fine politically to apologize — he did describe another coach's wife as a "D-1 recruit", which sounds exceedingly misogynistic.  And weird, isn't it?  Seriously — can you imagine the on-campus interview dinner?  Franklin getting a long hard look at your wife over the table? Ew. He should apologize for all that.  In fact, I think considerably less of him for saying it, and the apology is the only thing that keeps me from being totally disgusted with the guy.  Oh, and he also should apologize for part of his apology — "just kidding" isn't much of an apology. But was the argument any good?  Is there really a correlation between being able to marry a beautiful woman and having the social skills recruit high school football players? 

Here's the best case I can make for it.  I remember the football stars I knew in high school.  They were pretty high on themselves, and were suspicious of everyone else who tried to hang with them — always on the lookout for hangers-on and such.  Being able to break into their clique would be a very, very difficult proposition.  I suspect trophy-wife-types have the same characteristics, and being able to get close enough to one to even have a real conversation must take some real social skill and determination.  Again, similar skill sets.

But here's where the analogy may start to break down.  First, with the trophy wives.  One thing may attract a beautiful wife may not be social skill, but looks.  That is, I don't think the most socially skilled people date the best looking people, but rather look for other socially skilled people.  And beautiful people look for other beautiful people.  I'd think the best thing that having a "D-1 recruit" wife predicts is whether you are good looking, too.  Not whether you're charming.  Second, with the recruits.  I'm not yet convinced that the ability of an assistant coach to talk to pretty girls yields the skill to talk to football stars.  In fact, again, I'd bet that the better determining factor in whether you can talk to a football star is whether you, yourself, were a football star or know many greater stars.  That is, I'd bet that having been an All-American guard for Nebraska gets you more cred with highschool football players than having a hot wife.  At least for the sake of recruiting. 

Now, James Franklin knows better than me about this.  He's around pretty women and football stars all the time.  But me?  I just hang with my smokin' hot wife and have only a few interactions with football players in my courses.  They like logic class OK, but I never have to recruit them, as it's a requirement at Vandy.  Maybe also should be for the coaches.

Analogy and hypocrisy

Cal Thomas thinks Newt Gingrich is being unfairly criticized for his consulting work for Freddie Mac.  The charges of hypocrisy, he holds, are off base.  Here's the defense:

That Gingrich took money from Freddie Mac, an agency he now derides, may seem like hypocrisy to some, but not to me. I, for example, think the Department of Agriculture should be closed, though I once worked for them. I also received a student loan, which I repaid, though I am now critical of how some of the government's student loan programs are run. I attended public schools, but believe parents ought to be able to send their kids to a private school if it promises to offer a better education. Am I hypocritical?

I wonder what Thomas would have to say to someone who said: Yes, all that is hypocritical.  Now, it may be the case that Thomas worked for the DOA and thereby learned that they don't do anything worthwhile.  So he believes that the agency should be shut down.  He may have taken a student loan because it was a sweet deal.  Now he sees that the government shouldn't give such sweet deals, because it can't be on the hook for the loans.  And it may be the case that he attended a public school, but because there were no other options.  So he now believes there should be private school options, too.  That's the story to tell.  In these cases, we have someone who was part of the system being criticized who saw something negative about it and now has critical things to say.  That's perfectly intelligible. And it's not hypocrisy. (My own view is that he's not a hypocrite, just wrong)

But are these cases analogous to the Gingrich case?  I don't think so, as Newt knew what Freddie Mac was about before he took the consulting job. He had choices of alternatives as what companies or corporations to be an advocate for.  If he's hired as a consultant, he should be knowledgeable enough to know what he's getting into. Thomas may not be a hypocrite for the incongruity between his past and his current views, but that's not enough to get Newt off the hook for the hypocrisy charge.

But now a broader question:  of what relevance is the hypocrisy charge against Gingrich, to begin with?  There's already so much about the guy I don't like, the fact that he's a hypocrite about this is not very important.  But I think the importance of the point is more for deep red Republicans.  Hypocrisy, especially on an issue like this at a time like this, is really important to anyone who is looking for the right (right-wing) fiscal conservative.  If Newt has a history of getting into bed with failed companies  that contributed to the mess, it's harder to sell him as someone who can fix it.  The issue, really, isn't his hypocrisy, but his judgment generally. 

Cautionary analogies

Democracies are fragile, and one of the worries about them is that the seeds for their overthrow are sewn and grown inside.  That's a thought as old as Plato (see Republic IX's son of the democratic man, the eventual tyrant), but it's the Romans who lived it fully and provided us with a model for it:  Julius Caesar.  Invocations of Caesar haunt American democracy, and one point of interest is that John Wilkes Booth invoked Brutus in the aftermath of his assassination of Lincoln.  The dangers of an imperial presidency has been a longstanding worry.

Kevin Williamson's essay in National Review Online has the same analogy at its core: Obama as Caesar.  Now, we've seen this trope before with the Obamacare concerns and with the general teaparty invocations of the blood of tyrants nourishing the tree of liberty.  But I think Williamson's point shouldn't be lumped with these.  His, I think, seems considerably more reasonable.  First, Williamson's concern is with the fact that Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen that was targeted for assassination.   Sure, under conditions of combat, we don't need to arrest and mirandize our opponents, but those we know are citizens and not in the midst of a shootout deserve some legal concern.  Yes, he was an al-Qaeda leader and planner.  Still a citizen.  Second, the Bush administration cleared the ground for both treating al-Qaeda operatives as combatants and as dialing back protections for citizens suspected of being in league with them.  This yielded the following:

Running with the ball we passed him, Obama and his administration now insist on the president’s right not only to order the assassination of U.S. citizens, but to do so in secret, without oversight from Congress, the public, or anybody else. Barack Obama today claims powers that would have made Julius Caesar blush.

A good deal of the work on this blog is devoted to picking out fallacious forms of these kind of arguments.  This time, I think it's appropriate.  Even if you think the President's decision was right, you must admit that it is a considerable extension of his power to trump the Fifth Amendment's requirement of due process.