Tag Archives: Weak Analogy

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.

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. . ..

My Godwin-Sense was tingling

CRUZ Budget_Battle-0a51e

In Godwin’s Law news (and another instantiation of the Ad TyrranemAd Hitlerem), Ted Cruz’s recent Senate speech has a classic:

I suspect those same pundits who say [defunding Obamacare] can’t be done, if it had been in the 1940s we would have been listening to them. . . .They would have been saying, ‘You cannot defeat the Germans

In this case, it’s not an argument that what’s being opposed is wrong, but that not actively opposing the thing is wrong.  I think, then we have two different forms of the ad Hitlerem.

Direct Ad Hitlerem:

You do X or propose X

Hitler did X or proposed X

Therefore, you’re like Hitler and X is wrong.

Here, I  think Cruz is making an indirect form of Ad Hitlerem.  It runs roughly:

He does X (and X is wrong)

We can stop him from doing X

His doing X is like Hitler’s doing Y

Therefore, he’s not only wrong to do X, but we’re wrong (read: appeasers) to not actively oppose and stop his doing X.

My view about Ad Hitlerem is that it’s a weak analogy, and that’s the case for both direct and indirect.  A further thing about the indirect form is that it depends on the direct form.  Essentially: This guy is like Hitler , so this guy is bad (Direct form); If you can stop a guy who’s bad like Hitler, you should as to fail to do so is appeasement (Indirect form).

Robert Benmosche, CEO of weak analogies

A victim of lynching fig. 1

From Salon, via Reddit, Robert Benmosche, CEO of taxpayer-rescued AIG, offers a completely failed analogy concerning executive bonuses:

The uproar over bonuses “was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that-sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.”

Here, for your reference, is an actual picture of a deep south* lynching.

Fig. 2: An actual lynching

Note the difference.

*actually Indiana.

UPDATE: Gawker has seven more links to various other weak analogizers.

You justify your war with the analogies you have

Believe it or not, this is an argument for attacking Syria:

World War II began 74 years ago Sunday when German troops invaded Poland. The invasion conclusively discredited the concept of “appeasement” as a foreign policy for, well, the next 74 years. But if the U.S. Congress opposes authorization of the military mission to Syria that President Obama has now handed off to it, and if Obama uses that as an excuse to back further away from enforcement of his “red line,” the “A” word will likely come to dominate the international debate once again.

And Barack Obama, who in his first term was known as the vanquisher of Osama bin Laden, could come out of his second looking more like Neville Chamberlain.

I don’t want to overstate things. Bashar al-Assad, a tinpot dictator who is fighting only for his own survival, is no Hitler. He’s not set to overrun an entire continent. And the “lessons of Munich” and the dangers of appeasement are generally overdrawn. But, after all, it was Secretary of State John Kerry who lumped Assad with the Fuehrer on the talk shows Sunday, saying that he “now joins the list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein [who] have used these weapons in time of war.” (Technically, Hitler’s only use of gas was not on the battlefield but to kill millions in extermination camps.)

Gee, if “appeasement,” “Munich,” and “Hitler” are terrible analogies to the civil war in Syria, why use them?  My advice would be not.  But that’s why I don’t make the big money.

But in all seriousness, all the talk of Hitler and Munich and such  is really just to set up the mother of all slippery slopes (for those keeping track at home, that was a reference to Saddam Hussein of Gulf Wars I and II fame–he also used to be Hitler):

Yet that international order is what is now in some danger, 74 years later. After all, it was just this kind of war weariness that created Neville Chamberlain, and his foreign policy of “positive appeasement” as he called it, in the years after the terrible bloodletting of World War I. If one becomes unwilling to strike dictators and mass murderers, all that remains is to appease them.

Come to think of it, this is also a false dichotomy: there’s “appeasing” (giving in to expansionist and genocidal demands–here Assad has none that I’m aware of) and military strikes.  I can imagine one or two other possibilities.

How you know it’s time for a new analogy

Godwin time.  Let it be said that the Hitler analogy is multi-purpose.  But it's not all purpose.  Ask billionaire Leon Cooperman.  Speaking of the abuse he has suffered at the hands of the Obama administration, he said:

You know, the largest and greatest country in the free world put a forty-seven-year-old guy that never worked a day in his life and made him in charge of the free world," Cooperman told Freeland. "Not totally different from taking Adolf Hitler in Germany and making him in charge of Germany because people were economically dissatisfied. Now, Obama's not Hitler. I don't even mean to say anything like that. But it is a question that the dissatisfaction of the populace was so great that they were willing to take a chance on an untested individual."

Cooperman doesn't mean to say anything like Obama is Hitler, he just happened to be the only analogy laying around.  This was the second time Cooperman used that analogy.  After the first, his wife called him a "schmuck".

via Gawker (see this link for more inappropriate analogies).

Bill Maher’s Ham Jihad

Bill Maher thinks there's too much manufactured outrage in our national discourse. When Bobby De Niro recently made a white people joke at an Obama fundraiser dinner, noted defender of the rights of minority groups Newt Gingrich leapt to our TV screens and demanded an apology from the President himself. It is of course absurd to think that Newt is legitimately outraged by this joke when he has famously argued that "one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty."

So, Gingrich's laughable fake outrage on this issue leads Maher to rhetorically conclude, "[w]hen did we get it in our heads that we have the right to never hear anything we don’t like?" When, indeed? Unfortunately, Maher takes this hollow man and proceeds to cast every recent instance of public outrage as an assertion of our right to not hear things we don't like. From the Limbaugh-Fluke uproar, to the Jeremy Lin-ESPN gaffe, Maher casts his net wide and far.

When did we become such whiny cry-babies? With all this thin-skinned outrage tearing our nation apart, Maher advances a solution:

"Let’s have an amnesty — from the left and the right — on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, playacted hurt, insult, slight and affront. Let’s make this Sunday the National Day of No Outrage. One day a year when you will not find some tiny thing someone did or said and pretend you can barely continue functioning until they apologize.

If that doesn’t work, what about this: If you see or hear something you don’t like in the media, just go on with your life. Turn the page or flip the dial or pick up your roll of quarters and leave the booth."

See, all you have to do is plug your ears.

Now, there's something to be said about ignoring things that are worth ignoring. Do we need to jump down Limbaugh's throat every time he has says something offensive? There might not be enough time in one day to do that job and we shouldn't feed the king troll. And politicians like Gingrich will feign outrage whenever it is politically expedient, and that crap gets annoying. But Maher treats all instances of outrage as analagous to the following scenario:

"When the lady at Costco gives you a free sample of its new ham pudding and you don’t like it, you spit it into a napkin and keep shopping. You don’t declare a holy war on ham."

Clearly not. That would be insane. But if an extremely popular and influential pundit makes aggressive misogynistic attacks against a person in an effort to deny what many feel are basic human rights, should we just smh and change the channel, or be fake outraged?


Chicago (where I live) just had a fairly large blizzard (20 or so inches or about 51 cm) .  This, as you might imagine, causes problems for transportation.  Despite a robust system of public transportation, Chicago is a car city.  When it snows, these cars–often parked on the streets, get buried beneath mountains of plowed snow.  This creates a unique sort of property problem. 

It goes like this.  You spend four hours liberating your car from its snow tomb, or creating a parking spot where before there was just piled snow, so you conclude that on account of your mixing your labor with that parking spot, that you can call "dibs" on it; you worked it, it's yours.

Having just liberated my own vehicle from a snow tomb, I have a bit of sympathy for this approach.  Nonetheless, I'd prefer an honor system.  A student of mine this morning put it like this: if you are looking for parking, then you have yourself worked to free your car from a spot, which is now open.  Not a bad idea, though it needs some filling out.  

Another student forwarded me the following argument against dibs (from Time Out Chicago):

Why is dibs a bad thing? While snowfall can be a magical thing, snow doesn't magically turn public spaces into private property. It's a very un-Chicagolike tradition: When snow falls, all of a sudden neighbors become vehement and territorial.

If someone puts in the effort to shovel a spot, they don't deserve a claim on that space? If you push someone's car out of the snow, you don't say you own their car, do you? I also question how much sweat people put in. The snow that fell [in mid-December] was not enough that people had to dig their cars out, yet there are chairs all over.

Is there evidence that dibs is a problem? There's a thinly veiled threat of violence associated with dibs. People who've violated dibs have gotten their cars keyed. I once heard a story about someone breaking the back window of someone's car and putting a hose in there and turning it on.

Doesn't tradition carry some weight? Not all traditions are good. Political corruption is another Chicago tradition.

Even though I'm leaning against dibs, these are really terrible reasons.  The second one, especially.  The principle works on the Lockean (or something like it) theory of property.  If you mix your labor with it, you've earned it.  In this case you earn it temporarily, and no, it's not like claiming someone's car is yours.  


on dibs from the New York, I mean, Huffington Post.

The public option

The ongoing (and coming?) health care debate will no doubt be a gold mine of sloppy and dishonest reasoning.  We've already noticed some examples of this already.  Just as the debate over gay marriage seems to inspire certain particular patterns of fallacious reasoning (the equivocation on "marriage" and the slippery slope), I think the health care debate will have its own definitive fallacies.  At the moment, I'm thinking that we'll see a lot of red herring–changing the subject from the less appealing facts of the matter (for instance, the fact that Americans pay more for health care and get less than other developed nations) to tangentially related, yet incendiary, notions such as "socialism."

But I think we'll also see a whole lot of weak analogy–in particular comparisons of health insurance to any other complex consumer product.  Here's one from George Will yesterday:

Some advocates of a public option say health coverage is so complex that consumers will be befuddled by choices. But consumers of many complicated products, from auto insurance to computers, have navigated the competition among providers, who have increased quality while lowering prices.

Those things are different in that they are largely optional purchases.  Sure, you "need" them, but you don't need them.  I might mention, by the way, that auto insurance is legally mandated for all drivers (yet another difference from health insurance–and I doubt, by the way, that Will would advocate such a mandate).  In any case, before one starts comparing health insurance to any other consumer product, one ought to take note of the vast differences.  Few products typical consumers (i.e., anyone of any income level) would absolutely have to buy involve possible outlays of hundreds of thousands of dollars.  And few of those products carry with them (often in their fine print) the real possibility of physical and financial ruin.

In the interest of fairness, I should point out that this entire piece, however bad, does not argue against the feasibility or desirability of single-payer health coverage.  In fact, it does a lot to make the case for it (though not on purpose).  Will's purpose is merely to argue against the "public option."  I think his argument is bad (citing as it does Mort Kondrake and a health insurance industry funded study), but I think such an option is a bad one (for other reasons).  

Hard power

A people oppressed by years of military rule is a little like a hostage: they're oppressed against their will (no surprise), and they're subject to all sorts of unspeakable brutalities (including murder).  But that's pretty much it.  However difficult it is to rescue hostages (and it's very difficult I'm sure), it's rather easier than rescuing an oppressed people with "democracy" or "humanitarian intervention").  For that reason, Charles Krauthammer's analogizing the Columbian hostage rescue (which used "hard power"–no shooting, however!) to the invasion of Iraq (which used shooting) makes one cringe:

And who's going to intervene? The only country that could is the country that in the past two decades led coalitions that liberated Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan [The only country?  Not only are these situations significantly different from each other, but, Europe participated in all four of them–eds]. Having sacrificed much blood and treasure in its latest endeavor — the liberation of 25 million Iraqis from the most barbarous tyranny of all, and its replacement with what is beginning to emerge as the Arab world's first democracy — and having earned near-universal condemnation for its pains, America has absolutely no appetite for such missions.

And so the innocent languish, as did Betancourt, until some local power, inexplicably under the sway of the Bush notion of hard power, gets it done — often with the support of the American military. "Behind the rescue in a jungle clearing stood years of clandestine American work," explained The Post. "It included the deployment of elite U.S. Special Forces . . . a vast intelligence-gathering operation . . . and training programs for Colombian troops."

Upon her liberation, Betancourt offered profuse thanks to God and the Virgin Mary, to her supporters and the media, to France and Colombia and just about everybody else. As of this writing, none to the United States.

All of this to claim the French are sissies (yet again).  But, as certainly the French know, libertating a hostage from a captor has one clear marker of success: the hostage's life and freedom.  The success metric of an invasion?  Perhaps when they see us, their liberator, as their oppressor.  For then they are truly free.