Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Being Insulted By Analogies or Comparisons:

I continue with the theme of arguing from analogy. I failed to note Dr. John Corvino greatly influenced my last post that asserted, to make an analogy is by nature to compare apples to oranges (hence there's something wrong with the way that term is commonly used).

This post references his work: John Corvino introduces the fallacy of the perverted analogy.

I know of what he speaks. Years ago, shortly after law school I started to better refine my argument skills by learning as much as I could about philosophy/logical fallacies; it was a hands on approach where I actively engaged those on the other side. Then, I found myself and others against whom I argued making the error about which Corvino writes.

Coincidentally, during this time, Dr. Corvino "stopped by," at my request, one now defunct online debate site and supported me. We discussed this article of his that references same sex marriage and its analogies to interracial marriage, infertile marriage, polygamy, bestiality and incest. My opponent, a smart, neurotic fundamentalist woman in her 60s, had the lamentable penchant to analogize homosexuality to pedophilia. She invariably used the reductio ad absurdum to pedophilia whenever one attempted to score a point for homosexuality.

So what is this "new" fallacy? Dr. Corvino explains with a dialog between two interlocutors:

Jack: I can’t support gay marriage because it violates my religion.

Jill: Some people’s religions teach that interracial marriage is wrong.

Jack: So, you’re saying that opposing same-sex marriage is just like racism?!

Jill: I should be allowed to marry whomever I love.

Jack: What if you love your brother? Should you be allowed to marry him?

Jill: So, you’re saying that homosexuality is just like incest?!

Exchanges like these have become familiar—so familiar, in fact, that it would be handy to have a name for the fallacy they contain.

Take the first exchange: Jill never said that opposition to marriage equality is “just like” racism. Rather, she used the analogy to interracial marriage as a counterexample to the implied premise that “Whatever a religion teaches is right.” In other words, she seems to be saying that citing religion doesn’t exempt a view from moral scrutiny.

Similarly, in the second exchange, Jack never said that homosexuality is “just like” incest. Rather, he used the analogy as a counterexample to Jill’s premise that people should be allowed to marry anyone they love.

Analogies can be tricky. They compare two things that are similar in some relevant respect. That does not mean that the two things are similar in EVERY respect, or “just like” each other. In both examples above, the second party is misreading the first’s analogy to have far broader implications than intended. This is a fallacy, whether the misreading is deliberate or just careless.

As noted, I've made this fallacy before and smarter and more philosophically learned folks have committed this error. Indeed, Princeton's Robert P. George, as smart and philosophically learned as anyone, apparently makes this error as Corvino's article notes and I briefly discuss below.

Here's a typical rut I fell into with my interlocutor:

She: Longstanding cross cultural tradition validates opposite sex marriage not same sex marriage.

Me: Longstanding cross cultural tradition also validated slavery.


Me: Sexual orientation is unchosen, unchangeable and likely has a strong biological component to it.

She: Pedophilia is an "orientation" too.

Indeed, it's possible that things worse than pedophilia like serial killing could be shown to have an unchosen, biological brain basis that gives folks irresistible impulses to commit terrible acts. Hence an unchosen "orientation."

In the first instance She would react like I just argued "bans on same sex marriage are just like slavery." In the second instance I would react like She just said "homosexuality is just like pedophilia or serial killing."

In reality, we both made valid arguments using the reductio ad absurdum to demonstrate the limits of two arguments. I demonstrated problems with argument from tradition. And She demonstrated problems with argument from "unchosen human orientation."

(Though analogy doesn't necessarily mean equivalence, sometimes folks do argue for equivalences. For instance, Harry V. Jaffa, whose work on Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence I enjoy, actually equated voluntary homosexual acts with slavery and serial killing; his arguments against homosexuality are not just fallacious but downright bizarre; a more charitable natural law analogy to homosexual acts is to other voluntary but purposefully non-procreative sex acts, like putting on a condom or pulling out.)

But still, given how common I see this error and the learned nature of the folks who make it, I wonder whether something about the act of making an analogy suggests the equivalence? Some kind of poetic bridge from something we see as "good" (to some folks, that's bans on same sex marriage, to others, that's homosexuality itself) to something we all agree is nasty (pedophilia, chattel slavery, Nazism, serial killing)?

Personally, I desire civil discourse; I respect many on the other side whom I do not want to insult. (Not that I can't get down and dirty with the ad hominem; it's not my preference.) Robert P. George, for instance. John Corvino has a laudable friendship with his long time evangelical Christian debate partner.

I don't think that religious objections to homosexuality automatically make one an anti-gay bigot; yes, some religious folks are bigots in a "if the shoe fits, wear it sense." And the line separating principled religious convictions from anti-gay or any kind of religiously inspired bigotry does not so easily draw.

I notice religious conservatives are sensitive when the pro-gay side makes analogies to race issues. It's true homosexuality is not race (no X is a Y). The better analogy is same sex relations to interracial relations. X is still not Y; but here we compare, not skin color to "behavior," but rather relations to relations. That analogy certainly functions fine as a reductio ad absurdum test. As Corvino pointed out, tradition frowns on homosexuality? Tradition also frowned on interracial relations.

Make that argument and religious conservatives likely will balk, "I'm a bigot like a racist?" This is, more or less what occurred between Robert George and his liberal Catholic co-blogger, Michael Perry, as Corvino's article discusses.

Perhaps because of the unique history of race and the likelihood of religious conservatives thinking we accuse them of being like racist bigots, we should avoid the interracial relations analogy. At least be very circumspect when using it.

(For a less loaded analogy, my preference is to infertile heterosexual couples.)

But the street of civility runs both ways. There are certain comparisons to homosexuality that are equally insulting, if taken as some kind of bridge from homosexuality to that.

I'm not talking about polygamy. I think it's fine to argue over that as a potential bridge. Or even consensual adult incest. (Indeed, and discuss the bridge from the Bible to brother/sister incest and polygamy: Where did Cain and Able's wives come from? What about those polygamous characters in the Bible?). Rather, I'm talking about pedophilia, bestiality and relations with inanimate objects (like "maybe I should be able to marry my toaster oven").

If you insist on using THOSE as analogies, I WILL reciprocate and use interracial relations as an analogy to homosexual relations. And I'm justified on logic and civility grounds in so doing.

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