To Compare Apples To Oranges, It’s What Lawyers And Philosophers Are Paid to Do

It’s called, arguing by analogy. Eugene Volokh addresses. I know what people mean when they say this, or think they mean: You made a bad analogy. The reason I think this needs discussion is folks seemingly take this phrase too literally. In doing so, they err. For instance, a Volokh commenter noted:

“Apples and Oranges” is a short-hand refutation of an argument assimilating one thing to another. It just means “they’re not the same.” And they’re not. It isn’t a matter of their not being comparable.

Wrong wrong wrong. Whenever one makes an analogy in an argument — what lawyers and philosophers are paid to do — one compares apples to oranges. As noted, folks mean when they use this term: You made a bad analogy because the subjects, in the context discussed, distinguish meaningfully.

Yet, how likely is it, in a given context, that an apple so meaningfully distinguishes from an orange. They are both fruits; they are both round, baseball sized of similar mass. Perhaps a lemon better analogizes to an orange, a pear to an apple. But apples to oranges compare much better than apples to typewriters or apples to skyscrapers.

I know I shouldn’t be so pedantic. There are many words and terms whose on their face meaning is ironic, oxymoronic or otherwise problematic. “Homophobia”; “Anti-Semitism”; “sleeping together.”

But still, some seemingly bright folks don’t seem to realize that apples to apples means to compare duplicates. To demand an apples to apples comparison, in a strict sense, what some folks do to try to win arguments, is to say X is sui generis, that is it is off limits to ANY ANALOGY because it can’t be compared to ANYTHING that is not X.

How convenient for that side.

In reality, everything is sui generis, if you want, for the sake of argument. If that’s so, the door to arguments from analogy closes. Once that door opens, nothing is sui generis.

How does this play out in real world argument? Let’s see:

I say, “I should have a right to marry someone of the same sex.” You counter, “if that’s true, then I should have the right to marry two women not just one.” I reply, “you have compared apples to oranges.” And that’s because, charitably towards your argument, you have. (In an uncharitable sense, you have compared apples to typewriters.)

Change the context. I say, “I should have a right to marry someone of the same sex.” You reply, “no you shouldn’t.” I counter, “but you support letting people of different races marry.” You reply, “you have compared apples to oranges.” And that’s because I have. (Ditto with the charitably concept.)

Apples to apples compares same sex marriage to same sex marriage. Oranges to oranges compares polygamy to polygamy. Lemons to lemons compares miscegenation to miscegenation. Someone tries to argue for X, and in doing so you find yourself comparing it to Y, you compare apples to oranges. X is not Y. X is X. Y is Y.

In terms of charitable readings, one predisposed to same sex marriage might argue same sex marriage to interracial marriage is apples to oranges (a good analogy), same sex marriage to polygamy is apples to typewriters (a bad analogy). Or one predisposed against same sex marriage would note same sex marriage to interracial marriage as apples to typewriters (a bad analogy); same sex marriage to polygamy, apples to oranges (a good analogy).

But, be sure, NO ONE when they argue from analogy, argues “apples to apples.” The best you can do (probably) is apples to oranges. Maybe, if you are really lucky, you get an oranges to lemons. Perhaps, if you are super lucky, oranges to tangerines. But once you get to apples to apples, you no longer argue from analogy but rather, sui generis.

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18 Responses to To Compare Apples To Oranges, It’s What Lawyers And Philosophers Are Paid to Do

  1. Chris says:

    As I said in another thread, the bulk of my research has been on analogy, and comparison in general (usually we say “similarity and analogy”). In the literature the joke is that it should be “apples and lawnmowers.”

  2. yoshi says:

    Apples and oranges are both circular fruits that grow on trees. They seem to have more in common than they have differences.

    (always hated that analogy)

  3. James Hanley says:

    Hmm, what about Granny Smith Apples to Golden Delicious Apples?

    Analogies are curious things, though. The very fact that something is an analogy means it’s not a perfect example, so it bears within itself the potential for its own refutation. But how to determine what’s a legitimate grounds for refutation and what’s not? Or put another way, is there a general rule for determining whether an analogy is a good one or a bad one, or is it necessarily a case-by-case judgment?

  4. tom van dyke says:

    I love the “apples and lawnmowers” thing.

    Analogy at best is only descriptive or poetic, never definitive. It can be a bridge to understanding, but only if all parties agree. No x actually equals y. That would be relativism, which tends to throw all x’s and y’s and z’s into an undifferentiated, subjective stew.

    Nobody defends relativism anymore, I’m told. Nihilism either, which leads to the same stew.

    That all human things are sui generis is defensible, I think, although we arm ourselves with “close enough for rock’n’roll,” that a difference that makes no difference is no difference.

    Except for attempting to repair the historical legacy of American racism, in principle we have decided that race is a difference that makes no difference.

    On the other hand, there is no readily available analogy to a “bun in the oven,” a nascent life in the human womb. When attempting to discuss abortion, we find ourselves constructing abstract scenarios [the “violinist”] in an attempt to make some sense of it all.

    Which suggests something about how man’s mind works. When we have no usable analogy, we are driven to construct one. Reminds me of Darmok, and Shaka when the walls fell.

    Cheers, mate. Good one.

    Very cool, Jon.

  5. James Hanley says:

    No x actually equals y

    Analogically, anyway. Mathematically, it’s pretty easy to find an X that equals Y. But TvD was speaking of analogies, so that’s not actually a critique.

    On the other hand, there is no readily available analogy to a “bun in the oven,” a nascent life in the human womb. When attempting to discuss abortion, we find ourselves constructing abstract scenarios

    In the abortion thread, nobody responded to my dependent conjoined twin analogy, which isn’t really abstract, although it would be unusual. I’m curious as to whether it just got overlooked, or whether it’s such a crappy analogy that everyone just politely ignored it?

  6. D.A. Ridgely says:

    Not ignored and not crappy. But it struck me that its primary intuitive import is that it isn’t always wrong to sacrifice one person’s life for the sake of another person. We haven’t really discussed what circumstances might justify that choice; but, in any case, I took it as a bit off point unless you want to argue that only one of the conjoined twins is really a person.

  7. tom van dyke says:

    In the abortion thread, nobody responded to my dependent conjoined twin analogy, which isn’t really abstract, although it would be unusual.

    I didn’t think it was crappy either. If there are any two human “things” that are equal, it’s twins. Even still, we are sometimes forced to prefer one over the other, as “third parties” who have no choice but to resort to a “moral calculus.”

    In fact, moral neutrality, inaction as opposed to action, has proven an unsatisfactory answer to moral dilemmas—at least in our Western world.

  8. James Hanley says:

    in any case, I took it as a bit off point unless you want to argue that only one of the conjoined twins is really a person

    Ah, I hadn’t thought of that. So apples to lawnmowers, perhaps.

    Well you both reassure me that at least it wasn’t entirely crappy.

  9. Jon Rowe says:

    On the other hand, there is no readily available analogy to a “bun in the oven,” a nascent life in the human womb. When attempting to discuss abortion, we find ourselves constructing abstract scenarios [the “violinist”] in an attempt to make some sense of it all.

    Eugene Volokh is way ahead of me on this. But, we discussed the “reductio ad absurdum” as logically fallacy point before. I think EV made this point in the context of slippery slopes and meant, since everything sui generis, nothing necessarily (by way of logical necessity) “slips” into anything else. However, since our Supreme Court common law system is built on reasoning by analogy, the slope is alive and well and the reductio critique hence valid.

    So Griswold “slipped” into a right for unmarried couples to have contracepted sex which slipped into a right to abortion. Personally I think the logic between Griswold and Lawrence is far closer than Griswold and Roe.

  10. Chris says:

    Tom, this book would, I imagine, blow your mind. The Holyoak book is pretty good, too, though I was trained in the Gentner paradigm, and Holyoak comes from a competing (seriously, competing — Gentner and Holyoak have had shouting matches at conferences) perspective.

    James, in cog psy, we do have ways of measuring whether people will see an analogy (or any comparison) as a good one: short answer, there are good differences (differences related to the way the two domains being compared map onto each other) and bad differences (differences that aren’t related to the mapping), and too many bad differences, or too few good differences, yields a bad comparison.

  11. tom van dyke says:

    Thx, Chris. I shall follow up.

    Dedre Gentner and Michael Jeziorski, ‘The shift from metaphor to analogy in Western science’ in Metaphor and Thought, edited by Andrew Ortony (1993, Second Edition) Cambridge University Press [page 447 and 478]:
    “Analogy and metaphor are central to scientific thought. They figure in discovery, as in Rutherford’s analogy of the solar system for the atom or Faraday’s use of lines of magnetized iron filings to reason about electric fields. They are also used in teaching: novices are told to think of electricity as analogous to water flowing through pipes or of a chemical process as analogous to a ball rolling down a hill. Yet for all its usefulness, analogical thinking is never formally taught to us. We seem to think of it as a natural human skill, and of its use in science as a straightforward extension of its use in commonsense reasoning. For example, William James believed that ‘men, taken historically, reason by analogy long before they have learned to reason by abstract characters’. All this points to an appealing intuition: that a faculty for analogical reasoning is an innate part of human cognition …

    This research implies that although the apprehension of similarity in its various forms may be universal among humans, conventions for how and when to use it are not. There are variations both across and within cultures in the ways humans use similarity to categorize and reason about the world.”

    I’m sure it fits into philosophy and poetry’s battle across the ages as well. Not to mention “non-cognitivism.” 😉

  12. tom van dyke says:

    But, we discussed the “reductio ad absurdum” as logically fallacy point before.

    Nothing wrong with a good reductio. It’s not synonymous with “slippery slope.”

  13. Jon Rowe says:

    I am going to have to look the Volokh article. I might learn something more.

  14. tom van dyke says:

    Jon, the argument that the 14th Amendment demands same-sex marriage is a reductio, that following its premise and principle leads to that necessary conclusion.

    If that’s true, if someone argued in 1866 that it would necessarily lead to SSM by premise and principle, that would have been a reductio ad absurdum. “Ad absurdum” is a merely descriptive term of art, since the 1866ers would likely have found such a prospect absurd.

    We 21st centurians argue via reductio that it’s a necessary conclusion. Not “absurd” atall.

    Even if the 14th doesn’t demand SSM, the argument could have been made in 1866 that in the 21st century, courts would begin to say that it does. This would have been a “slippery slope” argument, and as we can see, not a false one. “Slippery slope” arguments imagine results that may not necessarily happen, but human nature and reasoning being what it is, might happen.

    “Slippery slope” arguments are less than formal arguments, not following a chain that leads to a necessary conclusion. If you can get the other fellow to buy your “slippery slope” scenario as plausible, you have swayed him. Such arguments are not complete toejam. The Anti-Federalists predicted much of the centralization of federal power that we see today via “slippery slope.” They were assured that such a thing could not happen, but it did anyway. Had they had more imagination, I feel confident they would have paid more attention to the Commerce Clause.

    And it should be fair to say that the framers and ratifiers of the 14th did not imagine that one day it would be linked to gay marriage. They simply lacked the imagination.

    They did however, have enough imagination to see that the language of the 14th might demand that women have the right to vote. Pretty much unknown is that the 14th Amendment has a Section 2 that explicitly excludes that possibility [“But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors…is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State…”].

    Anyway, the point being that a reductio is a formal argument, leading to necessary conclusions. If they seem absurd and you’re on the “con” side, so much the better rhetorically. But a good reductio doesn’t require that, only that it honestly states the premise and principle, and then creates a chain of logical argument that’s valid.

    [If you accept Peter Singer’s premises and principles, his moral system—via his logic—is completely valid. I think he’s a walking reductio ad absurdum because his conclusions about human life seem absurd to most sensibilities, at least mine. Which is what scares me so, that at some point his argument won’t seem absurd.]

    [And it’s the complete antithesis of DAR’s recent argument on “personhood.”]

    To continue, “slippery slope” isn’t formal argument atall, so “valid” or “invalid’ doesn’t really apply. It’s more a prediction of what human nature might do in misapplying the fundamental premises and principles.

    As for the real world, the line certainly gets blurred. If the central dynamic—the premise and principle—of marriage is romantic love, I’m not sure whether the argument that SSM leads to polygamy is a reductio or merely “slippery slope,” whether it necessarily leads to plural marriage or merely that it might.

    But it might. It’s far more imaginable in 2010 that it’ll happen some day than same-sex marriage was in 1866. And it’s too late to add a Section 6 to the 14th Amendment.

  15. D. C. Sessions says:

    So how are we to compare:

    * The comparison of apples and oranges and
    * The comparison of interracial marriage to same-sex marriage?

    It would appear that comparing those two comparisons would be <recursive implosion>

  16. Pingback: Being Insulted By Analogies or Comparisons | The One Best Way

  17. Heidegger says:

    Okay, I tried, I really tried to ban myself from this blog. But am I stone hearted enough to just ignore the passionate entreaties of Mr. Hanley and DAR? They actually hired a skywriter to circle my residence and write, “Please come back Heidegger–we miss and need you! Signed, DAR & Hanley”. I am humbled and honored, and frankly, very surprised they went to such lengths to welcome me back to one best way. So, many, many thanks, gentlemen. I retract my charge that you’re bloodless philistines!

    That being said, I had to, with the exception of Jon, Jim51, and OFT, give all of you F- for your utter lack of intellectual and musical curiosity with regard to that Oscar Peterson music piece, “Hymn for Freedom”. I’ll give all of you a second chance, though–this is VERY important for your overall mental health, so don’t ignore.

    About this apples and oranges business, here’s a good one:

    “The king’s men have come to collect the tithe, which this week consists of a crate of apples. You knew that he would require apples, oranges, or a mixture of the two, and so you have already prepared three crates which you labeled “apples,” “oranges,” and “apples and oranges.” Now your son tells you he has switched all the labels on the crates, and your heart sinks. You only have time to reach into one box and grab one piece of fruit, for the king’s men are impatient and quick on the trigger. How do you know which is the crate of apples?”

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