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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7 Responses to Being Insulted By Analogies or Comparisons

  1. tom van dyke says:

    The analogy of sexuality to race is a great one—if the other fellow accepts it. Indeed, we that routinely, anyone who doesn’t accept it is called a “bigot,” since only a bigot could oppose interracial marriage.

    This of course gets us only to our present standoff and unpleasantness.

    The structural problem of anyone arguing against the equivalence of sexualities is being obliged to come up with an analogy to something bad, necessarily pejorative. The famous Seinfeld “Outing” episode and “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” comes to mind, being forced to civilly [or even honestly] forced to argue simultaneously that there is nothing wrong with that [avoiding getting personal], but there is something wrong with that, nothing personal.

    I agree that the infertile heterosexual couple is perhaps the truest analogy. An exception is made for that: it resembles the normative well enough to ignore its problems. Applying it to SS sexuality raises additional problems, however, namely in the raising of children. It may be so that two persons of the same gender are interchangeable with two of opposite gender as parents. That indeed has moved to center stage.

    “Normative” here carries the sense of “ideal”: even social science suggests that the “ideal,” the best outcomes statistically, is being raised by both birth parents. We can argue from the bottom up, the statistically less optimal cases of the single parent, or adoptive parents, step-parents, or in last place, a parent with a live-in “other.” Certainly we can compare other arrangements to these, as “fair.” Most things are better than “the worst.” The worst birth parents are as bad as virtually any other parental arrangement. However, we do discontinue reasoning from the top down, abandoning the “normative,” not in terms of normal and not-normal, but in terms of best and less-than-best.

    And of course in reality, the normative, the ideal, the optimal, can easily be sub-optimal and the non-normative superior in any given case.

  2. James Hanley says:

    I agree with the general argument, so this is rather a quibble about detail, or application, but I don’t think the analogy to infertile couples really does work that well, because the “can’t have children” argument isn’t really about “can’t have children” but “weren’t designed to have children.” The infertile heterosexual couple were designed to have children–there’s just a malfunction in the machinery that’s not their fault.

    It also doesn’t account for the morality issue, which is intimately related to the “not designed to” argument. You’ll find precious few people (I’ve never met one), who think there’s any moral problem with infertile heterosexual couples getting it on, but will adamantly stand on the moral grounds.

    That’s where I think the interracial relations argument actually is far more logical. It may not be persuasive if the other person rejects it (which I think is in agreement with what TvD said), but it remains logically more defensible. And for my part, that logical defensibility justifies using it even when the other side does reject it–I think they ought to be confronted with its logic repeatedly, because things like that have a way of sticking in a person’s mind and gnawing at them. At least unless they’re completely closed-minded, and if they are, then there’s nothing to be gained from debating them anyway.

  3. Matty says:

    the best outcomes statistically, is being raised by both birth parents. We can argue from the bottom up, the statistically less optimal cases of the single parent, or adoptive parents, step-parents, or in last place, a parent with a live-in “other.

    I’m prepared to accept that you are right about what is statistically optimal but I’m not sure it means much for two reasons.

    1) Both birth parents is not only optimal it is the default to such an extent that the only time anyone actually gets to choose how a child is raised is when that option is already off the table.

    2) It is difficult to argue from the general to the particular, the fact that on average a child will do better if adopted by a married couple than a single person does not mean that in a particular case we can assume the married couple is the best option and ignore any other relevant factors.

  4. That’s where I think the interracial relations argument actually is far more logical. It may not be persuasive if the other person rejects it (which I think is in agreement with what TvD said), but it remains logically more defensible. And for my part, that logical defensibility justifies using it even when the other side does reject it–I think they ought to be confronted with its logic repeatedly, because things like that have a way of sticking in a person’s mind and gnawing at them

    On some level I agree. When I was younger, I was quite homophobic, even to the extent of supporting such measures as Colorado’s Amendment 2 in 1992 (an initiative that would have invalidated certain municipalities’ ordinances designed to forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation; the amendment was declared unconstitutional). The fact that I was constantly confronted by activists’ arguments against homophobia forced me to try to justify my views to myself, and when, as I grew older, those justifications worked less and less, I became less homophobic and (I hope) more accepting.

    However, the flip side is that it is quite confrontational and off-putting to use an analogy that, if not narrowly or clearly drawn, risks, through an unstated premise implied in the analogy, accusing one’s interlocutor of bigotry. I’m not sure where the fault necessarily lies. It’s often the interlocutor who makes the inference that the analogy implies bigotry.

    I guess all I’m saying is that one gains something and loses something with any argumentative strategy.

  5. Chris says:

    The reasons analogies are so effective – in fact, the reason they’re pretty much the basis for most of our higher-order thinking – is that they make inference easy. In cases like these, they make inference too easy. Our minds don’t stop at “intended” inferences, but instead make as many available inferences as we can think of (in fact, in one model of analogical reasoning, the one that I happen to adhere to, at the early stages of analogical reasoning, we make all of the cognitively available inferences, and then whittle them down until we come up with those that best fit the best interpretation in context). So the inferences from interracial marriage to racists, or from incest to pedophiles, are inevitable. The best, and perhaps only way to combat them is to be very explicit in saying that such inferences are unintended, as James does, and hope that’s convincing.

    By the way, the analogy to older or infertile couples is only a good analogy if the sole purpose of marriage is procreation, which of course, it isn’t, either historically or today.

  6. Jon Rowe says:


    Thanks for this and you wrote what I suspected. You have to be clear that for instance, “this is only to show limits on arguments from tradition, not to equate bans on same sex marriage to chattel slavery,” or else if you use chattel slavery as a redutio people are going to think you equated X to chattel slavery.

    Likewise, the fact that the Nazi’s were supported by a majority of the German population is a good reductio to illustrate the argument ad populum fallacy, but when folks say “the majority of people support X,” (say the death penalty) and you use the Nazi/argument ad populum example, they will react like you just said supporting the death penalty is like supporting the Nazis when that’s not what you intended.

  7. Pingback: Self-Serving Slippery Slopes

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