Sunday, March 4, 2012


In ideological discourse, it is often true that, to make one’s point, an analogy is employed.  For example, one might want to show a comparison between smoking and drinking.  Smoking is currently illegal in Chicago in enclosed public places and places of business.  One might want to wish to assert that drinking also be likewise prohibited.  One might then show by way of analogy that smoking and drinking are “alike” in some way, that they share some common attributes to support this assertion.  Let’s say that they wish to point out that both are drugs, both change behavior and both adversely affect people around them.  (All three of those things would have to be supported by the proponent of the analogy.)  The argument could then be a “good” one if the analogy/comparison between smoked tobacco and alcohol were “strong” and then that those particular attributes are the ones that caused smoking tobacco to become (and remain) illegal.  I would say more about how to build an effective analogy, but for the sake of brevity I will save that for perhaps another time.

What makes for a good analogy?  Some would say “if the similarities between the things being compared are major and the differences only minor, then it is a strong analogy.” and vice versa.  While that is a good first-pass, I have concluded that that is too weak of a test.  It only begs the question, what is a major and minor difference?  

I would refine this just a bit.  Analogies are not simple comparisons of objects or ideas.  Analogies are comparisons along one or more dimensions of comparison.  This is similar to comparing mountains to roads.  How can you make that comparison?  Roads are flat and mountains are high.  But wait, if you compare the height of a mountain to the length of a road, there may be a basis for comparison.  We do speak about a mountain being thousands of meters high and about roads that are thousands of meters long.  In THAT dimension, there is some basis for comparison.  Someone may interject that mountains and roads are so different in some OTHER dimension that the analogy is a poor (or weak) one.  

In that I would agree and in that ONLY would I make that judgment.  An analogy is a good one ONLY insofar as ALL of the relevant dimensions of comparison are good.  However, if irrelevant dimensions are not good, the analogy is still valid.  It may become more persuasive if irrelevant dimensions are good, but that’s all.

I have recently been part of discussions where an analogy was disparaged for a different reason.  The analogy in play was that of the recent HHS Mandate and Bishop Lori’s parable of the Kosher Deli.  In this discussion, the analogy was dismissed because it was considered insulting that the health of women was compared (in the parable) to a ham sandwich.  The merits of the comparison along the relevant dimension was not an issue so much as along another, irrelevant, dimension.  I say “irrelevant” in that the closeness of the comparison was not necessary to make the point at issue.  This would be to say that the mountain and road analogy is invalid because mountains are aesthetic and roads are mundane, or conversely that roads are useful and mountains are not.  

Analogies are not used to compare the same things, but comparable things.  The subjective (or objective) value of the objects compared has no real bearing on the value of the analogy.  It may be a good analogy despite any personal distaste of the analogous objects used.

This “ham sandwich” caused the discussion to derail.   

I tried to simplify the analogy by using a simpler metaphor that reduced the dimensions of comparison.  Suppose, I said, that the government says that your way of arranging your furniture (at home) is "wrong" and that some other arrangement is better and now if you don't comply because you prefer it your way, is that imposing YOUR arrangement on someone else?

I was pointing out that the issue at hand was not “women’s health” (so called) but religious liberty.  The responses were:

  • Furniture has nothing in common with a woman's productive organs. A ham sandwich has nothing in common either.
  • You have to understand/agree that comparing a woman's reproductive organ/right to furniture or the right to rearrange furniture is offensive? That analogy trivializes and degrades women and reproduction in general, don't you think? The *logic* behind the analogy might be similar, but it's just not comparable.
The problem is, it is precisely comparable because “furniture” is a non-controversial object. I chose it deliberately.  It is not a comparison between “furniture placement” and “contraception” but between “furniture placement” and “freedom to practice the tenets of a church.”  

My response was:

  • However the analogy is not that of women's reproductive rights to furniture, but that of the church's free expression of its tenets to furniture. If anything you are worried that the church's tenets are more important than furniture. Thank you!
Unfortunately, my interlocutors were not convinced.  

So, while it is really very frustrating to take the time and effort to create good, powerful analogies and have them dismissed out of hand because someone says “That’s not the same at all!” when it clearly is, I would encourage you keep on fighting for clear language, for logical and reasonable arguments that help people to reach the truth.  The Truth is the highest goal of all language and Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

1 comment:

  1. I would posit that you are arguing with a ham sandwich and that doing so will result in nothing but a slightly older ham sandwich and a late lunch.