It has come to my attention that there are many people out there attempting to use analogies to express their opinions, positions, arguments, and what have you. I think that this is an excellent way to express oneself. In fact, I find that analogies immensely help me express the point I am trying to get across. In fact, analogies have been used as a means of teaching for centuries. In the Greek and Romans school, analogical thinking was among the highest forms of intellectual discourse and reasoning; as it was/is a part of logical reasoning.
The problem that I, and others, have noticed is that among the analogies that are being used, most of these analogies are just plain bad. I’ll give three examples that are popular in Facebook and Twitter conversations and explain why they are bad reasoning, but ultimately the point of this blog is to show why analogical skills matter and how good and bad analogies can affect people’s beliefs.
Three Examples of Bad Analogies
*Before moving on, I want to make something very clear. Two of the analogies I will be discussing are concerned with hot-button issues—Black Lives Matter (BLM) and abortion. What I will argue below is not whether BLM or abortion are right or wrong. What I will be arguing is how the popular analogies used in favor of these are gravely mistaken. So, please keep that in mind.
- Analogies for the Trinity
I wanted to discuss this issue because it is more of a light-hearted example that sets up the purpose of this blog well. So, very quickly, the Trinity is a Christian doctrine that claims God is one being, or essence, who exists eternally in three distinct coequal persons—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Saucy, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2001) Because this is a difficult concept to imagine, many have used analogies to try and express this belief. Some have used the three-leaf clover, others have used water (liquid, vapor, solid), the sun (how it is a star, light, and heat), or a man (he is a son, husband, and father) to try and explain this doctrine. However, these are bad analogies.
- The “water” and “man” analogies are examples of modalism. Modalism is a heresy that states God is not a union of three distinct persons, but is instead revealed as three different people; God has “modes” of being, being a father, then a son, and then the Holy Spirit.
- The “three-leaf clover” analogy is bad because it falls victim to the partialism heresy. This heresy states that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are only part of the Trinity. They compose God when all three are brought together and each person only has 1/3 of the divine.
- The “sun” analogy is bad because it suggests Arianism. Arianism is the heresy that claims the Son and Holy Spirit are creations of the Father and are, thus, not coequal or coeternal with the Father, much like how light and heat are products of the sun. So, this analogy is out, too. For a funny video on this, click here.
So, when talking about the Trinity, these analogies are not good to use. They distort the actual Christian doctrine even if the person using the analogy does not mean to and believes the orthodox view of the Trinity. So, these analogies, though meaning to be harmless, do not properly teach this Christian doctrine.
- BLM Analogy
The BLM analogy goes as follows. Smith is sitting at the dinner table. Everyone has food except for Smith. Smith says, “Smith deserves food.” Everyone else responds, “Everyone deserves food,” yet they do not give Smith any food. Although the statement, “Everyone deserves food,” is true, it does nothing to rectify Smith’s lack of food. The moral of this analogy is to point out two things; 1) Smith deserves food and 2) that the slogan “everyone deserves food” should be abandoned. It is claimed that “Smith deserves food,” assumes that everyone deserves food. There is an injustice in the amount, or lack thereof, of food Smith receives. Here is a link to a version of the analogy. Here are a few reasons why this is a bad analogy.
- It conflates the issue by confusing the moral claim with actions. This analogy is pointing out two things, 1) that Smith deserves food, and 2) that the slogan, “Everyone deserves food,” is unhelpful and harmful. This analogy is discrediting “everyone deserves food” because Smith never receives food; however, the problem is not with the moral claim that everyone deserves food, but with the action of withholding food from Smith. If the other people at the table truly felt conviction for everyone to receive food (since this is what they are claiming), then their actions would rectify Smith’s lack of food. Thus, the slogan “everyone deserves food” should motivate the people at the table to get Smith food. So, this analogy incorrectly discredits the slogan, “everyone deserves food” due to the wrong action, not actually critiquing the moral claim. So, this analogy is not good.
- Another reason why this is a bad analogy is that it is meant to promote equality, but it is actually vague regarding equality. It assumes the proposition, “everyone deserves food,” but it only ever argues for Smith to receive food. You should never assume the communication of principles in a slogan or analogy. Assuming that “Smith deserves food” is communicating two things—that 1) everyone deserves food and 2) Smith deserves food—is a failure on the communicator’s part. Saying this slogan remains agnostic as to what the others deserve; it does not communicate anything regarding the other people. Secondly, it is redundant if it assumes the premise “everyone deserves food”. If it is assuming this, then pointing out the fact that Smith deserves food is redundant. Necessarily, Smith deserves food if everyone deserves food. However, when someone only focuses in on one component, then they are necessarily not focusing on the whole. With golf, if you isolate one area of your drive because you keep slicing to the left, then you will, probably, overcompensate and begin to slice to the right. One needs to think holistically of their swing by correcting the problem with the rest of the “swinging components” in mind. Only then will your drive be corrected and not overcorrected. The case with Smith receiving less food is similar. In assuming everyone deserves food, but only focusing on Smith, then this analogy runs the risk of overcompensating for Smith and losing sight of everyone’s deserved food. I think this is easily seen by some of my comments above—discrediting the slogan, “everyone deserves good” due to wrong action, not a wrong moral claim. Thus, this is a bad analogy because it discredits the wrong thing and is, at best, agnostic regarding equality (they very thing it is trying to argue for).
- Abortion Analogy
Recently, an author named Patrick S. Tomlinson tweeted a thought experiment, or analogy to argue for abortion. The series of tweets (9) gave this classic scenario. Say there is a fire in a fertility clinic. In one room, there is a five-year-old child and in another room, there is a frozen container of 1,000 viable embryos. You only have enough time to save one, so which do you save? He continues to elaborate on his analogy by saying that no one would save the 1,000 viable embryos. If they do answer it this way, then they are lying. If they answer by saving the five-year-old child, then they have admitted that the 1,000 viable embryos are less valuable than the one child, thus admitting that abortion is okay. Here is a link to his tweets. Here are some reasons why this is a bad analogy.
- An obvious problem with this analogy is it begs the question (an informal fallacy, see this article for a quick brush-up) by discrediting one of the answers right off the bat. Perhaps there is someone out there who truly does value 1,000 viable embryos over one five-year-old child. Who is Tomlinson to say that there is no one out there like that? But, this is only a minor point.
- The major flaw with this analogy is actually very easy to see. I don’t know if Tomlinson knows this, but this is a classic example of a conflict of moral absolutes only shifted to an abortion scenario (of course, this is only a conflict of absolutes for the pro-lifer, according to Tomlinson’s final analysis). Typically, this example deals with a train. Say you are watching a train that is approaching a fork in the tracks. The train is headed for the left, which leads to a broken bridge and everyone on the train will die, say, 100 people. If you switch the tracks and the train goes to the right, then it will run over 10 people (because it’s realistic for 10 people standing on train tracks). So, do you allow 100 people to die by doing nothing or do you do something and kill 10 people. Tomlinson’s analogy is, for all purposes, the same analogy. Why this is a bad analogy is because one’s answer only says one thing, not two. If you choose to save the five-year-old child, then all you are saying is that the five-year-old has more value than the 1,000 embryos. Tomlinson clarifies this in a later tweet. However, he still believes that this analogy proves that abortion is morally acceptable because the five-year-old child has more value. But, in order to show that abortion is morally acceptable, he must demonstrate that having less value than a five-year-old child is a low enough value to permit abortion, and this analogy does not do this. Here is an analogy to show that his analogy is wrong. Let’s replace the abortion analogy with a money analogy; the five-year-old child with $100 and the 1,000 embryos with $50 (This in no way assumes that I value a five-year-old child as $100). So, if I say that $100 is more valuable than $50, does it mean that stealing $50 is not a crime because it is less valuable than $100? No, of course not. This analogy says nothing about the crime of stealing. What does this analogy say about the value of $50? It only says that $50 is less than $100, which is to say almost nothing at all. The classic example with the train is not meant to prove whether 10 or 100 people have such less value that it is morally acceptable to kill or allow them to die. All it is meant to show you is which has more value. Therefore, it only shows one thing, not two; thus this analogy is bad. It does not prove that abortion is morally acceptable. The only thing it does is cause one to think with would they save.
- And, just to be clear, this is not an easy example as Tomlinson so quickly brushes over, “there is a right answer,” as he said. In the classic example, there is no right answer. Doing nothing may seem to relieve you of moral responsibility, but perhaps people have a moral duty to save others within their ability. Thus, saving the 100 people even though you are not the cause of their death if you don’t, maybe the right option. While the other option is directly causing the death of 10 people, so it would seem that you are directly responsible for their deaths, but 10 deaths are not as bad as 100 deaths, so maybe it is justified? The point of this critique is that this is a tough example and should not be lightly taken and so flippantly used as Tomlinson used it. Not to be rude, but a simple perusal through any introduction to ethics books would quickly clear up this erroneous thinking.
Why Are Analogies So Important?
Here is a list of reasons for why analogies are so important:
1) Analogies Are Like Pictures For Our Arguments
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, an analogy is the same way. It is meant to demonstrate our meaning and intentions through a (sort of) story. Stories have been an excellent way to communicate truth and teaching others over the centuries. Many religions and ancient societies solely used stories to teach child their rules and morals.
2) Analogies Are An Easy Way For Us To Explain Universals
Universals are moral principles, laws of nature, they are the things that can be seen in many instances even if the circumstances are different. For example, kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach is bad in Florida. Kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach is bad in North Carolina, too. So, the universal is “kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach is bad” no matter where you are. Analogies are an easy way to expose the universals we are wanting to argue for and communicate.
3) Analogies Manifest One’s Feelings and Intentions Behind Their Argument
In the case of the BLM analogy, it is meant to show the importance of equality, so it uses an example everyone can relate to, food. The injustice it seeks to reveal and the feelings behind the scene are clearly seen through the example of someone not getting any food. Analogies can communicate our feelings and intentions more clearly than our formal arguments.
4) Analogies Will Ultimately Fail, No Matter What
Every analogy will ultimately fail. The trick is to make your point through the analogy before it fails. Every analogy fails because it’s a different event than the one you are arguing about, so it doesn’t “match-up” perfectly to what you are discussing. Take the train analogy, for example. The analogy breaks down when one considers why there are 10 people just hanging out on the railroad tracks and why you couldn’t just yell at them to move or why they wouldn’t move once they saw the train barreling down towards them. So, this analogy isn’t realistic, but the point of the analogy remains intact before it breaks down. This is important to remember when considering an analogy’s importance because it really shows that analogies are meant to augment our arguments, not be our arguments. Tomlinson seems to forget this. His series of tweets were meant to be an argument for abortion, but all he used was an analogy and some anecdotal comments. If you only use an analogy, then the best you’ll get is an ambiguous argument that those in favor of can only say, “Hooray,” those against can say, “Boo,” and the rest of the audience who are lost in the ambiguity can say, “Huh?” Analogies are vastly important, but their importance is limited and requires an argument to augment.