Monday, January 12, 2009

The Difference Between Analogies And Counterexamples

So here's the debate at present: Congress passes a resolution saying that Israel has a right to self-defense. Of course, that's correct. Countries have that right. But this is intended as a defense of Israel's behavior. Matthew Yglesias tells a story to explain why pointing to the right to self-defense doesn't work as a defense of what Israel's doing in Gaza.
One time when I was riding my bike, someone threw a smallish rock at me from a housing project across the street. As it happens, the kid didn’t hit me and everything was fine. But I suppose if he’d hit me in just the right way I could have been knocked down and injured. And depending on what the cars on the road were doing, it’s conceivable that I could have wound up being run over and terribly injured. Long story short, it was a pretty terrible thing for the thrower to be doing. And this has been a sporadic problem in the city for a while. But obviously it wouldn’t have bene right for me to stop, get off my bike, pull a bazooka out of my bag, and blow the houses from which the rock emanated to smithereens while shouting “self-defense!” and “double-effect!” And had I done so, and killed some innocent people in the course of things, and then I’d tried to say that the real blame for the deaths lay with the rock-thrower who’d started it everyone would look at me like I was crazy. And this is true even though it’s clear that going to the police would have been useless in that case.

I don’t believe in analogies, so don’t read that as one. Rather, it makes the point that the existence of a right to self-defense doesn’t authorize just doing whatever any more than the injustice of occupation justifies deliberately targeting civilians.

Michael Moynihan of Hit & Run criticizes Yglesias a post titled Ceci n'est pas une Analogy, because he thinks what Yglesias is doing in the above paragraph is an analogy. But it isn't! And it's actually part of my skill set as a philosophy professor to tell you what it really is. It's a counterexample.

Here's how counterexamples work. Somebody makes an argument including a premise like, "If you have the right to self-defense and you're faced with violent threats to yourself, you're allowed to do violence in whatever way will eliminate the violent threats." Insofar as the Congressional resolution fits into an argument for Israel's current actions being justified, it's going to involve a premise like this. One way to defeat an argument is to show that it proceeds from false premises. So Yglesias gives you an example that shows why we shouldn't accept that premise. He's giving a counterexample to an important premise of the pro-violence argument. As he says, "I was, rather, offering an example designed to prove a narrow point, specifically that a claim of self-defense doesn’t operate as a blanket license to wreak destruction."

That's different from an analogy, which is based merely on a similarity between two situations. The analogy simply says, "this situation is like that situation, so we should do in this situation what we'd do in that situation." And this isn't a great way of arguing, because it's kind of a mess to decide which things are more or less like other things. As Matt says, one way of trying to deal with this problem is to "specify the analogy so as to exactly mirror the situation you’re debating. In which case you may as well just debate the situation. Long story short—these analogy fights are stupid."

Strive to give sound arguments, and to show that other people's arguments aren't sound. Use counterexamples to argue against general claims. Don't fuck around with analogies. That's how it's done.
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