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.

14 comments:

corvus said...

Moynihan seems to be a real douchebag. Not only is he an libertarian, which is classified as a subset of douchebag, he completely ignores Yglesias description of what he is doing, which he knows, just so he can bash on a liberal. And he includes trite French phrases in his post title, next to the word Analogy.

Sweet Jesus, I hate libertarians.

Satori said...

And he includes trite French phrases in his post title, next to the word Analogy.

The post title is actually a reference to a piece of modern art. Because libertarians, unlike conservatives, can appreciate modern art and therefore pretend to be "hip". Which, of course, doesn't make them less of douchebags. In fact, it tends to make them smug "know-it-all" douchebags.

Anonymous said...

This is not a pipe [Picture of a pipe]

Actually, the douchebag's use of da french is appropriate. His title is trying to indicate that despite Yglesias protestations, he is arguing from analogy. On this poihnt, as Neil points out, he is wrong. He is also wrong on his appropriation of the idea behind the French title, which was a point about semiotics.

drip said...

We must remember that "Ceci" is not an analogy. It is a demonstrative pronoun which, in Magritte's famous piece, can be thought (in one way) to refer to a pipe. As such, it's misuse makes it a perfect example of a bad analogy illustrating Neil's point. Brilliant.

Ragout said...

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.

Surely you don't mean that Matt's "counterexample" rebuts all possible arguments for Israel's actions being justified? I guess a more charitable reading of your post is that you meant: an argument justifying Israel's actions is going to involve some kind of premise, though perhaps a less crazy premise than the one Matt criticizes.


Use counterexamples to argue against general claims. Don't fuck around with analogies.

Matt hasn't offered a counterexample. The general claim he's criticizing is something like: countries are justifed in taking any action at all in self-defense. Matt's "counterexample" is: Matt would not be justified in retaliating with a bazooka against the neighbors of a rock-thrower. Therefore, he implies, actions countries take in self-defense are not always justified.

The problem with this argument is that while Matt is many things, he is not a country. He is not even a soldier or a police officer. Private citizens such as Matt do not have the same right to take violent action as do countries, or soldiers, or police officers. Hence this is not a counterexample. It's not even a true argument. Now, you might claim that Matt's rights as a private citizen are somehow analogous to Israel's rights as a country, but that would be fucking around.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Surely you don't mean that Matt's "counterexample" rebuts all possible arguments for Israel's actions being justified?

Surely I don't. Maybe there's a way to fix the problematic premise of the pro-violence argument and successfully justify Israel's behavior. If it's an obvious fix, Yglesias did a sloppy job.

But it's not totally clear to me what should go in there. What's simultaneously modest enough to avoid counterexample and bold enough to justify what Israel is doing?

Ragout said...

The obvious thing to do is see what international law says about the right to self defense. A nice summary is "states can unilaterally resort to force only defensively, in the presence of an armed attack and to the extent necessary to repel it." This strikes me as too weak a right -- we don't require police officers to keep to such limited objectives; we want to prevent future attacks as well. But this principle is certainly enough to justify Israel's actions.

Paul said...

I'm not totally sure I follow. Isn't the assumption that the counterexample is relevant because it is analogous, at least in certain respects? I interpret Matt as offering an analogy as a counterexample. Are these really mutually exclusive categories?

Neil Sinhababu said...

Okay, Ragout, that's a general principle that Matt's counterexample wouldn't work on.

But I don't know if it covers Israel's actual behavior. Do you think that Israel is acting in a way that succeeds in repelling the armed attack? The rocket attacks have continued, and as many commentators have said, it's hard to see how Israel becomes more secure from Palestinian attacks in general by doing this.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Paul, let's see if this helps. Analogies are intended to point out similarities between different situations. Counterexamples are intended to knock out some general claim.

Now I guess you could say something that's intended to do both. But that's not what Yglesias is up to, as he describes himself. He's just trying to beat the general claim 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" by showing us a case where we can see its falsity.

claude said...

Whether what Matt said counts as an analogy or a counter-example, it is certainly deficient in that it purports to describe the situation in terms of bicycle rider who happens to be hit by a "smallish" rock, thrown--presumably at random--from a neighboring housing project, and then arguing that such an act does not entitle the rider to engage in unlimited violence by way of self-defense. True, no doubt, but would our response be different if this particular rock-thrower had publicly and repeatedly pledged himself to the total destruction of this particular rider, insisting that he would not stop throwing rocks until he had succeeded in killing the rider, and had demonstrated that he would, indeed keep throwing rocks? Does that change the moral calculus for you? Does that make the "conceivable" horrible outcomes Matt describes more likely? And is that not somewhat worse than the rock throwing having been a "sporadic" problem "in the city" "for a while"?

I think the reason people treat this as an analogy is that its power to move the reader to agree with the point it is trying to make is dependent on how similar the circumstances it posits are to the actual circumstances of the situation it is addressing in the real world. If you were to argue as a general premise that you had a right to try to kill someone who was holding a loaded gun to your child's head, and I responded with a hypothetical about someone who shouted threats at your child from across the street, you would not, I think, be impressed with my argument, whether I called it an analogy or a counter-example.

el ojete ojetivo said...

I come from Yglesias's blog via link. "Thanks for having me."
My point would be: counterexamples
are most useful when the truth therein invalidates the other person's argument outright.
If I say "no President was ever named Franklin", you may say "FDR was a president named Franklin, therefore you are wrong".
Now, I can make up millions of counterexamples to prove that Truman was wrong in authorizing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. None of these counterexamples would be definitive, since the matter at hand (the main point Truman had to act upon) seems to have been (and I am aware this is a personal opinion): what were the best available estimates about the expected number of casualties in a scenario where the bomb is dropped, against same estimates in a scenario where the bomb is not dropped.
In a historical perspective, fifteen or twenty years from now, strategic patterns are likely to emerge that deeply change our assessment of the Gaza situation. Likely, none of these will involve a Washington DC blogger's travails.

dr said...

Paul - They do have to be similar, but only to the extent that the case Yglesias presents must also be a case of self-defence. This can be especially confusing in debates like this one where rhetoric often stands in for sound argument.

Here's a way to think about it. Take a very simple, easily provable claim. For example,

P: All birds can fly.

Ok, so maybe that's not so easy to prove. But it's easy to understand what it would mean for it to be true. It would just have to be the case that whatever bird you pick, it will be a creature with the capacity for flight.

Now, suppose that somebody actually asserted that P were true. You might, if you cared enough to argue the point, respond with something like,

Q: Penguins are birds, but penguins can't fly.

The reason this works as a response is that P is making a claim about every bird there is. This implies that all you have to do to show that P is wrong is to provide one single solitary example of a bird that can't fly. In short, since penguins and ostriches are both kinds of birds, they are similar enough that Q provides a counter-example to P.

Here's where things get weird. Suppose your interlocutor were only interested in P because he was trying to defend the claim that,

O: My ostrich can fly.

And suppose he responded to Q by insisting that ostriches are not like penguins at all but are much more like cranes, hurons, and the magnificent eagle. Let's also imagine him to smugly remark that you can't very well know much about ostriches if you think their (slight!) similarity to penguins has anything at all to do with their capacity for flight.

Such a case would be analogous to the present debate.

Adrian said...

I agree with Neil but I wonder whether it makes any difference to the shape of the argument. All analogies differ from the case at issue; an analogy is *bad* if it differs from the case at issue in a manner that's relevant to a governing principle. So, whether Matt's using an analogy or a counter-example, Israel's response has to be to find a difference in principle between its actions in Gaza and Matt's response to the rock-thrower.

Grant first that Matt's case is a counter-example to the alleged principle that the right to self-defence covers the use of indiscriminate violence in the general vicinity of a threat.

In response, Israel would need to justify its actions based on a different principle. Say, that self-defence allows a targeted, proportional use of violence against the threat. And that, Israel then has to say, is what it's doing.

Now, if Matt's case had been an analogy, that particular response wouldn't be available. An analogy doesn't strike down just one principle; it purports to tell you what to do in the case at issue. So Israel would have to say, instead, that Matt's was a bad analogy. Perhaps because Matt's case involved indiscriminate use of violence in the general vicinity of a threat, while what Israel is doing is a targeted, proportional...

Same factual dispute, same ethical principles at issue.

I suppose if you don't use an analogy, you're not claiming that your scenario exactly mirrors the case at hand, so the other side is less likely to think "that's different you idiot" is an adequate response. If, that is, they appreciate the analogy/counter-example distinction.