Don’t Let the Perverted Analogy Trip Up the Gay Debate

First published at on January 18, 2010

The Gay Moralist is a philosophy professor by day, and today’s column is a logic lesson.

Consider the following two exchanges:

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.

Although people sometimes use the term “fallacy” to denote any false belief, philosophers reserve the term for faulty (but plausible-looking) patterns of reasoning. We give fallacies names to make it easier to spot and avoid these faulty patterns.

As far as I can tell, the specific fallacy described here doesn’t have a name. But it’s common enough to merit one. Some colleagues have suggested “Fallacy of Misreading,” which seems too broad, or “Fallacy of Being a Dumbass” which probably won’t catch on well.

I’d like to propose “Fallacy of Perverted Analogy.” The name captures the central problem: twisting an analogy to mean something broader than intended. In addition, “perverted” suggests something potentially non-consensual—which is appropriate here, since the fallacy is committed not by the originator of the analogy but by a second party. (Beyond that, I relish the thought of accusing certain marriage-equality opponents of perversion.)

It’s worth distinguishing this fallacy from others in the vicinity. This is not the fallacy of “false analogy,” which involves the analogy’s originator comparing two things that are NOT similar in the intended relevant respect.

It’s related to “Straw Man,” insofar as the person committing the fallacy now attacks the bad misreading (i.e. straw version) of the opponent’s argument rather than the actual argument. But it seems that “Perverted Analogy” occurs before “Straw Man.” Moreover, even if “Perverted Analogy” is a subspecies of “Straw Man” it’s specific enough to deserve its own name.

Same with “Red Herring,” which refers to an irrelevant point that throws one off the track of the main argument. That’s surely happening here, but in a precise way worth naming separately.

So, by definition, one commits the Fallacy of Perverted Analogy when one misreads an opponent’s analogy to make a far more sweeping comparison than the opponent needs or intends.

A nice example appeared at Mirror of Justice, a Catholic legal theory blog, last month. In a Christmas Eve post, Michael Perry observed that moral theology must take experiential evidence seriously, even though doing so is often difficult because of visceral reactions to the unfamiliar:

“I fully understand that for many of us this is hard to do–for some of us, impossibly hard: those whose socialization and psychology have bequeathed to them a profound aversion–I am inclined to say, an aesthetic aversion (though, of course, they do not experience it that way)–to unfamiliar modes of human sexuality. (Black bonding sexually with white? Yuk! Female bonding sexually with female? Or male with male? Yuk squared! ….)”

Perry was using aversion to interracial coupling as a familiar historical example of how visceral reactions make it difficult to appreciate the unfamiliar. But Robert George wasted no time in accusing Perry of tarring gay-rights opponents as “the equivalent of racists.” Only by perverting Perry’s analogy could one infer such an equivalence assertion.

There are, no doubt, many other examples of the fallacy—on both sides of the debate. Because I’m eager to name and fight the fallacy, it would be useful to collect these. Readers can post links to their favorite examples in the comments section.