The Ethics of Analogy

The Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) got rid of its analogies section this year, which doesn’t bode well for discussions of ethics controversies in the future. The analogy is an indispensable tool for ethical analysis: if you can accurately match a controversial situation that isn’t ethically clear to one that is, you’re on the way to a making a determination of the right thing to do. The key word in that sentence is accurately, for analogies are misused in ethics debates with alarming regularity. Sometimes the reason is the user’s ignorance or lack of facility with analogies generally. Sometimes the misuse is intentional, to confuse or deceive others who don’t have the skills to recognize and discard a flawed argument. In either case, the result of inapt (or inept) analogies is to make ethical analysis more difficult, if not impossible.

Some analogies are so misbegotten that they reveal a charlatan, an ignoramus, or both. I’ll never forget listening to a far away station on my little transistor radio when I was 13, and hearing some zealot’s anti-evolution theory rant. "Can you imagine anyone really believing this stuff?" he said, his voice dripping with contempt. "Believing in evolution is as dumb as me leaving a four-cylinder engine in my back yard for a couple thousand years and expecting to come back to find that it’s turned into an eight-cylinder engine!"

Sorry, Bozo…that’s not a good analogy. Useful, though, because it did reveal that either the speaker knew absolutely nothing about biology, genetics, or evolution, or that he did know something about these topics but chose to invoke a blatantly misleading argument to confuse those who didn’t. The former is irresponsible, the latter is dishonest. Both are unethical. Bad analogies can be like bullets: shoot them off negligently or maliciously and they cause a lot of harm. In the Terri Schiavo debate over the last several weeks, the analogies were flying fast and furious, and they grievously wounded the chances of coherent ethical clarification.

Let’s take the sign of one of the "Save Terri" demonstrators:

"I’d go to jail if I starved my dog to death!"

This analogy is inflammatory, careless, and indefensible. If a beloved dog ended up in Terri Schiavo’s condition, any owner, including the protestor, would euthanize it out of kindness, and proactively, with a lethal injection. Is the sign-maker advocating a speedier death for Terri? Clearly not. No, the point of the sign is that Terri Schiavo being allowed to die is "the same" as starving a healthy and conscious dog, a punishable act of cruelty. But that is wrong; obviously wrong. A legitimate analogy to a healthy dog being starved to death is a healthy Terri Schiavo being starved to death, which would have been a capital crime punishable in America with far harsher penalties than is cruelty to animals. And whatever Terri Schiavo was, we can all agree, she was not "healthy."

Then we have the conservative radio talk show hosts, who launched scads of unforgivably bad analogies into the ozone. Here’s the 800-pound gorilla of the breed, Rush Limbaugh, sending out a whopper:

 "These same liberals who are so eager to kill Terri Schiavo would be outraged if food were withheld from Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, or the prisoners at Abu Ghraib!"

Let’s see if we can finger, oh, let’s pick a number…eight…things wrong with Rush’s analogy.

  • First, terms: withdrawing extraordinary treatment to allow someone to die is not, in the eyes of the law, "killing" that person. I know many conservatives, after decades of extolling the "rule of law," suddenly feel now that it is appropriate to discount the law when they don’t like the results, but there it is.

  • The withholding of food from Osama, Saddam and the others would be a violation of law and international treaties. No such violations were involved with Terri Schiavo’s treatment.

  • The fact that Osama and Saddam (don’t get me started on the treatment of the Abu Ghraib prisoners…check out the Scoreboard archives) are consensus villains does not mean that anyone can justifiably mistreat or harm them without legal process. If anyone is mistreated, bad guys or good guys or just regular guys, everybody who embraces American ideal should be outraged…including you, Rush.

  • Presumably the treatment of Osama and the others would be considered "punishment." Nobody is "punishing" Terri Schiavo.

  • The courts have determined that Terri Schiavo willed and assented to her current treatment. Osama and Saddam have not approved their starvation, and are not likely to.

  • Removing a feeding tube from a vegetative patient is not the same thing as withholding food from a healthy prisoner who wants to be fed.

  • Terri Schiavo is not a prisoner.

  • The treatment of Terri Schiavo has been determined by legal process to be consistent with her best interests. Nobody would maintain that starving the individuals listed by Limbaugh would be in their "best interests."

Oh, it’s just an awful analogy. But you know Rush’s ditto-heads were wielding it around the dinner table, spreading ethical confusion as they did. Thanks a bunch, Rush.

More pervasive is the continuing effort to analogize Terri Schiavo to a fetus, and equate the decision to remove the feeding tube from a catastrophically incapacitated adult with an abortion of a healthy fetus. Yet there would not necessarily be inconsistent for an individual to oppose abortion while supporting Michael Schiavo’s decision that his wife should be allowed to die, or for someone to oppose Michael Schiavo while supporting abortion rights. That’s because the analogy is invalid. For one thing, many abortion advocates don’t acknowledge that an unborn child is a "person," with the inherent legal rights that go along with that status. Terri Schiavo was, in the eyes of the law, a person, if a catastrophically disabled one. Healthy fetuses may be legally aborted in the interests of the mother alone; no court decides whether an abortion is in the best interests of a fetus, or whether the fetus has expressed its desire to die. That is because of the core flaw in the "Terri as fetus" analogy: a fetus, allowed to develop to term, is likely to be a healthy human being. Terri Schiavo was never going to be a healthy human being.

The analogy between Terri Schiavo and an unborn child is based on one factor only, and even that one is matter of debate: both are, or were, living human beings. Or are they? Personally, I believe that an unborn child is a living human being, and a person whose cerebrum has been destroyed is not. Senator Tom Harkin believes just the opposite. An analogy that depends on such controversial factors is useless, unless your intent is to confuse rather than enlighten.

Even worse was the "Terri Schiavo’s death equals capital punishment" analogy. Did you hear that one? Sean Hannity was obsessed with it. It went like this: liberals insist on endless appeals when someone has been convicted of murder and condemned to die, but they objected to giving Terri Schiavo every judicial opportunity to save her life. This bizarre comparison so muddled the brains of some people that there was actually talk of Florida Governor Jeb Bush "pardoning" Terri; absurd, as the pardon power can only be used in cases of those convicted of crimes.

This analogy fails at the outset because the court decisions authorizing the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube were predicated on a determination that it was her expressed wish. But prisoners are executed (in most cases) against their express wishes. That is punishment: part of the essence of punishment is to do that which the object of the punishment views as unwanted and unpleasant. It is also an insidious analogy, because unprincipled, unsophisticated, or inarticulate advocates used its faulty logic to make outrageous extrapolations, as in the need for a "pardon." For example, "Terri’s only crime is that she is disabled!" implied that the nation is committed, Third Reich-like, to executing disabled persons.

The list goes on and on, as concepts and terms were inadvertently or willfully jumbled, confused, misapplied or exaggerated. Because a videotape excerpt showed Ms. Schiavo’s eyes following a balloon, Tom DeLay pronounced her "lucid." Lucid? By no stretch of the imagination or definition of the word could Terri Schiavo be called "lucid." Michael Schiavo’s intimate relationship with another woman while his wife lay in hopeless waking incomprehension for 15 years was described as if it were the equivalent of a tawdry affair out of "Desperate Housewives". Schiavo’s disability, which was a lack of cerebral activity that left her unable to think, feel, or perceive the world, was made the equivalent of being in a wheelchair. The removal of her tube became "torture;" despite the fact that her brain injury made her insensible, she was "suffering" from "thirst" and "hunger."

Assessments of right and wrong become impossible when the situation requiring analysis is misrepresented, distorted, and disguised by poor analogies and deceptive or misleading terms. The Terri Schiavo case shows how important and useful carefully considered analogies can be in examining difficult ethical issues, and how misconceived analogies can sabotage good faith efforts to get at the truth.

A bad analogy is frequently the sign of an uncritical argument or a dishonest advocate. The cause of ethics is ill-served by both.


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