Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Michael Vick’s Defenders and the Misuse of Analogies

Back in the over-heated days of the Terri Schiavo controversy, the Scoreboard discussed the importance of perceptive and fair analogies in the process of analyzing ethical problems, saying…

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.

The Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal, like the Schiavo mess, has again exposed the truly atrocious analogy-making abilities of commentators, the media, and advocates for various causes. Several times a day someone who is treated with undue deference by an interviewer comes out with a whopper of a bad analogy to prove that the Atlanta Falcons star quarterback has been mistreated, that worse offenders are getting favorable treatment, or that the public is hypocritical. These arguments do nothing but confuse the issues involved, which often is the intent. Worse, they can undermine the culture’s understanding of right and wrong, and further degrade what is already a perilously weak set of ethical analysis skills among much of the population.

A particularly shrill example is the claim, most notably made by New York Times columnist and author William Rhoden, that Vick’s fall is “like” what has happened to other black athletes such as Mohammad Ali , Jack Johnson, Barry Bonds and O. J. Simpson. His conclusion from these supposedly parallel life sagas?

This is a cautionary tale to African-Americans. If you’re accomplishing a lot, never relax. Never think that you can do what everyone else is doing. Never think that your money has put you in an untouchable position because you’re not. Never think that you are larger than anything because the rug can be pulled out from under you instantaneously.

Analogies are critical in law as well as in ethics, and law students are trained in knowing how to “distinguish” one legal case from another because the legal system operates on precedent. But one should not have to be a lawyer to figure out that there is no coherent lesson to be gleaned from the combined sagas of Ali, Johnson, Bonds, Simpson and Vick. In the classic test of analogies, they are all different from each other in more significant ways than they are similar, unless—and this must be considered—Rhoden is assuming that all of these athletes were framed because of their race, despite the Everest of evidence and logic to the contrary. If so, that is not just poor analogizing on his part, but intellectual dishonesty, bigotry, and perhaps insanity.

Let’s give Rhoden the benefit of the doubt and examine his analogies. Johnson, the early 20th Century heavyweight boxing champ who was indeed brought down by a combination of white racism and his own arrogance, lived during a Jim Crow America without inclusive civil rights, a strong black middle class, major cities with black mayors, and a national consensus that rejected racist attitudes. His “crime” was also marrying a white woman, something that is not a crime in the 21st Century, and a far cry from gambling on dogs to rip each other’s faces off. Jack Johnson’s fall is, needless to say, an invalid analogy to Michael Vick’s. Indeed, it is an absurd analogy, but no more absurd than the analogy to Ali, who was pursued by the legal system for refusing the military draft on principle. Although those who disagreed with Ali’s stand attacked him as unpatriotic, his actions were courageous, and like any martyr for a cause, his reputation was burnished, not stained, by his actions. It is an insult to “The Greatest” to compare his crime to Vick’s low-life animal abuse. O. J. Simpson’s crime, in contrast, was a horrific one that he committed long after his career had ended. He managed an acquittal, which under the circumstances is better than any run-of-the-mill white wife-killer could have achieved. Simpson’s problem wasn’t that he “relaxed,” and as far as I know, “everybody else” wasn’t stabbing two people to death, just him. Who “pulled the rug out from under” O.J. Idiotic.

And Bonds! Bonds is currently collecting millions of dollars and continuing to play baseball despite cheating in his sport on an epic level. If Vick’s dog-fighting exploits somehow made him a more successful quarterback…for example, if he could position his vicious pets on the defensive line to maul blitzers…maybe then a comparison with Bonds would be less attenuated.

But let’s not pick on Rhoden, for he has lots of company. The argument that a white quarterback who was in Vick’s position would be treated differently has been used again and again. Washington Post sportswriter Mike Wise slyly injected "with a straight face" into his account of an official saying that Vick has been treated like any white athlete. This is pure fantasy. Can anyone doubt that if Bret Favre or another white NFL quarterback dublicated Vick’s conduct, he would be condemned, shunned and punished? Then we have the desperate Vick defenders who are comparing Vick’s dog-fighting to eating meat, hunting, horse-racing and dog-racing. For these animal rights advocates, the central fact that animals are killed, hurt or used for sport is all that matters, and the distinctions between legal and illegal, culturally acceptable and sadistic, necessary and gratuitous, humane and cruel don’t register at all. I would be happy to see horse-racing and gambling made illegal, for they are both corrupt sports and there are too many people in both of them who mistreat animals. But racing animals who are born to run is not the same as making dogs bite each other for entertainment, and the fact that one activity should be made illegal does not justify someone engaging in another pursuit that has correctly been banned as barbaric.

Carrying the silly analogies in another direction are commentators like the Washington Post’s bizarre columnist Courtland Milloy, who sees dog-fighting as little different from human sports and…Animal Planet?

For the most part, we revel in a culture of blood sports in which people and animals are pitted against each another. The knockout in boxing, the knockdown in football, the crashes at Daytona and Indianapolis — those are the draw. Without the video images of tigers ripping the hides from zebras, cobras fighting mongooses and other bloody contests played out in the wild kingdom, the Discovery and National Geographic channels might as well go off the air.”

Here are some distinctions you may have overlooked, Courtland. See, athletes, unlike dogs, engage in sports because they want to and are paid for it. Vick’s dogs, on the other hand, had no way to say, “Sorry, no, I don’t want my teeth filed to resemble little stillettos.” Human athletes aren’t electrocuted by Michael Vick when they retire, either. Their sports are also legal. As for those zebra-killing tigers (er, lions, not tigers, hunt zebras…maybe you should watch those shows a little more closely), this is called nature. Now, if Bret Favre had a secret arena in the Virginia woods where helpless zebras were put in a ring with hungry tigers and people bet on how long the zebras could stay alive, and if the tigers that didn’t kill the zebras fast enough were hanged, why, then you might have a point.

To close his jaw-dropping essay, Milloy actually analogizes gun manufacturers to dog-fight promoters, suggesting that because guns kill people and dog-fights only kill dogs, society should be jailing the manufacturers rather than the promoters. Got that? A terrible analogy. Now, if the gun manufacturers personally shot people, or organized events in which people shot at each other…or, to make it even more relavant to Vick, if the gun manufacturers shot dogs, there would be a basis for comparison. But gun manufacturers make a legal product that has legitimate and legal uses, unlike what dog-fighting promoters produce, which is illegal and has no legitimate use. If Milloy wants to argue for illegalizing guns, he should do it, but using a comparison to Vick is illogical.

Other aspiring analogists have attempted to prove the system’s unfairness to Vick by comparing his fate to that of drunk-driving starlet Lindsay Lohan. “DUI is a far more serious crime than dog-fighting,” a Vick defender asserted on CNN. That is debatable, but this is not: the correct analogy would be between one instance of dog-fighting and one DUI episode. Vick was guilty of multiple crimes, including running an illegal gambling operation, an illegal dog-fighting conspiracy, and several instances of animal abuse and cruelty over a period of years. DUI is a crime of judgement and recklessness, while animal abuse and dog-fighting are crimes of depravity and cruelty. But even if we accept the equivalency claim for the sake of argument, one must speculate on the kind of punishment Lohan would draw if she, like Vick, had engaged in her crime repeatedly over a period of years. Even if nobody was hurt, she would still end up with a long prison sentence, maybe longer than Vick’s.

To return again to the Scoreboard’s commentary in 2005’s “The Ethics of Analogy“:

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. 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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