Ethics: False Analogies and Voter I.D. Law

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November 14, 2012 by Michael

One element of reasonable (and ethical) argumentation is being logical. Defining logic can be challenging—I’ll save that explanation for another post—so sometimes it’s easier to define it negatively. Being logical means not being illogical. That is, being logical means not committing any logical fallacies, of which there are many.

One you’ll often seen employed is the false analogy, in which a valid comparison between two things is used to prove the existence of another, irrelevant comparison. Think of it as a hyperextended metaphor.

The analogies that used to drive us Gen Xers crazy on SATs required us to figure out the logic behind a series of two comparisons between two things.

So the analogy Hospital:Doctor::College:Professor (which is read “A hospital is to a doctor as a college is to a professor.”) makes a series of two comparisons. First, that a hospital and a college are similar in that they are institutions run by people. And, second, that doctors and professors are similar because they are the main workers at those institutions. Thus, hospitals are related to colleges in the same way that doctors are related to teachers.

(In case you were wondering, SATs don’t have analogies on them anymore, an absence that another columnist blames for the absence of logic in politics).

This SAT example is a valid, logical analogy, one that could be used as the basis for many other analogies because the two things we’re comparison (hospitals and colleges) share a close similarity. Another characteristic of logical analogies is that two very similar things are being compared.

In false analogies, on the other hand, one comparison is used to suggest (and often prove) an unrelated comparison. Typically, the main comparison itself is weak, and the two items are too dissimilar for too many comparisons (analogies) to be made from them. Take this example of a false analogy (adapted from one found on

Employees are like the nails of a business—there are many of them and they hold the business together. Therefore, like nails, employees need to be hit on the head to function properly.

The main comparison, that employees are like nails, is a cute image, but not a terribly strong comparison. There are many more ways that employees are not like nails, most notably in that their heads are not flattened and made of iron. The analogy therefore is a false one because the initial comparison is weak.

We accept false analogies because similarity is seductive—comparisons employed to discover similarities are essential human reasoning. It’s how we make sense of the strange or unfamiliar. When someone tells you they’ve tasted some exotic meat, the stock answer about how that food tastes is that it tastes “like chicken.” We can spot similarities everywhere, and it’s a great children’s game to try and find similarities between two things that are completely different.

Politicians play on this desire for similarity, in our inherent desire to see a complicated situation by comparing it to something simpler and more familiar. In the process, they create a false analogy.

I heard this tactic used in the recent debate about voter ID laws. At the Republican National Convention, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said that voter ID laws were necessary because of the following logic:

“We said in South Carolina that if you have to show a picture ID to buy Sudafed and you have to show a picture ID to set foot on an airplane, then you should have to show a picture ID to protect one of the most valuable, most central, most sacred rights we are blessed with in America – the right to vote.”

On the surface, this makes a plausible argument, and I’ve heard it used by other politicians, too. Getting on a plane or buying Sudafed are important things we do, and we have to show ID cards there. Since voting is so much more important than these things, shouldn’t we show a similar level of security at the ballot box?

As always with false analogies, the similarities between voting and buying cold medicine or boarding a plane—a ludicrous comparison when you write them down this way—start to fall apart.

For starters, voting is a basic right and duty; flying in a plane and buying Sudafed are not. There are, in fact, plenty of times and places where showing your ID doesn’t coincide with a right or duty at all: the liquor store, a nightclub, buying something with a credit card, seeing an R-rated movie. There is little correlation, therefore, between showing your ID and the exercise of a basic civic right and duty.

Similarly, we require IDs on planes and in the drugstores of many states because of overwhelming evidence of the problem of terrorism and meth addiction. We didn’t ask for IDs before boarding airplanes until terrorists starting hijacking them, and we didn’t start carding for cold medicine until people figured out you could cook it up into a drug.

There has been no proof of systematic voter fraud, not even in the controversial Pennsylvania law. If there’s no proof of a failure in the system, then it’s not like boarding planes or buying Sudafed.

In fact, one major difference between voting and airplanes or cold medicine is that I have the undeniable right to vote. You can kick me off your airplane or refuse to sell me Sudafed, even after I’ve shown you my ID, and I cannot complain that you have violated my civil rights. But if you deny me the right to vote, I have—quite literally—a Federal case against you.

One final way in which this analogy is false lies in the fact that the Governor is comparing voting to airplanes and Sudafed purely on the basis of the requirement to show one’s ID. She’s making the comparison on the basis of the very thing she’s arguing for (requiring IDs to vote), adding circular reasoning to the list of fallacies.

And so, the more we look at the comparison between voting and these other two activities (in which we happen to be asked for ID), the less valid this analogy becomes. The comparison it’s based on is not only thin, it is based on the assumption that carding voters is already happening—the very thing she’s arguing in favor of. Not only do we have one logical error; we have two.

Which brings me to a final comparison (though not an analogy). Politicians are like onions: every time I peel back a layer of fallacy, I find another one underneath.


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