Critical Thinking 12: Analogies

Analogies are comparisons made in an argument to help prove a point. You’re arguing about one thing and you put it in the terms of another, to help people to see it in a different light. For example:

Getting into your car to drive a few hundred metres to the corner shop is as ridiculous as hopping that distance: both are clumsy, grossly inefficient, and enough to make you a laughing stock.

The analogy here is between driving a car and hopping. Obviously, the two are not the same, but the argument tries to make a point about the inefficiency of driving short distances by getting us to imagine it in terms of hopping. Driving does not have to be entirely the same as hopping for this to be convincing: just similar in the relevant way. In this case, the relevant way would be in terms of the clumsiness, inefficiency, and ridiculousness of both.Nude_man_hopping_on_right_foot_Edward Muybridge

There are obviously some parallels here, but that doesn’t mean that the analogy is particularly successful. One reason for its lack of success may be that we tend to view inefficiency in using fuel rather differently from inefficiency in using our own bodily energy. Hopping a few hundred metres might just be seen as a good, though rather bizarre, form of useful exercise, whereas driving that distance wastes fuel – which we can more easily measure. The ridiculousness of hopping might also be exactly what makes it positive fun for some, whereas driving a car a few hundred metres would only be ‘ridiculous’ in the sense of drawing condemnation from the ecologically-minded. What looked like similarities at first turn out to be rather stretched and thin.

A well-judged analogy can be really helpful. It can help people to ‘think outside the box’ of the cognitive models they’re in the habit of using, and bring in the imagination to allow them to consider their experience in a more open way. However, it’s also very easy to dismiss a poorly-applied analogy. The problem is that there will always be dissimilarities as well as similarities between the two things being compared, so it is very easy just to latch onto the dissimilarities and use them as an excuse to dismiss the argument, if you’re a bit resistant to it in the first place. But a Middle Way approach involves trying to reach a balanced appreciation both of the similarities and the dissimilarities.

So, when you come across an analogy, it helps to think clearly about what the analogy is being used to support, and what sorts of relevant similarities and dissimilarities there are. The analogy may also need to be seen in a wider context, as there may be counter-arguments based on strong dissimilarities that just aren’t being considered. Here’s what I hope is a useful checklist:

  • What is the analogy trying to show?
  • Is the analogy relevant to what it is trying to show?
  • What are the relevant similarities?
  • What are the relevant dissimilarities?
  • Are the assumptions being made about the things being compared correct?
  • Are there other important dissimilarities that are not being taken into account?

Here are a couple more examples to illustrate the application of some of these questions:

Politicians in Britain today are just like African dictators, only out to get what they can from the country and squirrel it away in their offshore bank accounts. We will never get straight politicians.

This analogy is weak because the assumptions being made about British politicians are factually dubious. There may be a few cases of corruption, but these are nowhere near the scale of certain well-known corrupt African dictators (such as Mobutu in Congo). Of course, African dictators themselves are also rather varied, and some may not be particularly corrupt.

Jess has red hair and likes reading like her sister. She’ll probably become an English teacher like her sister.

Here the analogy is between Jess and her sister, but the fact of her having red hair is of no relevance to the probability of her becoming an English teacher. The fact that she likes reading is relevant, but is not strong enough by itself to support the conclusion, as lots of people who like reading do not become English teachers.


Assess the strength of these analogical arguments:

1. Cars should be restricted just as guns are, because they are lethal weapons just like guns. Cars kill and injure people just as much as guns do.

2. Motorists who kill people through reckless driving should be given a life sentence just like a murderer. The outcome is the same: a dead person.

3. More people are killed by horse-riding each year than by taking ecstasy. Ecstasy is thus less dangerous than horse-riding, and it is inconsistent to maintain horse-riding as a legal activity whilst banning ecstasy.

4. The practice of arranged marriage (as practised, for example, in Asian and Islamic cultures) is necessary to take into account young people’s lack of experience when they choose a partner. We need someone else to make this choice for us when we are inexperienced. This has been effectively admitted in Western culture when people use dating agencies and dating websites to select a partner for them, so it is hypocritical for people who use these services to criticise arranged marriage.

 Index of previous blogs in the Critical Thinking course

Picture: Nude man hopping on right foot (Edward Muybridge studies in locomotion)


About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

3 thoughts on “Critical Thinking 12: Analogies

  1. 1.
    A dissimilar analogy becase the analogy tries to show that cars and guns are weapons, cars are not purchased with the intention of using them as weapons. Cars and guns have no relevant similarity. the assumption that they are the same is incorrect
    This is probably a similar analogy, it does sow there is a relevant similarity between the two outcomes from dangerous driving that maims and use of guns which murder, but it is not really a useful or relevant comparison.
    This analogy attempts to show that horse riding and ecstacy produce the same results, but it is a dissimilar analogy. Ban the drug if it is harmful but to ban a sport such as horse riding because harm may sometimes result is a dissimilar analogy, taking ecstacy and sport are not relevant similarities
    Here is a similar analogy, to critise an arranged marriage is hypocritical, having a partner chosen for a person or finding a partner via a dating agency can be viewed as being similar, unless marriage is forced on the couple in the arranged marriage, it is not forced from matching by a dating agency, then there is a dissimilarity between the two methods, if both partners agree with the decision made for them that would be analogous to the latter method of finding a partner. The matter of force has to be taken into account when deciding if it is similar or dissimilar.

  2. 1. This analogy has a certain strength if you feel that the deaths and injuries caused by cars is too high in proportion to the advantages they provide. Admittedly the analogy weakens when you consider that guns are specifically designed to cause injury and death and although there are a lot more road deaths a year, say in the UK, than gun deaths, there are a lot more cars. I would nevertheless feel it would be appropriate to have some further restrictions for cars such as raising the age when one can drive to 21 and having longer driving bans for drink/reckless driving.

    1. This analogy goes too far as there is a significant difference in intending to kill someone and doing it by accident. However, that doesn’t mean to say that people are not responsible to a lesser or greater extent according to the circumstances of the death they have caused. This needs to be taken into account in any judicial proceedings.

    3. I refer to your answer to this analogy put forward by David Knutt after being sacked by the government as drugs Zsar , which makes sense to me.
    “He makes a good point with the analogy, but it does have some weaknesses that he is rather reluctant to acknowledge. The main problem is that statistics about fatalities and serious injuries are not the only indicator of danger – in the case of ecstasy there could be danger of addiction or of longer-term mental or physical health effects, neither of which are the case with horse-riding.”

    4. This is a fairly weak analogy as although it highlights the similarities in the two approaches in regards to affording certain advantages that go with being selective, it doesn’t take into such factors as choice, attraction, coercion, vested interests etc.

  3. Here are my answers
    1. As both Barry and Norma recognised, the problem here is that the differing intentions behind cars and guns are not taken into account. Cars also have many useful effects apart from their side-effect of occasionally killing people. So quite a weak analogy.

    2. The similarity in outcome here, again, might distract us from a potentially great difference in intention. However, there can be different degrees of recklessness, from slight carelessness to a state in which you don’t care who you kill, and also different degrees of responsibility for that carelessness. At the extreme end you could make a case for treating the worst dangerous drivers like murderers, but the argument doesn’t take into account this incrementality.

    3. This is, indeed, a summary of David Knutt’s argument, though with a slightly altered conclusion (Knutt was arguing about government policy). The analogy would be much stronger if it was only explicitly concerned with danger of death, rather than potentially with other types of danger.

    4. I agree with Barry here. There is a similarity between arranged marriage and using a dating website in the sense that you let someone else do your matching for you. However, the circumstances are rather different. On a dating website both parties chose to use it, and are not under any pressure to accept the outcome (or even to take it at all seriously if they don’t find a good match). In contrast, traditional arranged marriages are loaded with traditional expectations, and the basis of the parents’ choice is likely to be much more socially restricted than that on a dating website. Arranged marriage should not be confused with forced marriage, but there are also degrees of social pressure on the young people concerned.

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