Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What is Godwin's Law?

I recently came across an article from pro-choice blogger Libby Anne, who responded to a letter and stated that the only place men have in the abortion debate is supporting a woman's right to choose (abortion). In other words, men have no place in the abortion debate unless they're pro-choice. How open-minded. I didn't realize my genitals could influence the soundness and validity of my arguments. You learn something new every day.

However, that's not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about something that is often mentioned in controversial discussions but is rarely used correctly: Godwin's Law. Near the end of her article, Libby Anne said that she "violated Godwin's Law" by mentioning the Germans and Nazis. I have often seen someone try to invoke Godwin's Law whenever a comparison to Nazis or Hitler is made.

Godwin's Law was a tongue-in-cheek observation made by Mike Godwin, in which he stated: "As an on-line discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." For those of you unfamiliar with Bayesian reasoning, if something has the probability of zero, it is impossible; if it is 1, it is certain; the closer a probability is to 1, the more certain it is.

Essentially, Godwin's Law is an observation, not a law. If you raise a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis, you have not violated an actual law. You have simply confirmed Godwin's observation.

As Wikipedia puts it: Godwin's law applies especially to inappropriate, inordinate, or hyperbolic comparisons of other situations (or one's opponent) with Nazis -- often referred to as "playing the Hitler card." If you compare your opponent to Hitler, you've "violated this law," but it would be more accurate to say that you have committed an actual logical fallacy, the ad hominem.

"Godwin's Law," in the sense of an ad hominem attack, does not apply if the comparison to Hitler or Nazis is legitimate. Comparing abortion to the Holocaust can be legitimate, but only if the correct parallels are made. There are obvious disanalogies between the two. There are also parallels, such as both being human rights violations, and both requiring the dehumanizing/depersonalization of the victim group in question to justify the act. You must engage with each particular invocation of the Holocaust in order to see if fallacious reasoning is being utilized.

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