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During the Supreme Court’s oral arguments yesterday examing Proposition 8, Chief Justice John Roberts entertained an analogy for the move to redefine marriage:

If you tell a child that somebody has to be their friend, I suppose you can force the child to say, “this is my friend,” but it changes the definition of what it means to be a friend. And that’s, it seems to me . . . what supporters of Proposition 8 are saying here. You’re—-all you’re interested in is the label and you insist on changing the definition of the label.

One commentator took immediate offense at the analogy, baffling at the comparison of marriage to childhood friendship. He further pointed out that redefining marriage is a matter of permitting, not compelling, as in Roberts’ hypothetical. But this, like so many other cases in public debate, misunderstands the function of analogies—-to point out an illustrative common property of two ideas, not to compare the substance of the ideas in their entirety.

If I, for instance, claimed that my friend’s unsuccessful attempts at rock climbing made him look like a “fish out of water,” it would be absurd to conclude my analogy was invidious because it compared my friend to a fish.

Roberts was, of course, comparing an instance of redefining friendship to the redefinition of marriage. If we were to supply the label “friendship” to something which just is not friendship, we would commit a logical offense, reappropriating a meaningful term to an object it does not suit. The relevant point in Roberts’ analogy is its anti-voluntarism: Marriage is not just whatever we say it is, and we cannot furtively repurpose marriage while pretending we are merely expanding the use of a label.

Mistaking analogies has become familiar in the marriage debate. The argument has often been made that if we establish a blanket right to be married in whatever fashion we see fit, there would seem to be no justice in prohibiting group marriage or other plural marital arrangements. Instead of seeing the analogies amongst revisions of marriage that alter its central properties, interlocutors have often claimed that traditionalists simply compare same-sex unions to polygamy and its unique demerits.

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