Godwin’s Law states that as an online debate grows, the odds of one of the participants making a Nazi reference approaches 100%. Many people believe that the person who makes the Nazi analogy loses the argument by default (he has “violated” Godwin’s Law), but I don’t think that is right. Nazi hypotheticals can be used to iron out bad logical premises in an argument, if they are used correctly.
However, it is important to note the distinction between different kind of Nazi comparisons.
1. Sometimes people make completely opaque and unexplained Nazi references. For Example:
Person 1: I think I’ll vote for Rick Perry in the Republican Primary.
Person 2: He’s just like Hitler. What are you, a Nazi?
Here it is almost impossible to understand, without some context, what similarity exists between Rick Perry and Hitler, or between Person 1 and the Nazis. Often, when this kind of unexplained comparison is made, there is no real equivalence, and the comparison is just an unhelpful epithet.
2. Sometimes, people make completely irrelevant comparisons to the Nazis. For example:
Person 1: I think we should build more highway, because they are great.
Person 2: Hitler loved highways. We shouldn’t build Nazi roads here.
Here the comparison to the Nazis is clear, but irrelevant. The fact that Nazis loved the autobahn doesn’t make highways bad. Hitler probably loved pizza and filet mignon too, but that doesn’t make them any less delicious. Nazi references need to be more than valid comparisons, they need to have some substance relevant to a larger discussion.
3. In some circumstances, Nazi references can be used as valid counterexamples to a disputed principle. For example :
Person 1: Citizens should always obey the law.
Person 2: Should German citizens have obeyed laws to turn over their Jewish neighbors to Nazi death camps?
Nazi hypotheticals are useful because they provide a ready body of real world scenarios that most people identify as clearly evil. Almost nobody today is in favor of sending ethnic minorities to death camps or starting vicious aggressive wars for territorial gain. These scenarios can be referenced as obvious counterexamples that force somebody to qualify a logical premise (citizens should always obey the law unless the law is really bad) or discard it (citizens should not always obey the law).
It’s important to remember that such hypotheticals may only be useful when they specifically relate to obviously evil facets of Nazi policy. Everyone agrees that genocide and unprovoked wars of territorial aggression are bad. But comparisons between Swat team drug raids and violent SS house invasions to search for hidden Jews, for example, will still be unhelpful. Although everyone agrees that hunting for Jews is bad, not everyone believes that the tactics used to do so were inappropriate for all ends.
So, if you are going to use a Nazi hypothetical, make sure it’s explained, make sure it’s relevant, and make sure you are referring to something the Nazis did that is clearly evil. And expect to be misunderstood anyway.