Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The definition game

In various places around the Internet, including my blog, I find myself arguing with people against the idea of gay "marriage." In the course of participating in discussions about this topic, I've started to learn the difference between an effective argument and an ineffective one as regards the idea of same-sex "marriage."

One of the less effective arguments often goes something like this, and is conducted between a traditional marriage supporter (TSM) and a gay-rights advocate (GRA):
TSM: Two people of the same gender can't get married. That changes the definition of marriage.

GRA: What is the definition of marriage?

TSM: Marriage is a legal and sexual union between one man and one woman.

GRA: And where does this definition come from?

TSM: Our culture and civilization. Marriage has meant this one thing for a couple thousand years, at least.

GRA: But if our culture wants to change the definition, then it can.

TSM: But having same-sex marriage changes the definition too much. If marriage isn't between a man and a woman, then what is it?

GRA: It's the legal and sexual union of two people. Gender isn't important.

TSM: But gender is important to the definition of marriage.

GRA: To a definition, maybe. But there have been many definitions of marriage throughout human history. And we no longer think gender matters in most areas. So why should it matter in marriage?

TSM: Because marriage is about procreation, about having children...

GRA: Now, wait a minute! You said the definition of marriage was the legal and sexual union of a man and a women. There's nothing about children in the definition. If there were, then infertile couples and elderly couples couldn't get married.

TSM: Just because I didn't mention it didn't mean that it's not part of our understanding of...

GRA: But it's not in the definition. By the definition, marriage is pretty vague. There's no reason for it to involve a man and a woman, and not two men or two women. There's really no reason for it to be limited to two people, except that our culture isn't ready to take that step.

TSM: You're altering the definition so much that you're making the word marriage mean nothing!

GRA: Well, you can't seem to define it in such a way that it means only what you want it to mean. So maybe it doesn't really mean anything...
There are better ways to argue against gay marriage, of course. But I show this argument, which is a composite of many such discussions I've seen online and elsewhere, to show what happens when you insist on having a precise definition as the starting point for a discussion about a moral issue.

The same thing happens in the torture debate, from the opposite side. The torture defender insists that without an extremely precise definition of exactly what torture is in each and every possible hypothetical situation, we can't possibly say that torture is wrong, that it is morally evil, gravely so. But just as the definition of marriage is hard to pin down in a single declarative sentence drafted in such a way that it reflects the religious, moral, philosophical and cultural understanding of the Christian West and not, say, the understanding of ancient or modern pagan and/or polygamous cultures, etc., so is it difficult to pin down a definition of torture that, while being specific and legal, reflects the moral vision of Christianity. This is especially true of the vision of the Catholic Church, which clearly wishes to promote the idea that we ought to treat all people, including prisoners, humanely, and that various acts of violence, pain, coercion etc. violate that principle.

To put this more simply, in the gay "marriage" debate proponents of same-sex "marriage" want to start with a definition in order to deconstruct that definition; that is, they want a definition of marriage so that they can reword, alter, and destroy the definition to the point where it is meaningless enough to include the understanding of "marriage" they wish to promote. Similarly, in the torture debates, many (though not all) who want a clear, precise, exhaustive, and definitive definition of exactly what torture is want this definition so they can insist that certain things, such as waterboarding, or putting prisoners in freezing cold cells and drenching them with water, or humiliating them in various inhumane ways are somehow not torture, because our definition didn't actually mention these particular things.

In the discussions concerning marriage, it is important to remember that marriage, an enduring cultural institution centered around the building up of strong natural families and the raising by a man and a woman of their own biological children whenever possible, can't be reduced to a mere definition of a sentence or so. It is equally important in the discussions concerning torture to recall that humanity's capacity for the intentional infliction of suffering on our fellow human beings can't be summed up by a quick definition of what torture is. In both discussions, there is a tendency by those on the other side of the issue to insist on a definition merely as a starting point for the deconstruction of that definition--and the point of that, of course, is so that the perversions they wish to allow, whether gay "marriage" or "enhanced interrogation," are suddenly made possible by the destruction of their opponents' definitions of words like marriage or torture.


  1. Red Cardigan writes : "Similarly, in the torture debates, many (though not all) who want a clear, precise, exhaustive, and definitive definition of exactly what torture is want this definition so they can insist that certain things, such as waterboarding, or . . ."

    We immediately know by Faith that the particular unnatural act of same sex marriage is not moral. The same cannot be said of waterboarding. While waterboarding appears to fall within the category of torture, a category which we assent to by Faith as also immoral, it's not immediately knowable that waterboarding falls within that category.

    Thus we seek a standard, which is what the definition of torture would be so that the particular can be compared to the more universal so that we can have certitude, just as we have certitude that same sex marriage is immoral.

    With it understood that a definition in this instance is not as your argument proves, a groundless cultural norm, but an understanding grounded in principle which is not movable.

  2. This is the worst comparison I have ever seen in relation to the moral act. I would suggest reading some books on moral theology before attempting something like this again. Maybe pick up a copy of Right and Reason or something, spend some time reading and studying it, then come back and try again.

  3. Mr. Bellisario,

    As opposed to being an ass, why don't you in a 3, or at most 4, sentences explain why.

  4. Part of the problem of the definition in the dialogue above is that it defines marriage as only consisting of a union of a man and a woman. But, the GRA person would be right in complaining and I suspect the Church would agree. It seems to me that the definition of marriage, per the Church, would necessarily talk about what marriage is ordered to. That would include a man and a woman ordered to their good AND the bearing and raising of children. The definition posed includes only an aspect and not the totality of what marriage is.

    Ultimately, any definition must take into account all acts that fall under what is defined and excludes what is not to be included. Thus the definition posed in the dialogue fails as it should. A definition that includes a male and female ordered towards procreation, the good of the couple and the child engendered is complete.

    The definition of torture is hard because one must include all acts of torture without taking in things that are not torture. But most definitions seem to include things such as simple psychological/physical coercion which most people accept as fine (good cop/bad cop.) Its a problem for both sides.

    Unfortunately the best attempt is still Jimmy Akins.

  5. Phillip writes :"Ultimately, any definition must take into account all acts that fall under what is defined and excludes what is not to be included."

    You ask for more than should be included.

    A definition is not an exhaustive explanation, but a citing of the specific difference. Such as man is defined as rational animal. Thus if it's an animal and it's ration then it's a man.

    The definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman likewise intends to cite specific difference and does according to it's understood context.

    Unfortunately, when it comes to torture, the specific difference has proven very illusive and has typically been not unlike Meno's definition of virtue.

  6. My comment does not exclude the concept of a specific difference nor does it ask for more than should be included. It does seek to go to the very nature of the thing defined. Defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman only excludes the aspect of the very nature of that union - the good of the spouses and of new life. As "rational" as specific difference captures the nature of the human, so does including the openess to life capture the nature of marriage. This captures the true nature whereas merely as a "union of man and woman does not."

    I agree finding the specific difference for torture is hard - thus all the problems. But if it is problematic then we should perhaps be more open to differences in conclusions until we discover that specific difference or nature. At least for those who actually are not involved in such activities.

  7. An example is the original definition given above:

    "Marriage is a legal and sexual union between one man and one woman."

    The specific difference here is not a single word but a conjunction "legal and sexual union." Not one or the other but both - a concept. I'm not sure that the specific difference must necessarily be a single thing but can be a set of things that forms a concept.

    Otherwise, chosing one thing, one would say that marriage is a "legal union" or a "sexual union." But this would then lead to all sorts of confusion. There are plenty of legal unions that are not marriage as so for sexual unions.

    Perhaps one single word can capture the nature of marriage like "rational" does for man though I suspect not. Same with marriage and so with torture.

  8. You folks really do need to define your terms.

    CCC2297 "Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity."

    vs UN Convention "torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity."

    The Catholic Church takes a much more narrow view of torture than the UN.

    I can fully agree with the RC view, that violence or threat to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. There is no need to extract confessions in the modern legal system since trials and convictions are based on evidence; torture for punishment is barbaric, etc.

    Aggressive interrogation (AI) to secure information for preserving the common good is not necessarily torture, but the UN sweeps it under the label. A solid moral argument can be made for a proper use of AI.

    The raison d'etre of the State is to establish, promote and preserve the common good properly understood.

    All persons have the moral obligation to work toward the common good, no one has a moral right to work against the common good.

    All persons have a moral obligation to tell the truth and to not lie, a fortiori when the matter of fact relates to the preservation of the common good.

    The State can admit of no grounds for failing to uphold the common good properly understood.

    The State must therefore have the prudential latitude to do whatever is necessary to preserve the common good properly understood, including coercing an opponent to give them information necessary to preserve the common good if that opponent refuses to divulge information necessary to preserve the common good.

    I would suggest that this last instance does not validly fall under "torture" in so far as "torture" is used rhetorically and politically to condemn and exclude certain acts as malum in se. That does not appear to be in opposition to the magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church.