Friday, July 1, 2011

Same-Sex Marriage and Use Theories of Meaning

Lots of snarky (but, I concede, smart) Catholics and natural law types regard same-sex marriage as a sort of oxymoron. For them, as for many of us, "marriage" is a term the successful application of which requires that several necessary conditions be met. The sort of people who regards same-sex marriage as oxymoronic, though, will hold that the conditions necessary for applying the term include at least these two:
  1. The term describes a union between two and not more than two human parties.
  2. The parties to the union include a single male and a single female.
Depending upon who lodges the 'oxymoronic objection', the list of conditions will include myriad others in addition to these. The important point is that the objectors will hold these at least. And from these, it is easy to see why such objectors regard the concept of same-sex marriage as oxymoronic. After all, a marriage is a union between a single man and a single woman, and same-sex marriage so-called is a union between a single man and a single man. Therefore, same-sex marriage can't be considered marriage in the first place. QED.

QED, that is, if you think a couple of other things - things about the nature of language that are pretty contested in philosophy (you know, the only place where this stuff matters). Most obviously, you'd have to think that "marriage" was defined as (at least) a union between one man and one woman. Okay, maybe that's not so objectionable. But to get us to the 'oxymoronic objection', you have to believe that this definition of 'marriage' cannot change. That is, for the phrase "same-sex marriage" to be considered an oxymoron, you couldn't believe only that bad things would happen if we change the definition of marriage. No, you would have to believe literally that it is not possible to change the definition; you would have to believe that there is no way to make the sentence, "Those two men are married," true.

Now, that's an objection to same-sex marriage searching for an argument - really, it's just a description of the position held by the 'oxymoronic objectors.' The objection to this description goes something like, "Yeah, but words change their meanings all the time, and lots of words have more than one meaning. Unless you're insisting that I'm unsuccessfully referring to the city of 'Davenport' when I'm not using a term that individuates a sofa, or that it's impossible for teachers to 'influence' their students without 'flowing into' their students, then you must think that the term 'marriage' has some sort of non-changing status - else we could just change it however we like, yes?"

There, I think, is the heart of the matter. When we have a concept - or a word - how do we delimit its extension? How do we change its extension? Few dispute that the concept of marriage has had "one man, one woman" as a necessary condition throughout its use historically; how, though, can such a condition actually be eliminated from the extension of the concept? It's a question worth gathering up and treasuring in our hearts.

I, for one, have been in favor of gay marriage since I wanted to grow up to be a Democrat - about 8th grade, I think. (Though, I have this lingering memory of making buttons for Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign when I was about 10 years old. Mine read: "If you vote for Dole, it'll be a bore. Vote for Clinton or wait four more." I also remember a classmate who made an anti-Dole button: "His hand doesn't work!") But in the last three or four days, I've had a few philosophically-oriented that are starting to change my mind, some of which I'll share in posts forthcoming. I will say, though, that I think the deep problem here is one having to do with some of the issues I've raised in this post, issues having to do with the proper extension and delimiting of concepts, the alteration of definitions, etc. And I think it's noteworthy that our national debate on this topic has hardly involved these issues in any meaningful way.

1 comment:

  1. By all means, commence pontificating. I can understand very much the reluctance to define the according of certain rights to same-sex couples as "marriage". In one of several instances wherein I agree with Libertarians, I'd be more comfortable if the government would get out of the marriage business entirely. But surely there is no argument between us that there should be no difference in rights as granted by the government, non?

    What I cannot countenance is that snarky Catholic-or-Natural-Law-type who rails so vociferously against same-sex marriage while overlooking far greater absurdity that is divorce. Putting on my theologian's hat — it's more of a mitre, really — I'll note that marriage, if understood as a sacrament, cannot be undone. ("'Twere profanation of our vows", indeed.)

    As usual, we're probably coming at this from rather different angles and talking past each other, I suppose.