You can’t win the gay marriage argument with definitions.

Same-sex marriage is regarded by some as bad policy by definition in a way which is quite unique, but unveils a bigger problem in the way people think. A lot of people claim to oppose gay marriage purely on definitional grounds. Whatever the definition of marriage is, they claim, two of its essential components are a man and a woman. To almost any philosopher though the thought that we should make decisions that will affect the lives of millions, both through the symbolic “capital” attached to marriage and through the material benefits it accrues, on the basis of definitions and semantics indicates that a very wrong turn has been taken at some point.

Now personally I think it’s very odd indeed to think that many, many people might use the term marriage to refer to a relation between two people of the same sex, and they might all be wrong. Roughly, and I’m simplifying a lot here, you might think that something like that could be true for a scientific term, but marriage exists because of us. Because of the way we talk and behave and treat each other.

In view of this, the claim to have a special objection to same sex marriage based on some inner essence or real, thick, undeniable definition, existing separately from what relations we accept and recognise just strikes me as very odd. I doubt this is what the defender of traditional marriage is really getting at though.

I suspect what they mean to say is that the definition of marriage should require a man and a woman. But if this is right, the claim to have some special argument against gay marriage based on a contradiction in the words themselves is only really persuasive if you think that there are certain institutions of a particular constitution which should exist, and the meaning of our terms gravitates towards them. This is a strange variation of a view which philosophers call reference magnetism, or the view that the senses of our words gravitate towards certain kinds of things.

Now despite the short treatment I’ve given it thus far, I’m not entirely opposed to this view. I’m willing to grant, for the sake of argument, that maybe the meaning of our term marriage is set by its relationship with what a philosopher might call moral kinds. This seems like it might be true of some terms. It seems built into the definition of torture, for example, that it is bad, or at least all other things being equal, bad.

But if your view is that the content of the concept marriage is attracted to some sort of normatively praiseworthy institution, than you shouldn’t be arguing that your view is right by definition, that’s viciously circular. You need to stop arguing about meanings and start arguing about what’s right and wrong. You should be arguing that purely heterosexual marriage is good and praiseworthy institution in a way that equal marriage is not. All this stuff about the very meaning of the term turns out to have been irrelevant, and we’re back to arguing right and wrong again. An argument that I hope my readers will concur is unwinnable for the bigot.


About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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