Simple logical errors sometimes pass by undetected, and in a few cases a persistent fallacy becomes so frequent in the wider public conversation that we don’t even think to analyze and question it. One such mistake that I’ve noticed involves definitions of things and a kind of mistaking of the exception for the rule. Before you stop reading because this just seems like uninteresting academic nitpicking, let me assure you that this rational error is relevant in some of today’s most heated topics of debate. It makes a difference whether we recognize it or not.

To explain:  definitions of things are basic to all of our understanding and communication. In any debate on any subject, terms have to be defined. Additionally, things have natures, which is part of why we define them as we do. In other words, there are things that are generally true about, for example, a tree. It is part of the nature of a tree to have roots, to have branches, to grow upward, to have foliage, to use the sun and water for growth, etc. I wouldn’t say those things about a dolphin, since it has a very different nature. Some people may deny that things have natures, since they may not like the implication of design (teleology) that this idea implies. But such objectors are a minority and I will not deal with them at present.

Nothing I’m saying here is novel. We could go back through the centuries all the way to the Greeks and let Aristotle explain this, but I want to be brief and succinct so I’m trying to give you the Cliff’s Notes (Clint’s Notes, to be exact). Christian thinkers have certainly always understood this, and all the more since they recognize that the natures to which things conform are definitely by design. Think, then, about how definitions of things involve their natures, and ask yourself: Are there ever exceptions? And of course you will recognize that there are. Rarely does a definition of something in this world apply to every member of the class or category being described. When you think of birds, for example, you think of flight, since it is generally in the nature of birds to fly. BUT there are a few exceptions.  There are a few species of flightless birds. And even if there were no species of flightless birds, there will always be the individual cases of birds that cannot fly because of developmental deformities in their wings or having been wounded.

Human Nature

This brings us to one of the examples in the title of this post. One thing we usually talk about as having a nature is a human being (as in the term “human nature”). When discussing the definition of human beings, we do our best to consider what is part of the nature of humanity – physically, mentally, and otherwise. Our definition of what it means to be human is, like others, general. It is not meant to say that every single human being will always have all of the traits we ascribe to human beings. It is meant to say, rather, that, all things functioning properly and in accord with what is the nature of a human being, the definition will apply.

Some things are not like that, of course, and their definitions are logically necessary to the very meanings of the words (e.g., a “triangle” is defined as having three sides, and there can be no exceptions, for if it has fewer or more than three, it ceases – by definition – to be a triangle). Aside from such logically necessary definitions, things in the empirical world are defined according to the natures that we observe them to have, and since the world is not a perfect place, exceptions will occur that defy the definition.

So think about the things that seem pretty clearly to be part of the nature of human beings. Physically humans have basic characteristics like two arms, two legs, two eyes & ears; they walk upright; they don’t have gills nor wings; they breathe oxygen and cannot fly, etc. Is all of this fair to say? But wait, what about the many exceptions to these things? Amputees may lack two arms or legs, some have one or no eyes, some cannot walk upright; if the old movie Waterworld came true & some people developed gills, they would still be human beings, wouldn’t they? (And we would need them, as you well know, to help fight against the dastardly schemes of an eye-patch wearing Dennis Hopper & his thug pirates.)

How about other characteristics (of a less morphological nature) that define human beings? We are relational, we communicate verbally, we do math, love music, and laugh at funny stuff; we have emotions and are spiritual beings. But once again, there are those who lack one or more of these capacities. If you think about it, we could spend all day finding exceptions, real and imagined, to the definitions of most things in this world. And here we arrive at the critical error that must be recognized. Let us put it in clear terms: The fact that there are exceptions to the definitions of things does nothing to abolish the definitions nor disqualify the exceptions from belonging to that category.

Furthermore, an individual case that defies the definition still has the essential nature of the thing it is. An amputee technically does not fit the definition of two arms, two legs, but is every bit as human as anyone else, quite obviously. He or she shares fully the nature of humanity. A mute does not speak verbally, but that does not mean that verbal communication is not still part of the general nature and definition of what it means to be a human being. Nor do temporary circumstances alter the nature of a person. If a human being is a conscious being, then while I am unconscious, do I cease to be a human being? Of course not. Things don’t fluctuate in terms of their natures. As Aristotle would remind us, we shouldn’t attempt to ask what a thing is without asking what kind of thing it is.

The mistake I’m concerned with has led some people toward morally frightening conclusions when it comes to the question of human nature. A few ethicists, having dispensed with the traditional understanding of things have basic natures, have decided that functionality and utility are all that matter in terms of assigning moral worth. Thus a newborn, having yet to acquire so many of the traits we usually assign to human beings, is not yet human, or at least not yet human enough to get the benefits and protections preserved for human beings. Can you see the error here? The ethicist has jettisoned the basic definition of a human being that is in accord with human nature, and has made human dignity and human rights concepts that are not fixed. And if the newborn flunks the test in its present state, so also do many who are incapacitated or extremely debilitated by disease or advanced age. If you’re in an extended coma, you are not exhibiting most of the fundamental human characteristics, so by the ‘progressive’ ethicist’s reasoning, you’re not presently belonging to the category of “human being” such that you bear human dignity and worth.

Once again, as our old pal Aristotle would tell the contemporary philosopher who pushes such a scary Orwellian notion, the newborn, the debilitated, the comatose and the extremely elderly need not display any particular set of capabilities at present in order to have the nature of humanity. He would say, “Don’t tell me the specifics of this individual, tell me what kind of thing it is. To what category does it belong? What general definition applies to it.” If the answer is “human being,” then the moral questions are answered. I once heard a mother say that her child asks so many questions all day that she often just fires back quick answers without thinking much or sometimes (if she’s busy) without looking; but if her back were turned and her kid asked, “Mommy can I kill this?” she would definitely turn and examine the situation before giving a reply. She would want to know what kind of thing it is before giving a death sentence to it.

The Marriage Debate

Oh boy, here we go. Not this again. But wait, the error we are examining here crops up in this very emotional debate in a specific way as well. It has to do with the nature of something(s), this time the nature of gender and sex.  There is a movement afoot today to completely dispense with gender as anything fixed by nature and to make it simply a “state of mind,” as it were.  They call it “gender fluidity,” as discussed in reports like this one. Your chromosomes, hormonal make-up and physical ‘equipment’ are merely incidental. The gender question, instead, involves you introspecting and asking yourself, “Which gender do I most feel like I would like to be?” You decide the pronouns for yourself, at least for today, since you may decide otherwise for tomorrow. You can change gender identification preference like you change shoes.

This would be exceedingly bizarre to the generations that came before us. While, as I said many times already, there will always be odd exceptions, this does not change the natures and definitions of things as basic as gender. Maleness and femaleness have natures that are fairly well established and reiterated throughout the population, throughout history, across cultures and even among many other animals. Likewise sexuality seems to conform to a basic nature when it comes to how opposite-gender pairs mate in order to produce the next generation (and no I’m not including any further illustrations at this particular point).

Laying aside the larger animal world and sticking to human beings, the basic male-female combination is not only pretty basic in terms of biology, complementarity, function, and reproductive necessity, it has been the cornerstone of civilization’s fundamental unit of structure, which is of course the family. Civilizations have been built largely upon households in which one male and one female produce and rear the future leaders of the future households, etc.

Now all of this is rather plain and for most people passé, but it seems to accord with the nature of the genders that this arrangement be the norm. Before anybody’s blood starts simmering because of the use of the words “nature” (as in “natural”) and “norm” (as in “normal”) in the last sentence, let me urge you to calm down and hear what I am seeking to communicate about this. Where definition and exception become relevant on this specific subject is right at the point where we begin to define the chief relationship in question. The contemporary debate has even been framed as “the definition of marriage,” acknowledging at least that definition is the issue.

And as we have seen, when we define things, we seek to examine their natures, and we describe them in general terms, recognizing that there will be exceptions.  In this case we are defining (and seeking the nature of) something a little more abstract and less concrete. Instead of the nature of a human being (a physical thing located in space), we are dealing with the nature of a relationship, institution, or arrangement.  Typically when the traditional definition of marriage is being given, it will include procreation and the rearing of children. Now procreation itself is not the main issue being disputed in our time; rather the genders of the two married persons is the issue. BUT, since two persons of the same gender cannot procreate, including this as part of the nature of what marriage is winds up working against advocates for same-sex marriage. Thus comes the rejoinder, “Well what about infertile couples, couples who marry past reproductive age, or couples who simply don’t want to procreate? Are all of these heterosexual couples not married?”  The form of this question is recognizable by its pattern. We saw it in the discussion on the definition of a human being in the form of “What about amputees (or mutes)? Are they not human beings?” In both cases, the general nature of the thing is not nullified by the exceptions, nor are the exceptions necessarily disqualified from belonging to the general category.

In this debate, were I seeking to vindicate same-sex couples as fitting into the nature & definition of marriage, I would not use the mistaken logic of the question about infertile couples. I would, instead, seek to make the genders of the two persons something that can admit exception and still qualify. That would make more sense, and would then lead to a more focused debate on the thing in question. The issue would be this: a thing’s definition can have exceptions that are extreme enough to remove it from that category. For example, human beings with mental and physical deficits are exceptions, as we noted, to the broad definition that includes certain attributes that generally describe human beings. They are still, however, human beings. But what if I consider a being as an exception because he has large fins, a tail, lives only in swamps, lays eggs, etc.? Or if she has six arms, speaks no language and came from a different planet? These would be extreme enough exceptions that in fact you would likely decide that these beings do not fit the definition of human. Exceptions can be so great that they really aren’t mere exceptions after all. They need a different definition for whatever they are. The strange beings I described are not like the humans with certain deficits or disabilities. These beings belong to a different category and have a different nature altogether.

So in the marriage debate the question would be: Is switching the genders of the couple from “hetero” to “homo” a minor exception (like a couple that never procreates) or a major exception that causes the relationship no longer even to fit into the definition of the word “marriage” (such that it should instead be described by a different word)? Of course switching the genders (to same-sex) leads to other exceptions, among them never procreating. I should note that even if you determine that it’s a minor exception so as to still fit into the nature and definition of marriage, most advocates for same-sex marriage will not be pleased with this understanding for the very fact that it is identified as an “exception” and not as a natural and typical example of the word. After all, in most cases of exceptions to words (like with “human being”), the exceptions have to do with the world being an imperfect place and things not always functioning properly and in accord with their design. To say such a thing in this case would be difficult for most contemporary champions of same-sex marriage.

The definitions of humanity and marriage are just two examples, but hopefully they suffice to show us that things have natures, that definitions truly matter and should be in accord with those natures, and that in a less than ideal world like ours, exceptions will always occur. Those exceptions, unless so drastic as to change the whole nature of the thing in question, need not cause us to think that the definition is undermined. The general attributes that describe a thing’s nature are not to be disregarded or ignored when an exception is found here and there. Human beings walk on two legs by nature, but amputees are still human beings while rhesus monkeys are not. Likewise marriages produce children by nature, but infertile couples are still married while a man and a catfish are not.

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Clint Roberts has taught Philosophy, Religion, Ethics, Critical Thinking, Apologetics, and a few less interesting subjects over the last decade or so. He likes the Credo House because he once launched a similar non-profit establishment in a different state. His Masters is from a fine theological institution and his doctorate focused on famed arguments by Clive Staples Lewis. He and Wanda lived in Texas a little while, then Idaho very briefly, then Salt Lake City for several years prior to coming to the prairie lands of Oklahoma. They had four kids along the way, and later adopted two more humans, a few goats and chickens, and a pony.


Clint Roberts
Clint Roberts

Clint Roberts has taught Philosophy, Religion, Ethics, Critical Thinking, Apologetics, and a few less interesting subjects over the last decade or so. He likes the Credo House because he once launched a similar non-profit establishment in a different state. His Masters is from a fine theological institution and his doctorate focused on famed arguments by Clive Staples Lewis. He and Wanda lived in Texas a little while, then Idaho very briefly, then Salt Lake City for several years prior to coming to the prairie lands of Oklahoma. They had four kids along the way, and later adopted two more humans, a few goats and chickens, and a pony.

    31 replies to "If procreation is part of marriage, are infertile couples unmarried? And if human beings walk on two legs, are amputees not human beings?"

    • Irene

      I’d like to build on the good points you’ve made and ask a question.

      If the nature of marriage includes procreation, then we should also be able to say that the nature of sex includes procreation. That is, obviously, a major factor in the “design”. You also said that exceptions to the rule (things that don’t exactly fit the definition) involve imperfections, -not fulfilling the design of things. So, if the nature of sex involves procreation, isn’t a couple who puts an obstacle in the way of procreation then introducing an imperfection into the relationship? Aren’t they degrading sex? What type of thinking is it that _purposefully_ introduces disorder or defect into something?

      If one would answer that intimacy alone, apart from procreation, is the nature of sex, then one has no reason to say homosexuality is unnatural, or against the nature of human sexuality.

      I think one root of this homosexuality problem is the societal mindset that separates procreation and intimacy. Contraception has helped make sex nothing more than a private recreational activity, no longer ordered toward procreation. No wonder homosexual people are demanding marriage. Heterosexual people have already separated intimacy and procreation. We have made procreation a matter of personal choice, and have even made sex without procreation a right.

    • Will

      Michael,

      You’ve made a good argument, but stopped short of a powerful and important conclusion. The “exceptions” to the “norm” that you point out, demonstrate quite clearly that the state in which we see a thing most commonly is not necessarily an essential feature of the thing that we are attempting to pick out. Here’s the conclusion: Those “exceptions” don’t actually belong in the definition.

      If you want to make an affirmative statement that the essence or the definition of Marriage is more than two people making a solemn commitment to each other, it is not enough to say “Because that’s how its has always been done” or “Because that’s how it happens most often.”

      I submit that the only argument that really goes the distance here is “Because God said so and, as the creator, he gets the last word on the function of the people he created.” And that is perfectly fine in your church. No priest, minister, or other religious figure should be required to sanction a union he or she doesn’t believe in. However, in a society that values the separation of church and state, that isn’t an adequate reason to enshrine a particular view in law.

    • Mary

      If a definition which defines a rule, specifically a rule with known exceptions, is more speaking of generalities and norms and not a universal, non-optional, empirical litmus test, then how does the procreation thing matter when it comes to marriage? If procreation is one of the main foundations of marriage, then wouldn’t both homosexual marriage and infertile couples fall under the exception to the rule? (leaving out any moral or religious arguments here, and just dealing with the one at hand) One could say that most marriages are destined, appropriately, to procreate, but that an anomaly which makes procreation undesirable or impossible does not negate the marriage. One could also say that most of the time, procreation will be natural, without the assistance of technology or adoption, but that with both gay or infertile couples, procreation happens by adoption, in vitro, surrogates, etc. Some couples choose not to biologically procreate but to adopt instead, even if they could have their own biological children. Some couples choose not to procreate at all, whether for genetic, other medical, or personal reasons. Procreation is one of the primary purposes of human and married sexuality, but it is not a litmus test, as per your excellent argument in this article about exceptions and general natures. 🙂

    • Clint Roberts

      Will, don’t take your disagreement (or rage or vitriol or anything else) out on Michael. He is not responsible for this one. There are plenty of opportunities for you to oppose his views in other blogs.

      You seem to suggest that there can be no exceptions to a definition of something. You wrote that if there is an exception (you did not specify what kind), then the thing in question does not fit into the definition. But using the example of human nature, would you not agree that a lot of exceptions exist to the attributes we ascribe to human beings? Would you say that all of those people no longer fit the definition because of those exceptions?

    • Clint Roberts

      Mary, you wrote, “If procreation is one of the main foundations of marriage, then wouldn’t both homosexual marriage and infertile couples fall under the exception to the rule?” But this fails to see the important distinction I am making. The two cases (an infertile heterosexual couple and a same-sex couple) do share that one thing in common (inability to procreate), but for very different reasons. The infertile couple is an exception, as such couples generally “by nature” procreate. Some unfortunate defect is preventing it in their case. Something is wrong. BUT the same-sex couple is of a different kind; they are not procreators by nature. Their inability is exactly in accord with the apparent design of things. Something would be very wrong if they COULD procreate, which is the opposite situation from the other couple.

      By analogy (even if a strange analogy), what if I wanted to be called a bird, and someone told me that I clearly am not a bird and can’t reasonably be called one, since after all birds are totally different. Birds fly, birds have feathers, birds have beaks, and birds build nests. I might then reply, “Well what about birds who can’t or choose not to fly? Are they not birds? Aren’t they the same as me? Neither one of us can fly.” I might, in fact, do this for every attribute of birds (that is, point out that some don’t have feathers, some don’t build nests, etc.). You can see that the fact that some birds don’t fly and I don’t fly does not then make us the same nor blur (let alone dissolve) the clear distinction between our very different natures. The similarity of this circumstance is superficial and incidental.

    • Will

      Hi Clint,

      I hope I did not come off as angry in my last post. I have a lot of respect for Micheal. I enjoy reading what he writes and often find that he makes very insightful points. Even when I disagree, I enjoy the difference in view point, and find myself better for having engaged with it. I don’t intend to be “taking anything out” on him. I am very sorry if I am coming across that way. I see now he did not write this post. I found it on his twitter feed, so I assumed it was his writing. I’ll try to assign my disagreements more accurately in the future. 😉

      So, with that said, let’s dig into the central issue, which I take to be a question of how we deal with anomalies with in a group.

      There is an important distinction between the way in which we commonly identify someone as a human and what it is that makes that person human. For example, I share my home with my wife and a cat. Even in a dimly lit hallway I have very little trouble determining whether my wife or my cat is at the other end of it. I can tell, because given the universe of possibilities for what I could be seeing, the outline of a human form fits better with the hypothesis of the figure being my wife than it does with the other alternatives. However, just because that is how I can tell, it does not mean that her “personess” or humanity some how depends on that marker.

      A definition should be more than a list of attributes that are sometimes observed in connection with a particular category of thing. It should be a description of the essence of that category. Essences do not vary from case to case within a category. If we find attributes of a thing that are in conflict with our definition, there are two options. Either our definition is mistaken, or the thing does not belong in that category.

    • Austin

      Will, please forgive me for speaking out of turn, as I know your post wasn’t directed to me. And Clint, I would never presume to speak for you so please correct me if I’m wrong, but Will you said,

      “Either our definition is mistaken, or the thing does not belong in that category.”

      I think that was exactly Clint’s point. He took some time to explain what the definition of marriage was and why. The definition was not mistaken. Homosexuals cannot fit into this definition, therefore they must belong to another category.

      “Gay Marriage” is a non-sequiter just as “man-bird” is.

    • Clint Roberts

      I was just joking, Will. I didn’t read any malice at all in what you wrote. Part of the joke is that some of Michael’s past posts have in fact evoked a few nasty responses from people.

      What you wrote I mostly agree with, in that a definition is usually not limited to (or is not merely) a list of attributes. What you are calling the “essence” of a thing I was referring to as its nature. That is why the exceptions are just that and not part of the definition (not part of the essence or nature). Helen Keller could not see or hear, even though the attributes of seeing and hearing are generally part of the definition of a human being. And though clearly she was a human being (still having the essence even without those specific attributes), the characteristics of not seeing or hearing do not become definitional for human beings because of the rare case of someone like her.

    • Mary

      I think that it might be helpful to further define definition, and differentiate it from characteristic.

      With the procreation example, again, not all heterosexual married couples will choose to procreate. Sometimes this is based on medical necessity or genetic probabilities; sometimes it is purely the result of inclination. There is a difference in the result when you argue that the only deviation from a procreative norm for marriage is in the inability to procreate vs the disinclination for procreation. This is why I do not entirely buy your definition of definition, after further consideration- there is too much ambiguity. With procreation, couples may be either unable or unwilling, for any reason and to any degree, to procreate. They are still married, even if they went into marriage having decided to marry someone who they knew was never going to be either willing or able to have biological children. And then there is the adoption question…..why must procreation be natural and biological? This is a question I’ve never yet seen answered.

      For the record, I would quibble with your definitions of humanity a bit, because they are neither universal among humans nor exclusive to them. After more thought, To me, a definition should be able to universally apply to the thing it defines, and be at least in some respect exclusive to it. I would not use a definition for human which could also apply to apes or robots. Personally, if I were to define humanity I would cite sapient hominids via dna/chromosomes, a brain capable of abstract thought unless drastically damaged, and a soul and spirit unique to the human part of God’s creation. Two eyes does not define human, because that characteristic is shared by many species.

    • John

      To play devil’s advocate, is it possible that we just haven’t understood up until now what the _essence_ is of a particular “nature”? Not that these things you mention aren’t part of a particular nature, but could it be that they aren’t the essence of it?

      For example, if we’d never seen an Emu or an Ostrich before, we might confidently say that the nature of birds is to fly. But then one day we discover an Emu, and we have to revise our previous faulty understanding. Should we keep on saying that the nature of birds is to fly, even with this further information, or should we revise our thinking to take in this new information? If you live in the Australian outback with Emus, you might think that birds flying are actually the unusual exception, and not the rule.

      You’ve told us that “Civilizations have been built largely upon households in which one male and one female produce” etc. The arabs, who had an advanced civilisation might take exception to this since they were Muslims and had polygamy. Could it be that you let your personal experience interfere with seeing true nature? Even if we have access to the full statistics on a topic, should mere majority indicate true nature? For example, most black people in the world live a primitive lifestyle, therefore it is the nature of black people to be primitive. Is that good logic? To the “generations that came before us”, it actually was the common belief, for the same logic you cite. People looked at the world, they saw what they thought was THE pattern that defined nature, with the results we now know about. But generations were wrong.

    • JB Chappell

      Let’s concede for a moment that incidental exceptions to definitions do not undermine the definition. I still think it is the case that even in the mind of a traditional marriage advocate (TMA), that the procreation (or potential thereof) criterion is merely a general rule and not a definition. This is because it is obviously the case that elderly couples are not “incidentally” infertile – biology is clearly geared to work that way.

      Women’s fertility ends by biological fiat, just as same-sex sexual interactions cannot generate offspring. If the TMA finds these things as no accident, then there is no reason to consider elderly couples “married”. Yet the TMA has no qualms with elderly, heterosexual couples being considered as such.

      So I’m not sure the appeal to incidental exceptions is helpful to the TMA here. And that is wholly aside from considering the possibility (likely, in my mind) that if there are incidental exceptions to definition, than perhaps we do not understand the phenomenon enough, or perhaps its somewhat arbitrary and/or subjective.

    • Mark Morriss

      Nice discussion. To me, if we run it all the way out, if all were same sex marriage- eventually civilization ceases. If a person who is same sex marriage, then to continue this generationally, there has to be a female and male union and conception, or same via in vitro etc. So per creative design, male and female seed and egg must meet to promote life, and procreate for even same sex partners.
      Now, if a union between two same sex partners can not ultimately achieve human posterity, what does that say about Original design of male and female. To me, this is basic logic.

    • Clint Roberts

      JB, your example of old people marrying is interesting. You are right that if two old people (past procreating age) marry, their inability to conceive of children is not incidental. But then that is in some ways my point. It is natural that they, being of advanced age, can no longer have biological offspring. They are not an exception to the nature of sexuality, because it includes that (i.e., that there is a window in the average life span for procreation).

      This example would be an exception to a rule that said, “Any two persons of opposite gender who marry will be able to procreate.” But of course I never said that. The nature of sexuality, in accord with what biology seems to show us, what Scripture seems to teach, and what civilizations through the ages, with – of course – rare exception, have maintained, includes pairings of male-female couples who form a unit for the rearing of the next generation.

    • John

      It seems to me the logic here is Roman Catholic. Because a couple can by nature have children, therefore they are obliged to, and defying nature if they don’t. I don’t buy that.

    • theoldadam

      “God made then male and female”…for a reason.

      All of this redefining sex and marriage is unbridled willfulness.

      It’s demonic.

    • Vincent

      John, it isn’t Roman Catholic to simply say that it is not the norm. It would be Roman Catholic to say that it is sinful if you prevent intercourse from making children.

      All Clint is saying is that sex between people is procreative as a biological fact, and who could deny that? It takes real effort for a couple to stop the procreative part from happening, assuming the couple does not have a physical problem.

      So how many able couples spend their lives purposefully never having any children? What percentage do you think? I bet it’s pretty low, and so statistics bear out that it’s not at all the norm.

    • Francis

      Are we talking about essential vs. accidental properties here? 🙂

    • Will

      Dear Clint,

      I agree that we are very close in our understanding of the question of how something is defined. I think we are using the words nature and essence in a very similar way. What I am puzzled by is why you treat the nature of a triangle differently than the nature of marriage.

      I think part of my confusion here is that as I read I keep moving between the metaphysical question of what the category actually is and the epistemological question of how we know that a particular thing is of a particular category, as well as how we identify the contours of the category itself.

      Another part of my confusion is that I have often seen the words “natural” and “normal” used as a club to beat people into submission who act in ways that are not “normal.” As a Christian, I find that hard to watch. I do not mean to imply that that is what you are doing here, but it does color my understanding of those words.

      I think we are in danger of doing that here. If we confuse what we are used to or what the majority of people do with what we are supposed to do, we risk conflating popular opinion and practice with moral truth. Many things people commonly do are good, many others are bad. There needs to be a different criteria and it is likely that the criteria that churches adopt will be different than the criteria that a diverse nation adopts.

      I think we are in agreement so far. The piece that I am having trouble with is what criteria is being used to define marriage. It looks to me like you are just listing attributes rather than offering an essence.

      Austin: I think that objection applies equally to your statement.

      Mark: Why should continuation of the species be essential to the definition of marriage?

      Thank you all for the opportunity to discuss this issue.

    • mark morriss

      thank you Will. My focus was on the subject of procreation. in most cases, it flows out of marriage between a man and woman. By God’s design and decree, this is His plan for humanity laid out in Genesis and in Scripture. Not all hetero marriages bare children. why, only God can answer that. As well, some do not want children and use contraceptives. my point was more on how humans procreate and can only procreate. So, in context of definition of marriage and procreation, the continuation of humanity is through male and female union. I would say there is Biblical support for the continuation of the species it is based upon marriage between man and woman. if barren spouses, then fertilization by other means, yes. But out of wedlock is certainly part of God’s Grace to people, yet not His decreed or preferred way. Marriage can certainly be between two homosexuals, but it cannot produce a child by union. By design, male and female can. Therefore, it seems contradictory to logic that marriage would be any other way. But, again, not all hetero marriages will produce a child. I think we could go on about tje design of a woman, the design of a man. Biologically, reproductive organs per each etc. Thank you and I pray for all.

    • Clint Roberts

      I think I understand what you are saying, Will. A distinction I was trying, albeit only briefly, to make in the post is between definitions of abstract things like triangles, and of concrete things, like birds. A triangle’s definition will admit no exceptions because we will not find individual cases of triangles in the world where the three-sides rule doesn’t apply. Certain mathematical or axiomatic definitions must hold in all cases.

      But defining concrete things involves real-world exceptions, usually because the world includes errors, flaws, etc. Generally a woman will conceive and bear one or more children in her life, but not in every single case. I would still say it is part of the ‘nature’ of women to bear children (in contrast to men, or for that matter, plants).

      Sometimes the most intuitive things are easily overlooked. The biblical and traditional understanding of sexuality is in this way so plainly revealed in simple biology in terms of the complementarity of sexual ‘equipment’ for the purposes of procreation. Not to be too crude, but male-male sexuality involves the use (or misuse) of what is “by nature” the human waste canal. I say this not to provoke unnecessary offense but simply to point out something that is almost too obvious for us to notice today.

      And I’m not sure how or why pointing out things being ‘normal’ or in accord with nature is abusive.

    • JB Chappell

      @Mark (re: #12)

      There is no reason to “run it all the way out”. We allow infertile couples to marry, even though if we run that “all the way out”, it also leads to the extinction of mankind. But, someone would rightly point out that there’s no reason to think that everyone is or will be infertile. Likewise, there’s no reason to think that everyone is or will be gay.

      @Clint (re: #13)

      You seem to be changing the nature of the discussion. I was focusing on defining/describing marriage with procreation potential as a criterion, whereas you now refer to “the nature of sexuality”. Well, this is a far more problematic thing to describe. Is it true that the majority of sexual pairings in nature are male-female? Sure, I guess. But what does that teach us about “the nature of” sex/sexuality? Does the fact that it’s a majority means that it’s intended, and exception are not? No. I think making that conclusion is obviously ALSO a logical error, and highlights the problem with this way of thinking. Not that long ago, people would have been making the claim that because the vast majority of marriages were of the same race, clearly that’s what was intended.

      It is much better/accurate to say that there are no known (natural) exceptions to the rule that male-female interaction is necessary for sexual reproduction. An exception-less rule like this is on far safer ground. Now, the question is: what does this fact about sexual reproduction teach us about “sexuality” in general and/or “the nature of” marriage. And the answer is *nothing*, unless we make a host of additional assumptions.

    • JB Chappell

      @theoldadam (re: #15)

      Yes, God made them male and female for a reason. For whatever reason, God wanted reproduction to be done through male-female sexual activity. This tells us nothing about marriage.

      And to say redefining things in light of additional knowledge is just ridiculous. One could easily say “God made Pluto… for a reason. Redefining “planet” is just demonic.” Implicit in such an argument is the assumption of the very thing in question. Assuming Pluto is a planet because God created it assumes Pluto is, in fact a “planet” in the same way that assuming that just because God made sexual reproduction to be male-female, that this is also what “marriage” is.

    • JB Chappell

      @Clint (re:#20)

      Is whether marriage an abstract object or a concrete thing? There’s no question (I don’t think) that “sexual reproduction” is a concrete thing that we can describe/define. I think it is more problematic to claim that “marriage” is a concrete thing, as opposed to an abstract concept.

      And i can’t believe you actually tried using the “human waste canal” reasoning! Again, this just demonstrates the problem with “natural order” reasoning. Genitals are also human waste canals. Our pores are human waste canals. Or mouths are waste canals. All of this is perfectly “natural”, but you wouldn’t object to others finding different uses for them. We can find pleasure in kissing, even if this is isn’t a biological function of the mouth.

      Likewise, there’s no reason there can’t be uses for parts of our bodies that don’t correspond to biological function. The fact that eating would be “more natural” than kissing, in the sense that the former corresponds to a biological function, means what? That kissing is wrong? That it’s better/worse? Like I said before, I don’t think one can get to these conclusions without making other problematic assumptions.

      And do you really not see how designating things as “normal” or “in accordance with nature” might be abusive? It depends on how this is done, of course. But saying certain things are “normal” obviously implies other things aren’t, which is fair enough, but oftentimes “not normal” can carry connotations of “wrong”, which can obviously be abusive. It isn’t *normal* for people to be left-hand

    • JB Chappell

      (cont’d from last post)

      It isn’t *normal* for people to be left-handed. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

      “In accordance with nature” is obviously a phrase utilizing natural order reasoning that has historically proven highly problematic. Paul used it to justify men needing to trim their hair and women to have head coverings. Not that long ago, people used it to justify everything from slavery, eugenics, to banning interracial marriage. It obviously has high potential for abuse. Doesn’t make it abusive in itself, but it’s a red flag, for sure.

    • John

      The more I think about it, the more I think secular governments should get out of the business of marriage. Fair enough if you live in a theocracy, but most of us don’t. It’s questionable if we even need state/secular marriage. Let the whole thing be handled by the church. The government can institute a set of binding financial agreements for people who are concerned about that. Everything else is in the realm of religion.

      From personal experience the whole government aspect of marriage (and then divorce) really only serves to give people pain when things go wrong. There is no upside to the government sticking their noses into this.

      It wouldn’t be such a bad idea if the churches started this process. The whole gay marriage thing is a good excuse. The church could say that the government idea of what marriage is, is no longer is in harmony with their own idea. The concepts have totally diverged. Therefore encourage couples to get church weddings that are not state registered. A total boycott of state marriage would really set the cat amongst the pigeons. Non-religious people don’t marry often in this age. Not that many gays really want to marry. The state might actually wake up when they’ve realised they’ve destroyed the institution and nobody uses it anymore.

    • Clint Roberts

      Responses for JB:

      You asked (paraphrasing): What does the fact that most pairings are male-female have to do with the nature of sexuality?
      I answer: It has something but certainly not everything to do with it. As I explained, the nature of something is not determined merely by statistics, although the numbers usually correspond appropriately, as in this case.

      You made an analogy between the nature of sexuality and our definition of a planet, to which Pluto formerly but no longer belongs. This is a faulty analogy, since the latter is an arbitrary definition while the nature of sexuality (complementarity & reproduction) is a fixed element of nature.

      You “couldn’t believe” that I made reference to the waste canal (exclamation point). Outrage is not an argument, but you did make something of an argument that we have other waste canals and that body parts can be multi-use. True enough, but you miss the point still I think. Some parts are multi-use by nature (e.g., the male member is the delivery appendage both for urine and semen [though through completely separate channels sharing the same conduit, if you will]; likewise the mouth is for eating and kissing, as you wrote, not to mention speaking).

      BUT, there is not the same reason to think that the anus is a dual-use canal. A common sense observation of things would not yield that conclusion unless you had already become convinced by your particular culture that male anal sex was just as ‘natural’ as traditional heterosexual intercourse.

      At the risk of incurring further outrage from you, let us not forget the health implications of anal relations. By analogy, I could eat Skittles by putting them up my nose, making it a dual-use entry for eating, but the nose isn’t naturally dual-use in this way, and there would be negative consequences for choosing to do it.

    • James-the-lesser

      25. Clint Roberts says:

      Clint, somethings are just best left unsaid. Perhaps a better analogy would be 1 Corinthians 6:13: “Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats: but God shall destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body.” (KJV)

      Why stoop to gutter talk to get the point across?

    • Vincent

      Where’s the gutter talk? I thought he used acceptable terminology. Believe me, I’ve heard it all discussed and in way more offensive language. The subject itself takes us to the gutter and we have to use the best language we can. How would you get those points across. I guess you would just quote the verse, which is a good one, and then leave it at that. But I’m not against ‘going there’ to make the point.

    • JB Chappell

      Clint, (re: #26) if the fact that many/most sexual pairings in nature has “something but certainly not everything” to do with the nature of sexuality, then what is it that this fact tells us (besides the fact itself, obviously)?

      Re: the planet analogy – why is the definition of a “planet” arbitrary? How do we know that there isn’t a “nature” of being a planet? This is just one major shortcoming of the appeal to “the nature of” marriage or sexuality – it amounts to nothing more than a empty assertion. I could likewise just say that marriage or sexuality are just arbitrary definitions. But then you would say that they are defined a certain way because of what see in nature. But I could say the same thing about planets. Appealing to natures is not helpful.

      Re: waster canals. You rather casually assert that the “mouth is for kissing”, but in this is precisely what I’m objecting to. Just as easily as you can object to the anus as a waste canal, and all the health risks that might someone might be subjected to for using it otherwise, I can likewise demonstrate health risks for kissing and assert that it doesn’t correspond to any biological purpose (hence, not part of its “nature”, I guess).

      You say that using the anus as such is not the product of a “common sense observation”. I’m not sure how appealing to common sense is actually helpful, but it seems pretty obvious to me that such behavior (whether in hetero of homosexual unions) is prevalent throughout human history, for as long as we know. So apparently it is fairly “common”.

    • Vincent

      I don’t know to debate with someone who throws out common sense as “not helpful,” but I will say this much – either you believe things have natures or not. The nature of something is not just a definition we gave it (like what will count as a planet), but something deeper and part of its form or essence.

      Are you coming from the position that there’s no teleology at all? Are you taking the materialist approach? If so, why stop where you do? Nothing has any built-in purpose, so children can be for hunting and eating (who says they can’t count as a food source?), and if any sexual pleasure is equally natural (since really nothing is), then man-beast relations get to count.

    • JB Chappell

      Vincent, common sense is too often synonymous with “seems obvious”, a placeholder for what should be actual evidence/reasons, and/or not as “common” as what is asserted. Regarding the “nature” issue, no, I do not believe that there is no teleology at all.

      The question is what can we conclude from the evidence that we have. Anything that is created, willed, or even allowed is done so with a purpose. So if one believes in a sovereign God, then there is no reason to believe that planets do not have a purpose. Yet, apparently, this is not enough to maintain that they have “natures”. So what else is needed?

      Does the fact that certain bodies in space with certain properties (including telos) exist mean that they have some sort of “essence”? And if the vast majority of coupling in nature is heterosexual, what does that tell us? Why would it tell us that ALL *human* coupling should be heterosexual? My argument isn’t that there are no natures or purpose, but that assertions needs to be adequately corroborated. It’s too easy to say “it’s common sense” or “it’s obvious” without any real argumentation.

      Clint has thus far used statistics, function, and detrimental effects as arguments for “nature”. Of these, function is (to me) the most objective measure of purpose. If you want to know what a thing is meant for (or what it’s nature is?), then identifying function is presumably a good start. Problem is, in the context of marriage, there is no ONE purpose; it’s a multi-faceted affair – always has been. Furthermore, these aspects have changed significantly over time, and across cultures.

      But the issue in the OP is what to do with exceptions. The assertion is, essentially, that there exceptions that prove the rule. My question is at what point is an exception merely that, and at what point does it prove the rule?

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