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.
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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