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Moral Moments

Right by Definition

by Joel Marks

Do unicorns exist? If ‘unicorn’ is defined as a horse with a horn on its forehead, the answer is probably “No.” But if the definition is, say, “any animal that sports a horn on its head,” then, yes, there are unicorns, for example, certain goats.

This example has little intrinsic significance. However, its implications could not be more profound. For if you reflect upon the way a question about existence can depend upon a question about definition, you realize that, ultimately, every matter of fact is a matter of meaning. That is why when philosophers spend a lot of time debating the meanings of words, they are not just arguing about words!

It is considerations such as these that have motivated the assault on the so-called analytic/synthetic distinction, regarding which see, for example, Willard van Orman Quine’s classic treatise, Word and Object. A further ramification I would now like to explore is that it is not only our metaphysical but also our moral judgments that are inextricably intertwined (or ‘interQuined’) with our definitional decisions.

I was very surprised to learn not long ago that, in an American court of law, under certain circumstances a defendant or witness is entitled to lie on the stand. The type of situation is one in which a person is being asked if he or she has any prior criminal convictions. If a conviction has been ‘wiped off the record’, the testifier may legally deny that it ever occurred. I gather that the particular exonerating conditions are that the individual was a youthful offender, the crime was not extremely serious, and the punishment has been served. The motivating reason for such special treatment is a compassionate one: having paid the penalty for a youthful indiscretion, the person should not have to be dogged by it for the rest of his or her life. Especially for someone who has started off on the wrong foot, it is important to be given a leg up by the system.

Well, that may be all well and good. And yet that is not exactly how the case is sometimes presented. I have discussed it with an attorney, who asserts that the person on the stand is not lying when he or she claims never to have been convicted of a crime. In other words, the implicit argument is that the definition of ‘lying’ must be flexible enough to accommodate this extraordinary legal situation. So, for example, ‘lying’ cannot mean only, “intentionally asserting what one believes to be false in order to convince others that it is true.”

But must also include some such proviso as, “when those others have a legal right to know the truth.” But this definitional move strikes me as fraught with moral danger. However helpful it may be to give a young person a clean slate, I feel it is unwise to introduce him or her, or society in general, to a form of casuistry that wipes that slate clean by definitional fiat. I positively cringe when I picture the lawyer coaching the client, “Remember, you are not lying when you answer a question that shouldn’t even be asked of you.” It is one thing to argue the ethics of lying, that is, whether or when it may be permissible (or even obligatory) to tell a lie. It is quite another to argue lying out of existence altogether.

Let me make clear what I am objecting to. I do not oppose debate about the meanings of words. Indeed, I mean to be promoting it. The problem is when the definition of a word in common usage is given a technical meaning in a particular context. If then both the professional definers and their lay audience begin to apply the technical definition more generally, major distortions can take place in our moral world. As Socrates cautioned, “on the strength of their technical proficiency [professional experts claim] a perfect understanding of every other subject, however important, and I felt that this error more than outweighed their positive wisdom” (Apology 22d).

We see the same sort of move made in countless controversies that have great moral import. For example, the ‘scientific definition’ of ‘life’ (as involving reproduction) has been invoked to condemn homosexuality as ‘unnatural’ (also biologically conceived). Until recently, as Carol Gilligan described in her classic treatise, In A Different Voice, the ‘retarded’ moral development of women was deemed decided by a definition of ‘maturity’ that had been crafted by and about men (viz., experimental psychologists and their experimental subjects, respectively). I have even heard a criminal justice professional insist that, strictly speaking, it is unintelligible to suggest that a defendant who has been found ‘guilty’ in a court of law may nonetheless be innocent of the crime (which, aside from any other ‘virtues’, would seem to contradict the attorney’s claim about lying on the stand)!

A reasonable compromise might be to tinker with a technical term; for example, perhaps it makes sense to define ‘perjury’ in such a way that a person could lie without perjuring him or herself on the stand. But to maintain that the person has not lied intrudes too far on the prerogatives of ordinary morality.

In sum, there should be a strong presumption in favor of calling a spade a spade (if I may use a metaphor to endorse speaking literally!). If there is widespread agreement about the meaning of a word, then one is not justified to tamper with it at will in order to achieve a desired end, for there may be larger issues at stake. But by the same token, I would ask those who are comfortable with a certain usage of a word to recognize that, at base, their familiar definition is not set in stone but has probably been adopted in order to serve a particular purpose and is therefore properly subject to critical scrutiny in a wider (or even the same) context; and thus, there can sometimes be very good reasons for altering or even abandoning it.

In either case, don’t expect to win an argument simply by adducing a definition.

© Joel Marks 2001

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A. The Moral Moments website is at www.moralmoments.com.

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