Proposition 8: On the Definitions of Marriage and Planet
Whenever a person embraces a patently absurd argument, we have a window through which we can get a look at their moral character. If the reason that they accept the argument has nothing to do with its soundness or strength, then there must be something else motivating the agent's acceptance. Typically, it is the agent’s desires. The agent believes what he wants to believe. A look at an agent’s desires is a look at his moral character.
One absurd argument put forth in defense of California's Proposition 8 is that its defenders merely wish to preserve the traditional definition of marriage – a definition that has been accepted throughout history. It has nothing to do with hating homosexuals or the issue of rights. It's all about the meaning of a word. There certainly cannot be anything immoral with being devoted to preserving the definition of a word. It is a trivial thing, really.
Yet, the proponents of Proposition 8 seem to get quite worked up about this 'trivial thing'. In fact, the amount of energy that they put into defending this definition is proof enough that the issue is not trivial – that it is not merely concerned with the definition of a word. Those who claim it is are lying. Those who believe that it is are lying to themselves.
Let us look at another word whose definition has been put up for revision recently – the definition of the word 'planet'. The International Astronomical Union voted last year to redefine the word 'planet' in such a way that Pluto is now excluded. That has gotten quite a few people upset – they seem to have an affection for the idea that Pluto remains a planet.
There was even a move, ironically enough, to amend the Constitution in California to protect the original meaning of the word – to pass an amendment that says that the term 'planet' shall be defined in such a way that Pluto is still a planet.
However, people ultimately decided that amending California's constitution to protect the definition of 'planet' was absurd. This is not the type of thing that should go into a constitution. In fact, some people feared that an attempt in California to preserve and protect the definition of 'planet' through a constitutional amendment would make the state the laughing stock of the world. I do not know if others would have found such an amendment laughable, but they should.
Language is a tool and, like all tools, it should be designed to serve the purposes for which that tool will be used. As an invention, languages change over time . . . they typically improve over time, to reflect our better knowledge and understanding of the world in which we live.
The word 'atom' originally meant 'without parts'. It was once thought that the fundamental particles of any element – gold, copper, carbon – could not be divided into smaller parts. So, they were literally named, 'things without parts' or 'a – toms' (without – parts).
Only, as our understanding of the world improved, scientists began to realize that the thing they had been calling atoms did have parts – electrons, neutrons, and protons. So, over time, they changed the definition of 'atom'. It ceased to mean “thing without parts” and came to refer to these fundamental units of any element.
The word 'malaria' originally meant 'bad air'. It was once thought that bad air made people sick. When a person who lived near a swamp got sick, it was said that they got 'bad-air disease' or 'mal-aria'. However, as our understanding of the world grew we came to realize that bad-air disease happens to be transmitted by mosquitoes, which happen to thrive in swamps, which happen to produce foul-smelling gasses. The disease was not caused by the foul smelling gasses, it was caused by a bacteria. So, the definition of 'malaria' changed from 'bad air' to the sickness spread by these mosquitoes that once was thought to have been caused by bad air.
Today, the term 'planet' is up for revision.
Actually, the term 'planet' originally meant 'wandering star'. It was once thought that the stars themselves were fixed in the sky – permanent and unchanging – except for five 'stars' that moved across the sky over time - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. Further knowledge revealed that they were big round things much like Earth orbiting the sun, so the meaning of the term 'planet' changed. And we discovered a few more – Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.
Then scientists started to learn that Pluto-sized things might be quite common, and had more in common with smaller rocks floating around outside of the orbit of Neptune than the big rocks circling closer to the sun. Pluto had more in common with those outer solar system objects than planets. So, the decision was made to agree to a new definition of Planet. Pluto came to be excluded.
The change in the definition of 'marriage' is no less of a matter of our improved understanding of the world than these other changes have been. We know that some people acquire a brain structure that causes them to form bonds of affection similar to what most of us feel towards members of the opposite sex, with members of the same sex. Changing the definition of 'marriage' to include same-sex relationships is no different than changing the definition of 'planet' to exclude Pluto.
It cannot be the case that the only thing that is important in Proposition 8 is preserving the definition of a word. Preserving the definition of a word has never been that important before. Thus, as I wrote at the start of this essay, those people who claim that their support for Proposition 8 is motivated merely by a desire to preserve the traditional meaning of a word are lying.
Furthermore, if an agent actually believes that he is supporting Proposition 8 because of a desire to preserve the meaning of a term, then he is lying to himself. It takes only a moment of reflection to realize that “If the real reason for supporting Proposition 8 were to merely preserve the meaning of a term, I would be supporting millions of other initiatives as well, because words change meaning all the time.”
The main point, however, is not that this 'definition of marriage' argument is such a poor argument. Others have made this point, and they tend to stop here. My point, however, is that there is a further implication.
Desires influence what a person believes. A person who did not want to believe that the harm inflicted on others is justified may be driven by that desire to reject a good argument – but he will be inclined to reject arguments that others are to be harmed, even when there is good reason to do so. He will greet such an argument with, “No. There must be some mistake. It cannot be the case that this harm done to others is justified. Go over the argument again. Make sure that it makes sense.”
If a person, on the other hand, embraces a poor argument merely because it justified actions harmful to others, then we do not have a person who is saying, "I do not want these people to be harmed, so you must prove that the harm is justified." You have a person saying, "I want these people to be harmed so badly, that I will grasp at even the most senseless argument as long as it claims to suggest that I can go ahead and do the harm that I want to see done."
When people embrace a foolish argument that justifies harm to others, the problem is not just the fact that they made a mistake. There is a further problem seated in their moral character if they are the type of person who not only cannot see that mistake, but does not want to see it.