For a definition
of marriage, look
up the dictionary
The controversy about whether or not the state should give legal recognition to 'gay marriage' has gone on for some months up and down the land. I do not myself understand why assorted churches are so hostile to the idea – you would think that they might be pleased by the desire of gay couples to make the serious commitment which marriage involves – but I do not here want to take up the main issue of whether gay marriage should be legally permitted. Rather I want to comment on one argument commonly used by those opposing gay marriage.
The argument takes various forms but it often goes like this. Marriage is by definition a union between a man and a woman (sometimes a clause is added 'for the procreation of children'). It follows that a union between two men or two women cannot count as a marriage, and the attempt to make it count will undermine the foundation of our society.
This argument is certainly making assumptions about the nature of marriage and its bearing on the foundations of society, but I want to concentrate on the assumptions it is making about the nature of definition, about what can and cannot be established by definitions. There is a large and interesting philosophical literature about the nature of definition, but for present purposes we need to note only two kinds of definition – stipulative, and lexical or dictionary definitions.
Stipulative definitions have the form: 'By X I shall mean Y'. Stipulations are important in science and logic, but moral questions cannot be settled by stipulation because opponents will simply not accept the stipulation. Hence those using the definitional approach fall back on what is perceived as neutral and objective – lexical or dictionary definitions. How does this work?
Compilers of dictionaries are interested in whether a word is used in a certain way, and how frequently it is used in that way. If it passes the usage and the frequency tests it goes into the dictionary, and we have a dictionary definition. Now in my elderly Concise Oxford and Shorter Oxford dictionaries we find that the usage recorded for 'marriage' is 'the relation between married persons' (which doesn't take us much forward). But the dictionaries note the usage 'to give in marriage' and offer as an example (and it seems to be just an example) 'as husband or wife'.
One immediately thinks of a 'mother' as a female biological parent. But first thoughts must be made more complex, for there are stepmothers and surrogate mothers and even, allegedly, virgin mothers, one anyway.
Even more significantly, the dictionaries record the usage of the verb 'to marry'. It is 'to join persons one to another in wedlock', and in the same paragraph they refer to 'contracting parties'. In other words, by its use of the words 'persons' and 'contracting parties' the dictionary, or at least the Oxford dictionary, seems pretty neutral about the respective sexes of the contracting parties. Indeed, in the current online version of the O.E.D. the contracting parties are first noted as man and woman, but the dictionary goes on to record: 'in some jurisdictions, partners of the same sex'.
But there is no need for readers to rush to find other dictionaries which might prove me (or the O.E.D.) wrong on word usage. For the more important point is that word usage changes, and over the years dictionaries will record the new usages if they are sufficiently frequent. For example, the word 'shambles' originally referred to butchers' slaughter houses, but is now most commonly used for any kind of (bloodless) muddle. Words develop and change in meaning and dictionaries in a neutral way just record the changes in meaning. More significantly, consider the meaning of the word 'mother'. One immediately thinks of a 'mother' as a female biological parent. But first thoughts must be made more complex, for there are stepmothers and surrogate mothers and even, allegedly, virgin mothers, one anyway.
The theological thought is worth pursuing. Christians who oppose gay marriage on linguistic grounds are happy with the rather harder word usage of three persons in one person – the holy trinity. This doctrine seems to me to put some strain on the word 'person', but theologians would say that they are dislocating language in order to express a fundamental truth about God. Why then should they oppose a dislocation of language – hardly a dislocation at all according to the O.E.D. – to express a truth about enduring love, commitment, or equal rights? Presumably the answer is that they disapprove of the love or the commitment involved. Fair enough, but you cannot make a moral point by appealing to word usage, any more than you can refute the doctrine of the trinity by looking up the word 'person' in the dictionary.
Word usage is the veneer; the underlying substance is the moral issue. Sometimes new moral insights break through the false finalities of language.
Robin Downie is emeritus professor of moral philosophy at