Wednesday, August 23, 2006

What's in a name? An observation of some societal consequences of Philosophical Nominalism

Peter Abelard

Joseph Pearce, writing today on the First Things blog, relates some encouraging news from his native England. What is encouraging is a recent decision handed down by Sir Mark Potter, president of the English High Court's Family Division, who, as such, is the senior family law judge in England. Sir Mark ruled against a lesbian couple who claimed to be married by virtue of an arrangement entered into legally in Canada and recognized in Canada as a marriage. In his decision, Sir Mark refreshingly points out that societal institutions, such as marriage, cannot be arbitrarily re-defined on a whim. Rather, they are rooted in both nature and deeply in society. Nominally, one can call same-sex living arrangements anything one chooses to call them, even marriage. However, such arrangements are not marriages as they do not meet the traditional definitions of marriage. In support of the argument that same-sex arrangements are not part of our understanding of marriage I offer three definitions. First, marriage according to the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary. Second, marriage according to the High Court of England Family Division, via the Guardian newspaper's report on Sir Mark's ruling (I refer specifically to the fifth and sixth paragraphs). Finally, marriage as defined in canon 1055 of Codex Iuris Canonici (i.e., The Code of Canon law).

It is difficult not to note a similarity between the canonical and legal understanding of marriage. Both view marriage from the perspective of the natural law. In other words, the Church's basic definition of marriage does not rely, or even first turn to, revelation in seeking to define marriage. The same can written about the Church's view on the issues of human life (abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cells, etc.). Therefore, the argument that one is seeking to impose one's religious views on others through the law are shown to ring hollow. In puts me in mind of yesterday’s post regarding deacons as clergy and is quite similar. One is free to look at the linguistic sign for the number 3 and call it 5, but the two remain distinct, whatever one calls them, 3 remains 3 and 5 remains 5 and 5 is 2 more than 3 (reminds of Brother Maynard and the Holy Handgrenade of Antioch). Put simply, in pluralistic democracies people have a great deal of freedom to live their lives in any way they may choose. This is no less true for gay and lesbian couples. However, to demand that the such living arrangements be called and recognized as marriages goes too far. Is that to say that states (who are responsible for making laws governing marriage) cannot allow broader discretion to non-married people (gay and straight) about inheritance and other issues? No. It is to say, however, that there are civil benefits that for good reason are best reserved to married persons, not the least of which is what marriage is and is not.

It is also my wish to briefly draw attention to the inherent weakness of philosophical nominalism, so prevalent among champions of changing or expanding the definition of marriage. These advocates, who are motivated by a sincere desire to create what they deem a more just society, rarely examine the philosophy, which is to say the wisdom, of that for which they advocate. After all, if nominalism applies to marriage it also applies to justice- it's just a name that in-the-end can stand for whatever one meaning one assigns it. Or, as Alasdair MacIntyre asked, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Surely, I oversimplify. The question then becomes, by how much and in how many cases?

For those interested in pursuing the line of reasoning I undertake in this post which, due to time constraints, is very truncated, I refer you to another thread on the First Things site written by Robert P. George of Princeton. The first link is here, while the second is here.

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