On Phil’s original post that I linked to below he has since added a follow up. Here is Phil’s follow up (in part) and my response:
Here is part of Greg’s relevant statement that Phil is responding to:
If the definition of marriage is established by nature, then we have no liberty to redefine it. In fact, marriage itself wouldn’t change at all even if we did. (Source)
After expressing some incredulity Phil says,
This exposes such a misunderstanding of both linguistics and law. In both domains, all words belong to the community and that community’s evolving understanding and attitudes about the words. Greg is somehow trying to convince us that we should reify nature to a status of authority over linguistic and legal conventions. This is absurd. You describe nature. There is nothing proscriptive that can emerge from an observation of nature.
I’m not sure how Phil thinks Greg is reifying nature to a status of authority. Greg doesn’t say that it is *nature* which provides a moral constraint. He says because of a fact of nature, we should behave in such and such a way. But it’s obvious that this doesn’t require him to see the “should” as being ontologically grounded in the fact. Take the atheist Sam Harris for instance. He argues that facts about life create our “moral landscape” but he isn’t arguing, I don’t think, that the facts are the ontological grounds for morality. Rather, Harris is presupposing some moral fact or authority (e.g., sentient life should flourish) and mapping it over the neurophysiological landscape (or whathaveyou).
And Greg should be happy with this limitation. The slavery found in most human cultures for centuries had people defining “human” so as to exclude from that category various races. Does what we find in nature determine what our definition of “human” is? Does nature stop us from redefining “human” to include all races? Remember the arguments of theists who claimed some races had no soul, or were predestined to be subservient? Should not Greg be extremely thankful that humanity did not take his argument…
Actually I think the slavery issue is more problematic for Phil’s position than Greg’s. Greg thinks our laws should reflect reality. So if we have laws about marriage, those laws should reflect what marriage actually is and not whatever the whim of the people decides. So, concerning slavery, Greg would say that laws about humanity should reflect the reality of what humanity is. And the problem with slavery laws was not that they sought to reflect the reality of human beings, but that slavery laws redefined “human” to be what was convenient for the whim of the people at the time.
Indeed if Phil thinks that the people should be allowed to redefine concepts as they please, what would be Phil’s principled objections to the definition of blacks as sub-human if he suddenly found himself in 1830′s Virginia?
Wouldn’t it have been silly to have stated this 300 years ago as if definitions naturally emerged from nature?
I think it would have probably been more readily accepted then than today, given that people were probably more open to teleological explanations and final causes.
“Marriage” is a word that does not emerge magically from nature.[...] “Marriage” is a word. Words are attached by a language community to whatever concept that language community decides is appropriate.
Phil is hung up on the word. Greg is talking about what the word refers to.
Where you have a copulating man and woman with the consequent of children, you do not have marriage.
Greg never said otherwise.
It is simply silly to suggest “nature” somehow locks in a definition of a word.
In the sense in which Phil is talking about, I agree. I’m sure Greg would too. The problem is that Phil can’t seem to distinguish between the signifier and the thing signified.
As the title of this post has stated, Greg has dishonestly appealed to nature in an attempt to position his notion of “marriage” off-limits to the rest of the language community and the legal system under which he resides. He is dishonest in this since he knows full well that he would have never considered doing the same for the term “human” when “nature” was once found operating quite efficiently with “human” limited to particular races. Shameful. If convention can redefine what it is to be “human”, it can most certainly redefine “marriage”.
Actually I think Greg would do the same in regard to human, and I think this argument about what humanity actually is (as opposed to how people choose to define it) is one of the best arguments against racism. On the other hand, I don’t see how Phil would be able to mount a critique of cultures who chose to define black people or, say, white people as sub-human.