We use words for a variety of different reasons, e.g. to communicate ideas, to incite ourselves and others to action, to express and share emotions, to draw attention to things, to memorize, to make inferences, to evoke and enjoy images, to perform ceremonies, to teach, to describe reality, to exercise, to show off, etc.
The meaning of a term actually in use is not an arbitrary quality, nor are definitions simply conventional stipulations. Words are rooted in the customary practice of a definite language game developed over a long period of time. It entails a whole host of referring, syntactical, and discursive rules.
In addition, a number of rules of thumb for evaluating definitions can be found in practically every textbook on logic. They were first suggested by Aristotle in his Topica.
A definition should give the essence or nature of a thing defined, rather than its accidental properties. A definition should give the genus and the differentia of the thing defined. A definition should be concise. One should not define by synonyms, metaphors, or by negative or correlative terms (e.g. one should not define north as opposite of south, or parent as a person with one or more children).
Consider the following attempts to define:
- Benign - What you be after you be eight;
- Artery - The study of painting;
- Bacteria - Back door to cafeteria;
- Barium - What doctors do when patients die;
- Caesarian Section - A neighbourhood in Rome;
- Cauterize - Made eye contact with a nurse;
- Dilate - To live long;
- Enema - Not a friend;
- Fibula - A small lie; and
- Impotent - Distinguished, well known.
Such definitions are good if and only if they serve the purpose for which they were intended. In these instances, the purpose is humour and entertainment. Despite the numerous jokes that abound, when we attempt to define marriage, an original cell of social life, we are on sacred ground and the question of definition must be approached with great care.
The traditional definition or understanding common to all the world's great religions is that marriage is a sanctified union of a man and a woman who have joined together in love and are called to transmit life.
Nevertheless, in a society that so easily sets aside personal commitment, we should not be surprised that the definition of marriage is rather shaky, if not up for grabs.
It would not be far off the mark to say that our society's denial of the intimate connection between sexual activity and the marriage bond is responsible for most of the unravelling of family and community life in our time.
Once the principle is accepted that sexual activity should be detached from the generation of children, and that sex is for personal satisfaction alone and carries with it no particular relationship either to a committed bond of partnership or to the education and raising of children, a serious dysfunction occurs and confusion reigns.
We experience it in an ever increasing number of children who cannot identify in any meaningful sense with their parents, and parents who are not in any realistic sense participants in sustaining, educating and developing their offspring.
We also experience it in a number of contradictory judicial decisions.
Three Ontario Superior Court Judges recently determined that the present definition of marriage violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Accordingly, they have concluded that Canada must rethink the legal definition of marriage as the prohibition against legally sanctioned gay and lesbian unions is discriminatory and unconstitutional.
This is in direction opposition to last year's Supreme Court of British Columbia denial of same-sex couples right to marry. The province's highest court ruled that Canada discriminates against gay and lesbian couples by not allowing them to marry, but that the discrimination is justified under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because marriage is the institution on which the family is built and the biological reality is that same sex and heterosexual relationships can never be the same. That essential distinction will remain no matter how close the similarities are by virtue of social acceptance and action.
Our politicians seem content to sit on their hands and wait for some wizard of wisdom, perhaps a judicial one, to emerge and get them off the hook.
I tend to think that we all need to back up a bit and recognize the uniqueness of marriage and family life because it is essential to society and the benefit of all.
This is not to deny that there are other bonds of love and interdependency, of commitment and mutual responsibility, but they are not marriage. They are something else. It may be that a broader spectrum of long-term commitments of interdependency deserves more formal public recognition and support than has been the case until now.
However, the point is that there is more than one kind of relationship of commitment and interdependency. Marriage, the union of a man and a woman with its capacity to bring forth children, is unique. Other relationships of interdependency, being different, are and ought to be given different names and recognized in different ways. They are not the same. Language and law must reflect that objectively observable fact.