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Ambiguous Words Invite Bad Actions

November 9, 2022


One of the consolations of studying philosophy is to realize that the French aphorism plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose—the more things change, the more they stay the same—accurately describes much of the history of ideas, especially moral and political ideas. It’s tempting to feel that we live in an unprecedentedly mad age, one so disconnected from reality that it can only mean that the end of the world is nigh. But madness and the denial of reality have a long, if less-than-august, legacy that is worth remembering. Indeed, we can go back to the birth of philosophy itself. 

Socrates (470—399 BC) spent much of his time debating with interlocutors about the meaning of words. He always sought definitional clarity; his interlocutors, often in a hurry to get out of the conversation, almost invariably wanted to leave the terms as ambiguous as possible. In one dialogue, for example, Socrates encounters a fellow named Euthyphro who is in a rush to prosecute his own father in the Athenian courts for a crime against “piety.” Shocked by Euthyphro’s zeal, he replies that Euthyphro must surely be well-versed in the meaning of “piety”—and have thought very carefully about its application—to warrant this otherwise scandalous lack of filial respect. Euthyphro assures Socrates that he is, indeed, an expert, which prompts Socrates to engage in a dialectical examination of the meaning and justification of the term—which soon reveals that Euthyphro hasn’t the faintest idea of what he’s talking about. 

The dialogue ends with Euthyphro responding to Socrates’ offer to pursue greater definitional clarity: “Well, some other time, then, Socrates, because I’m in a hurry to get somewhere and it’s time for me to go.”1 Unperturbed by his own ignorance, Euthyphro then dashes off to get his father thrown into jail. (One wonders if a large inheritance was pending a successful prosecution). Forebodingly, we also learn in the Euthyphro that Socrates himself is being brought up on charges of “impiety” and “corrupting the youth”—charges that will later lead to his execution, even though, as we see in the accounts of Socrates’ trial, the accusers fail to provide a fixed, consistent, and coherent definition of “piety” and “corruption.” 

With talismanic effect, these incantatory affirmations have attained the coveted status of “common sense” in our age . . .

This theme—the necessity of establishing objective, precise meanings for words that cannot be reduced to the whims of the powerful—is a common thread in the Socratic dialogues. Yet it has much more than historical importance. The meaning of words—or, better, their lack of meaning—still causes great havoc in individual and social life. Take, for example, these three bon mots that have come to dominate our own moral and political culture:

1. My body, my choice.
2. Love is love.
3. A man can be a woman. 

With talismanic effect, these incantatory affirmations have attained the coveted status of “common sense” in our age, so much so that questioning them immediately invites rabid accusations of mental illness (being inflicted with a “phobia”) or bad character (being filled with “hate”). Yet let’s risk the opprobrium and ask, in Socratic fashion, what do these statements really mean? (And please note: the following critiques are aimed at the ideas these statements contain, not the people who hold them.)

Take the first one: “My body, my choice.” These words ostensibly constitute dispositive evidence that women have an inviolable right to procure an abortion. Yet as the pro-life community has long (and patiently) been noting, a “body” has a fixed definition, both biologically and conceptually. We can say, for example, that a reasonable definition of a human body is an individual whose physical existence contains the exact same unique biochemical marker (DNA). We could add that one’s body is also defined as a unity of discrete parts—e.g., one head, one brain, one heart, etc. If this is the definition of “body,” then pro-lifers can agree on the basic principle, “One’s body, one’s choice.” Yet that also points to the obvious—yes, obvious—fact that the unborn child, no matter what her/his stage of fetal development, is not “one’s body” and, thus, by the logic of the assertion, not “one’s choice.” The same definitional mischief is also present in calling abortion an issue of “reproductive rights”; biologically speaking, abortion only becomes an issue after reproduction has already taken place, that is, after a new, unique life has already formed. Indeed, advocating for a reproductive right to abortion is rationally analogous to calling for a right for those outside the womb to choose to be unborn. It’s a little late for that. 

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How about the term “Love is love”? Ostensibly these words mean that individuals (a) have inherent sexual attractions over which they have no choice and (b) therefore, ought to be able to express those attractions by engaging in sexual acts with whomever they desire, so long as there is mutual consent. Yet if that is the case, this tautological assertion not only morally authorizes sexual activity among people of the same biological sex; it also morally authorizes sexual activity among members of the same biological family, including one’s immediate biological family. It also morally authorizes sexual acts with anything that lacks autonomy, including animals. These are the unavoidable implications of taking “Love is love” at face definitional value. 

There are also issues with the assertion “A man can be a woman” (or “A woman can be a man”). Taking into account the biological falsehoods it contains (it is decidedly not “following the science”), the statement violates the three mutually implicative classical laws of logic, the rational principles that make it possible for the human mind to understand and evaluate any concept at all: (1) the law of identity (a thing is what it is), (2) the law of non-contradiction (a thing cannot be itself and its opposite at the same time in the same way), and (3) the law of the excluded middle (a thing is either itself or not itself). The statement “A man can be a woman” violates the first law by asserting that the definitions of “man” and “woman” are not fixed and, therefore, have no objective meaning; it violates the second law by asserting that a human person can both be one thing (a man) and the biological obverse of that thing (a woman) at the same time in the same way; it violates the third law by asserting that an individual can be both himself and not himself at the same time. In short, the statement is biological, grammatical, and logical nonsense, something the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education has also noted:

Efforts to go beyond the constitutive male-female sexual difference, such as the ideas of “intersex” or “transgender,” lead to a masculinity or femininity that is ambiguous, even though (in a self-contradictory way), these concepts themselves actually presuppose the very sexual difference that they propose to negate or supersede.2

In other words, the statement “Men can be women” presupposes a truth (the category “man” is different from “woman”) that it also denies (there is no difference between the category “man” and “woman”).

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A common detraction to pointing out this fallacy often takes the following form: “Who are you to say what a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ is?” The problem is that that response can immediately be doubled back on the detractor: “Well, who are you to say?” If the underlying belief to the “pro-trans” position is that there is no objective definition of the terms because there is no such thing as objective truth, the trans position is just as arbitrary—just as false—as any other position. In other words, if gender ideology embraces relativism, it pulls out the rug from beneath its own moral authority; if, on the other hand, it embraces the existence of objective truth, it is then forced to recognize that it holds an irrational point of view. This goes for the pro-choice and pro-love-is-love positions as well. It thus becomes clear why these ideologies are so invested in generating as much ambiguity and confusion as possible.

In the end, the issue here is not merely theoretical or academic in nature. It is as practical—as “real-life”—as it gets: these ambiguous definitions are at the justificatory heart of worldviews that are responsible for the extermination of the unborn, the degradation of human sexuality, and the poisoning and mutilation of healthy human bodies, including children’s bodies. The misuse of language led to Socrates’ untimely death in his time. It is doing the same to us in ours.  

2 Congregation for Catholic Education, “Male and Female He Made Them: Toward a Path of Dialogue on Gender Theory in Education,” (emphasis added).