I have recently penned a piece on philosophy and abortion. In it I sought to show how one can make the pro-life case by appealing to classic philosophy, and long-standing philosophical concepts. That article can be found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/04/09/acorns-aristotle-and-abortion/
In it I sought to take somewhat technical philosophical terminology and explain it in a way the average layman could understand. I then applied it to the issue of abortion. Here I wish to take some of the same concepts and apply it to the issue of marriage, and the debate over homosexual marriage. Let me repeat what I said in that earlier article in the next seven paragraphs:
Philosophers going as far back as Aristotle have spoken of predication, properties and the like. Predication very simply refers to the attributing of characteristics to a subject or a thing. What a thing is may have different properties or ways of being characterised.
For our purposes here I wish to speak of two basic predications, or predicates, which have been distinguished in intellectual history for nearly three millennia now. These two main predicates are the essential and the accidental. It is important to be clear about how these differ, since discussions about personhood and the like depend upon these distinctions.
In very simple fashion, let us define our terms this way:
-An essential predicate, attribute, or property is one that belongs to the very nature or essence of a thing. They are necessary and permanent properties of a thing.
-An accidental predicate, attribute, or property is a quality which is not an essential part of a thing’s essence. They are contingent and temporary properties of a thing.
Thus something which is essential is that which must be true of a thing. If that quality or characteristic is missing, then that thing or object no longer is or can be. As John and Paul Feinberg explain: “An essential characteristic is a quality that is part of the very essence of a thing. If that quality is lost, the thing ceases to exist. On the other hand, an accidental quality is one that is not part of a thing’s essence. It can be lost or gained without the thing ceasing to exist.”
So let’s flesh this out and start applying it to people. It is not hard to show how the two predicates are quite different:
-If we say that Socrates is a human being, we are saying something basic or fundamental about what kind of a thing Socrates is: this is an essential predication.
-If we say that Socrates is tall, we are saying something which is not fundamental or essential, but something that merely happens to be the case: it is an accidental predication.
There are plenty of accidental properties. The colour of your hair is one. A human being can have red hair or brown hair or black hair or blonde hair or no hair. It does not matter what the hair is like – that does not determine what a human being is.
A person can be left-handed or right-handed, or have no hands at all. But a human being still exists, regardless of the accidental predicates of one’s hands. Being male or female, thin or fat, short or tall, are also accidental predicates. These things can change or differ, but they do not make a human being any less human.
OK, now let’s relate this to the issue of homosexual marriage. My point is very simply this: marriage by its very nature and essence is about two people of different genders coming together. While marriage may have accidental predicates, such as the duration of the ceremony, the particular ages of the participants, whether it is a church wedding or not, and so on, its essential predicate is the one man/one woman requirement.
That is what makes marriage marriage. This gendered nature of marriage is its essential defining feature. Take away the two genders and you no longer have marriage. In the same way, take away three legs or three angles and you no longer have a triangle.
Simply redefining something does not change its ultimate reality. There is a famous story of this attributed to Abraham Lincoln. He asked the following question: “How many legs would a dog have if you called a tail a leg?” To the response “five,” Lincoln replied, “No, a dog would still only have four legs; calling a tail a leg does not make it so”.
It’s the same here. Marriage is still about a man-woman relationship. Calling homosexual marriage marriage does not make it so. It is just a rhetorical sleight-of-hand trick. But someone has just penned a piece on all this and he does such a good job of it that it is better to just let him speak.
I refer to Wallace Alcorn and his excellent article, “Same-sex marriage is a philosophical impossibility”. He notes how the activists are simply playing language games here: “If a triangle can have four sides and a circle can be square, then I guess red can be the new green and black can be called white. If these things were possible, then I guess two men living together and two women living together can be considered a marriage.”
He continues, “A red ball possesses the properties red and round. Calling a green round object or a red square object a red ball does not make it a red ball. Calling same-sex ‘marriage’ does not make it marriage.
“The universe in this philosophic consideration is marriage, which is — by its very definition and essence — the complementary wedding of male and female. Other properties of this particular can be health, ethnic, and intelligence. All such are non-essentials (the term is ‘accidentals’) and can vary greatly and still be marriage. This is so because these are either consistent with or indifferent to the essence of the universal. In contrast, same-sex by its very nature is dissonant and incongruous with the essence of marriage.
“Again in the taxonomy of philosophy, the accidental properties of a given marriage are irrelevant to its essence. They just happen to be present without being necessary. What is not an accidental property is an essential property. These are accidental properties but heterosexuality is an essential property when the universe is marriage. Again: a green ball is not a red ball precisely because the property red is absent.
“Without such essential properties as sex that is compatible and complementary, an alleged marriage simply is not marriage at all. Without this, the relationship might be beautiful and wonderful socially or even domestically — but it is not marriage.
“I have been reluctant to offer this line of reasoning, because following it requires some knowledge of the terms and categories of technical philosophy. (This, without also showing the invalidity of same-sex marriage by its violation of the laws of identity and contradiction.) But this dimension needs to be factored into any comprehensive consideration. It should be sufficient for some, then, to allow there is this factor even if they need to reread to follow it.
“Neither a male-male nor a female-female relationship has the essential — i.e., of the essence — property of male-female. Same-sex marriage is neither validated nor created. It is metaphysically impossible. So to think is a logical fallacy; so to speak is semantic nonsense.”
Quite so. I can go on all day long and declare that the Australian football team which won the AFL Grand Final yesterday was in fact the Geelong Cats. But no amount of blustering on my part will change the reality: the Sydney Swans won yesterday.
And no amount of blustering or bullying by the activists can ever change the fact that marriage by definition and essence is a heterosexual institution. They can play their little semantic games all they like, but reality remains reality.