Definitions

In any kind of discussion or debate, an important question for the analytic thinker to ask is “What do you mean by…?”  This is especially important when it comes to defining terms.  Many terms in the English language can have multiple meanings depending on the person using it or the context it’s being used in.  Unfortunately, it isn’t always clear which definition is appropriate until you ask what it is.  The problem I see in many discussions is that people don’t define their terms or ask for others to define their terms.  This can lead to incredibly uncharitable interpretations of people’s arguments.  For example, Todd Akin recently used the term “legitimate” rape when asked if women who have been raped should be allowed to have an abortion.  People immediately jumped on it, claiming that he meant there is a “right” way to do rape, or something along those lines.  I never saw anyone stop and ask what he may have meant by the word “legitimate.”  Perhaps it was a poor choice of words, but people are being too quick to judge what he meant.  Another word that could use some defining is “natural.”

Sometimes people argue that homosexuality is natural and, therefore, morally ok, but they hardly ever say what they mean by this word.  I can think of at least a few meanings:

1) “Natural” means it occurs in nature.

This is uncontroversial and I doubt anyone would argue against it, but I don’t see how this helps anyone’s case that homosexuality is morally permissible.  Cannibalism also occurs in nature, but we hardly think that is morally ok for humans to do.

2) “Natural” means proper function.

By this I mean that things in nature, especially body parts, are being used in the way they were designed or produced by evolution to do.  The ear for hearing, the eye for seeing, the sexual organs for reproduction, etc.  One could perhaps make a moral, or at least a practical, argument from nature in this way, so genuine discussion on the matter can result from this definition.

3) “Natural” means what God intends.

Honestly, most people defending the proposition that homosexuality is ok because it’s natural probably don’t mean it this way.  If they do, then genuine theological discussion can ensue from this meaning.  The meaning of the word will change the direction of the argument, so people should slow down and understand what a person means by “natural.”

Sometimes a person making an argument doesn’t have a clear picture of what he means by the words he uses.  For example, a co-worker of mine said that a church in town called the Crossing (which I happen to go to) is a cult that indoctrinates children.  I asked him to define “cult” and “indoctrinate” for me, but he couldn’t give me a clear answer.  He was probably saying that teaching kids that certain religious views are true is indoctrination, but I’m willing to bet that any definition of “indoctrination” he gave me would have- if taken to its logical conclusion- included teaching kids that certain non-religious or secular views are true is indoctrination.

So my advice to others and to myself is to consider what people mean by certain words if there is any ambiguity whatsoever, ask what a person means when he uses a word if possible, and to clearly know what you mean by your own terms.

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