Let me say publicly that DonBoy’s answer exudes a combination of intuitive genius and confidence that make me think DonBoy is going to do big things in his life. -- Steven D. Levitt (Freakonomics blog)
Wednesday, August 20, 2003
Interesting bad argument

There's a very long (and heated) (and closed) (and kind of old, but I just saw it recently) thread up at "Mrs. Du Toit" that starts with an argument that's stuck in my head, because although I think it's wrong, it's wrong in an interesting way, and is similar to some arguments on the other side that are right. Here's the opening volley:

Let's imagine for a moment that a 45-year old man decided he no longer wanted the responsibilities of being an adult and wanted to surrender his adulthood. He found another person who was willing to go along with the idea and support him--that the man could call "Daddy." He decided that he no longer wanted to be referred to as an "adult" and insisted that everyone refer to him as a "child". Further, he demanded that the government recognize his decision and the decision of the "Daddy," and demanded that he receive the social security death benefits entitled to other "parents."

Now this "child" decides to go to court to become the legal adoptee of the pseudo-parent. He intends to be placed in day care, and wants the employer of the "Daddy" to be forced to pay the bill (since they extend day care benefits to other parents).

Sound nuts? Of COURSE it's nuts!!!!!

Should this person get to redefine what a "child" is? Should they get to redefine what a parent is? Should they get to redefine what benefits they are entitled to (both from the government and private companies who extend benefits to people) based on certain definitions? They can certainly redefine it for themselves, but do they get to insinuate THEIR definition on EVERYONE ELSE?

But that is exactly the situation that has been set in motion with the "gay marriage" issue.

Here's what I find interesting about this: all of the effective work in the argument is being done by one thing, which is the idea of a fully-grown man putting himself in day care. I agree that there's no way to stretch the meaning of "child", as opposed to "adult", to cover "45-year-old who wishes to declare himself a child". Grownup in daycare, eew eew eew. But the next move is to use that "eew" to discredit the idea of redefining "child", as in "child of another", to include more than what might be called its core meaning. Now let's write another analogy:

Let's imagine for a moment that a 45-day old infant is abandoned by its parents, either by their choice or by their death. Some married couple becomes aware of this situation, and volunteers to to be called the infant's "mommy" and "daddy". Furthermore, they demand that the government recognize their decision, and demand that the infant (eventually) receive the social security death benefits entitled to other "children".

Now the "parents" intend to place in infant in day care, and wants the employer of the "Daddy" to be forced to pay the bill (since they extend day care benefits to other parents).

OK, you probably got the point on that way before the end. Obviously, I've just described adoption, which consists of taking the idea of "parent" and stretching it beyond its meaning of (loosely) "one who gives birth to, or fertilizes the egg of one who goves birth to, someone else". We don't have a Defence of Parenthood Act that insists that no such relationship can be called "parenthood".

So some relationship words, at least, can be stretched, and we get to choose, collectively, what stretches we can accept. If you don't accept this one, you don't, but you can't simply justify that by throwing out all flexibility. Consider also that the law recognizes corporations as persons in many contexts, which is to mind a much bigger stretch than relaxing gender restrictions in a marriage.

Mrs. Du Toit also goes on into that most beloved of arguments, the dictionary argument, in which she quotes several sources in order to establish that which nobody has denied, which is that current dictionaries define marriage as a relationship between a man and woman. Yes! We know! Thanks! We're discussing whether we should change that. I imagine people like this in urban renewal meetings:

A: We're thinking about putting in a road between the river and this bridge. Do you think that would be a good idea?
B: Don't be ridiculous. There's no such road on my map.
A: Yes. I know. We're talking about building a road there.
B: Look, can't you read a map? [Waves map around].


Update: I think a key difference between the two cases here is that one attempts to redefine the word "child", as a stand-alone concept; the other attempts to redefine the words "parent" and "child" as a relationship. Maybe can mess around with relationships better than we can with pure definitions.

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