Defining the Obvious | Deacon Tracy W. Jamison, Ph.D.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision to strike down Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional is an example of how basic definitions logically determine what is regarded as morally just and what is regarded as morally unjust.
It is not always easy to define the obvious. To define something requires us to specify its essence by indicating its form and matter. A definition must specify a form by indicating a specific difference within a genus. Thus, the endeavor is often considered to be scientific or philosophical. It generally requires some familiarity with basic logic. Definitions delineate the extensions of terms which signify the specific natures of things. A given description is a true definition if, and only if, it distinguishes, all and only, the members of a kind. If a particular proposition fails to distinguish, all and only, the things of a kind, then it may be an adequate description, but it is not a definition. Activities and relations can be defined as readily as substances can. To take an example from Plato’s Sophist, the activity of angling can be defined as the activity of attempting to catch fish by means of a line and a hook. Thus, the proximate genus of angling is the activity of attempting to catch fish. There are other ways, besides angling, to catch fish. The specific difference of angling is the use of a line and a hook. If we are not using a line and a hook, then we are not angling. And every instance of using a line and a hook, in the attempt to catch fish, is some form of angling.
A definition of an activity also indicates the intrinsic purpose of the activity in accord with its essential ends. The intrinsic purpose of the activity of angling, for example, is to catch fish. A good angler is someone who has ability and success in catching fish specifically with a line and a hook. Thus, the specific perfective good of angling is the capture of fish with a line and a hook. The delectable good of angling, by contrast, is the specific pleasure that attends the activity. This pleasure is greatly enhanced whenever the activity attains all of its essential ends. The delectable good of angling, however, is not what makes someone an angler. A person can be a good angler and experience no pleasure at all in the activity. And a person can experience part of the specific pleasure of angling without actually catching any fish. The perfective good, not the delectable good, is what makes an activity to be the kind of activity it is. Thus, a person is an angler only insofar as that person is engaging in an activity that is intrinsically ordered to catching fish with a line and a hook. This specific kind of activity is what makes a person an angler, even if the person unfortunately fails to catch any fish.
Societies often find it necessary and prudent to regulate certain kinds of activities. Any law that regulates a given activity presupposes a definition of that activity. In our society, for example, there are certain laws that pertain to the activity of angling. It normally requires a license. The license to angle does not permit the activity of catching fish with nets, dynamite, etc. Angling must be done in such a way to hook fish in the mouth, rather than snagging them, etc. Angling is permitted only at designated times and places, and so on. Like any other kind of human activity, angling has an essence that exists prior to its definition, and prior to any laws that regulate the activity. The possession of a license to angle is not what makes a person an angler. A person is an angler only insofar as that person actually engages in the activity of angling in accord with its essential ends. And a person is a good angler only insofar as that person is actually able to catch fish by means of a line and a hook.
Now suppose that in our society there were significant social benefits formally attached to angling that were not also attached to, say, kite-flying, and similar recreational activities.