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The Power of the Word

For our nominalism files, we discover the reason for the decline in the rate of black illegitimacy: redefinition of the term 'parent'.

“The Census Bureau attributed an indeterminate amount of the increase to revised definitions adopted in 2007, which identify as parents any man and woman living together, whether or not they are married or the child's biological parents.”
(HT: The Corner, via Lawrence Auster) (Cross-posted)

Comments (29)

"An indeterminate amount of the increase." It shouldn't be all that hard to determine the amount of the increase. Surely there are statistics out there of some kind on the more relevant group--children born to a married woman who is living with her husband (as opposed to living with a man who is not her husband).

If nothing else, one might compare the statistics from the last census taken before the radical change of definition.

I'm wondering: Why do you identify this re-definition with nominalism? One could be a hard-core, card-carrying, philosophical realist and think the definition of "parent" needs to be recast, just as one could be an ardent nominalist and think the existing definition of "parent" is perfectly fine.

This strikes me more as a matter of political leftism at work, not nominalism. The agenda behind the change seems to be one of politics rather than one of philosophy and universals.

That is a fair point, Michael, though not being a philosopher I tend to think that a lot of people are nominalists (or have nominalist tendencies) because of their politics, or as a feedback loop with their politics. I think for example that in whole persons, as opposed to just 'political man' or 'philosophical man', nominalism and liberalism tend to be coextensive and mutually reinforcing.

I think sometimes it's almost impossible to tell the difference between a person who is a nominalist and pushes his liberal agenda using the idea that he can define words any way he wants to and a person who is an essentialist but pretends to himself and to others that the essence of certain things is that they embody his own liberal ideas. I'm thinking here of a commentator in a thread about conscience clauses. He couldn't seem to make it clear whether he truly believed that offering abortion as a service was part of the essence of being a medical practitioner or whether he didn't believe in such an essence and just believed that abortion provision had been societally assigned to medical practice as part of the nominal essence. Homosexual "marriage" is another example: Do its advocates believe that marriage has no essence or, on the other hand, that "romantic and sexual love between any two people" is its real essence? Or (and this is getting close to the subject of your post) there is the attempt to redefine "family" as something like "any group of people that live together and love each other."

What I see happening a lot is a sort of weird combination of nominalism (as Mike says in the other thread, "marriage is as marriage does") with a kind of stubborn and bizarre sentimentalist essentialism: "X good thing is to be identified essentially, contrary to all previous use of the term and concept, with such-and-such set of good feelings."

Maybe it is a kind of Nietzschean nominalism-lite or process nominalism, where nominalism is a hammer used to break existing essences, after which new essences will be constructed from what is willed by the free and equal new man. Perhaps people just have to make nominalist-sounding assertions as a step in the process of remaking what is real into what is willed; so that at the end of the process what is willed by the free and equal new man becomes treated as the new essentialism, once the old essences have been hammered into submission. But even here the nominalism cannot be fully left behind: the terms mean what they mean in virtue of the purposes and conveniences of the free and equal new man, whose willed purposes, rather than brute God-ordained natural universals or Forms or whatever, constitute their quasi-essence.

Actually, there's probably a lot of truth in that. First we hear, "But that isn't what such-and-such is anymore. Now we think of it as ______ instead." That the nominalist tear-down step. But then pretty soon the violins come out and with fanfare we are told, "What such-and-such really is is _____________. We all know that now." New essence put in place.

If a quality was always or almost always paired with the term in the past, but no longer is, why is it nominalism to remove that quality from the definition? The silent artillery of time, to borrow Lincoln's phrase, has exposed the actual meaning of the term.

A principle that questions of essences are to be referred to the majority of the people who just happen to be living at the same time as oneself--a kind of self-conscious bandwagon argument--has many, many problems. Need I even begin to list them?

The "silent artillery" of a few years of homosexual political rhetoric now counts as sufficient to reveal the "actual meaning" of a term? Sorry, no sale.

In addition to the redefining of 'parent' in the urban black community, there is also a redefining of 'husband' (not sure about 'wife') that goes along with it. I worked with an urban black woman for about six years, who, during that period, had three different live-in boyfriends (they may or may not have been the father of any of her five children). She referred to each of these men in succession as her husband, although she actually wasn't married to any of them. From the way she described it, this appeared to be a not uncommon practice.

Clearly she's a nominalist. (wink)

That's funny, but unfortunately it's true! Most people today are functional nominalists, even if they have no idea what that means. Words are just words, ya know?

Need I even begin to list them?

Yes, since I have doubts you will insist that an adopted child should refer to his or her legal parents as anything other than mom and dad, when clearly they aren't.

Michael's comment would have made milk come out of my nose, had I been drinking any.

Rob G:

Most people today are functional nominalists, even if they have no idea what that means.
I don't know that we even need the qualifier 'functional'. A dog is a dog, not a 'functional' dog, without knowing the meaning of the word 'dog'. A nominalist is a person with some adherence or loyalty to nominalism, whether he knows and understands the terminology involved or not. And most people today, or at least a great many, are nominalists.

In anticipation of some possible objections and digressions: There is a special problem which arises when people hold to incoherent beliefs and loyalties. In a certain sense there are no 'real' nominalists, nor left-liberals for that matter, because nominalism and left-liberalism are incoherent. A logician who expresses the belief that (A & ~A) is not expressing a coherent belief. So a nominalist is essentially (ahem) a person who vests some significant belief/loyalty in nominalism; independent of whether he knows the term 'nominalism' or is aware of what philosophical positions it signifies, or that those positions are incoherent.

Furthermore, despite the fact that nominalism and left-liberalism are incoherent there are nevetheless predictable consequences of people adhering to them in certain circumstances, much as there are predictable consequences to placing a random noise generator into a particular place in an electronic circuit (and not necessarily all bad consequences: I could easily design a circuit to reproduce The Ride of the Valkyries from a random-noise input). So it is possible to talk coherently about nominalism/ists from a holistic social/political/philosophical point of view despite the fact that nominalism is, in asserting a philosophy with the consequence that essentially there are no essences, incoherent.

"A nominalist is a person with some adherence or loyalty to nominalism, whether he knows and understands the terminology involved or not."

Tru dat. Perhaps I should've used the term "unconscious nominalist" rather than "functional nominalist."

Step2, I'm not sure what your point is. Obviously the situation with the adopted child is that the situation has been set up to imitate as closely as possible the situation of a child with his biological parents. If the adoptive parents are wise, they will tell the child the truth at a young age. (Mine were.) Everyone who understands the adoption knows that they are the child's parents in one sense but not in another and also that the situation has been set up legally the way that it has been as a cludge to deal with some set or other of unfortunate human circumstances for the child--mother was unmarried, biological parents died, biological parents were unfit, or whatever. Moreover, adoption is an ancient kind of thing, not some sort of new revelation to the 21st century Enlightened of the "real meaning" of the term "parent." Nobody claims that just now, by some sort of flash of insight bestowed only on our immediate temporal cohort, we "realize" that parenthood really is in essence something different from what people though it was before.

Everyone who understands the adoption knows that they are the child's parents in one sense...

True, the nominal sense.

...but not in another and also that the situation has been set up legally the way that it has been as a kludge to deal with some set or other of unfortunate human circumstances for the child.

Uh-oh, I hear violins playing in the background. It would be a travesty if sentimentalism was allowed to gloss over brute biological fact and natural forms.

No sentimentalism about it, Step2. The kid needs someone to take care of him, and this _naturally complementary couple_ (a man and a woman who are married to each other) have stepped forward to take that on. Calling it a "cludge" hardly sounds like sentiment, but neither am I going to downplay the value of what the adoptive parents give to the child. As I have implied, they are particularly suited to that role because they are a couple. Natural forms and all. This way, the child is given the opportunity to be raised by one man and and one woman, married to each other. As close as possible as we can get under the circs. to the ideal set-up intended by God when he made Adam and Eve and bade them be fruitful and multiply.

Of course I am not trying to downplay the devotion of couples who adopt children; nothing could be further from what my argument is about. We disagree over whether those couples should be called parents or not by society. We could designate a special category of legal guardians or something similar instead of "adopting" the terminology of parenthood and families.

More generally, this tactic where you carve out an exception or two from your own strict standards and then defend it by saying the ideal can be satisfied by an approximate substitute is a good way to avoid slippery slopes, but it is an impossible way to defend essentialism. Either the ideal you suggest is not really essential or there is a legitimate need for useful fictions to provide a sense of normalcy.

Step2, everybody knows that calling adoptive parents "parents" is a legal fiction. It does nothing to tear down the institution of real parenthood or call the biological connection between sexuality and parenthood into question, because it always was a well-known legal fiction, invented to take care of what *everybody knew was a bad situation in the first place*. There was never any question of treating illegitimacy as hunky dory in order to provide adoptive parents with babies, for example. Why do you think even adoptive children themselves, when being intensely snotty or angry, sometimes yell, "You're not my real parents"?

Let me put it slightly differently, Step2: There are perfectly good principled reasons why traditional legal adoption seeks to create a situation as much as possible like that of ordinary biological parenthood. One woman, one man, married to each other, both having full legal rights over the child. The reasons were that everyone agreed that the _real_ biological family with married mother and father was the _ideal_ and that this was an attempt to recreate something as near as possible to that ideal for the sake of a child who was lacking it through no fault of his own. There is no question of creating "alternative concepts of the family." Whereas many of the aspects of homosexual so-called "marriage" that do mimic those of real marriage are more or less arbitrarily retained. Two people, no more? Why bother? No close genetic relationships? Who cares? (It's not like we'll ever have to worry about birth defects in their biological offspring.) This is because that relationship and demanded legal institution is all about the adults involved, their feelings for each other, and celebrating and validating their sexual relationship, and no one has any reason to try closely to mimic something else that is *admitted to be the ideal* solely in order to try to help out some third person who has been deprived of that ideal.

Homosexual "marriage" implicitly asserts that mothers are replaceable by men. Whatever a mother can do, Daddy's boyfriend can do too, as if effeminacy and femininity were interchangeable. The same with lesbian "marriages," but in the opposite direction: Mommy's girlfriend is a suitable daddy, as if, when it comes to raising the next generation, butch and masculinity were functionally the same.

Advocates of same sex marriage argue as if neither men nor women add anything unique or irreplaceable to a marriage or to a family -- as if one sex were replaceable by the other sex without damage or loss to the children they are raising. They argue as if the horrifying statistics concerning what is likely to happen when, for example, there's no father present are simply irrelevant or unimportant: Drop out rates, illegitimacy, unemployment, drug abuse, and incarceration all sky rocket among the next generation. When it comes to raising the next generation, gender matters.

But same sex marriage advocates really don't care about that. They care about orgasms. They care about acceptance. They care about themselves.


I think you are being unfair to many same-sex advocates. Many believe (however misguided they may be) that being able to adopt a child that would otherwise live a life in foster homes or orphanages, is "about" a loving home for that child. They may even acknowledge that the ideal home would be biological parents raising their children. But given the circ. of real life, with many children being abandoned by their biological parents, a certain percentage of gay couples really do want to help these abandoned children. Certainly not all same sex marriage advocates and certainly the story I tell is complicated by same-sex couples deliberately bringing a child into the world through artifcial insemination and then adoption*, but I just don't think those of us who want to preserve marriage as an institution, historically and Biblically understood, should use language like you use in your comment above. It suggests a certain moral snobbery (i.e. how do you know that such advocates "really don't care about that" or that such advocates care only about "orgasms" or their egos?) that I think will turn-off our allies in the broad middle-class that have already come to accept homosexual behavior as somehow O.K.

*Although this piece is funny because it is so inarticulate (and the editors at the "Sun-Times" tell their readers that they edited the piece to include punctuation!) I think this is an interesting viewpoint over the Rick Warren kerfuffle from the lesbian woman married to the singer Melissa Etheridge:


Jeff, what I myself meant to suggest is that homosexual relationships themselves and the drive to have them called "marriages" are not about someone other than the adults involved. I think that's obvious. Adoption in itself is, qua adoption, about adopting a child. I was responding to Step2's rather bizarre attempt to get someone to admit that if homosexual marriage is wrong, so is adoption, as both are legal acknowledgements of something "unnatural." Step2 is completely misguided. I do agree with Michael that the drive for homosexual adoption arises ultimately from the liberal assumption that the differences between the sexes are inessential and also that being a parent can mean just living with the person who actually is a parent. I am implacably opposed to the attempt to have a woman's lesbian "girlfriend" declared legally automatically the "other mother" of the first woman's actual biological child, and that simply _because of_ her relationship to the mother. This is fiction for the purpose of an adult agenda to the nth power. We should remember that the whole common law background of a married woman's husband being automatically legally the father of her child was the real possibility that he _was_ the father of her child.

Perhaps I am being unfair. If so, then I am wrong. But I think that Lydia is spot on. Even in cases where SSMers want to adopt, it seems to me to be more about them having what nature forbids them from having rather than their concern for the next generation. In my view, they are pretending; they are posing. It's make-believe for grown-ups. They are pretending to be parents, and they want us to pretend too -- culturally, politically, socially and legally.

Or, to make the point the other way round, and to borrow a tongue-in-cheek idea from a friend: Perhaps we could reach a compromise. Just as heterosexual couples can adopt only those children conceived heterosexually, homosexual couples can adopt only those conceived homosexually.

Let me say it another way. You (rightly) think I am mocking SSMers. I think think they are mocking traditional marriage and all those who endorse it.

They are not offering for our approval what they acknowledge as second best. They are saying that what we endorse is, regarding them, immoral and exclusionary. They call it, almost always, a matter of their civil rights, not a matter of offering to a child what they know is second best, but perhaps is better than an orphanage. So far as I know, proof that SSM is better for children than an orphanage is yet to be produced.

Here's something from an article I published several years ago in Philosophia Christi, "Legal Neutrality and Same-Sex Marriage." ( http://homepage.mac.com/francis.beckwith/neutrality.pdf ). This may shed some light on this discussion (notes omitted):

(1) It instructs the nation’s citizens that marriage is not a natural institution that the state recognizes, but rather, an institution socially constructed that cannot in principle be limited by what marriage actually is, because its actual nature is what we will it to be. Instead of marriage being an institution we may freely enter and to its nature submit, it is an institution whose nature we freely shape and submit to our will. Therefore, “laws recognizing gay marriage,” as philosopher Michael Pakaluk argues, “imply the falsity of the view that marriage is an objective reality prior to the state.” There are several implications that follow from this. For example, Pakaluk points out that “parental authority must stand or fall with marriage.” For “if the bond of husband and wife is not by nature, then neither is the government of those who share in that bond over any children that might result.” Consequently, “laws recognizing gay marriage imply, similarly, that parents have no objective and natural authority over their children, prior to the state.” This would mean that parents would have no natural right, no actual moral grounds, to object to the public schools teaching their children lessons about human sexuality that are contrary to the lessons taught in church and home. The state, of course, may grant an exception to these “backward” parents, but not because they have a prelegal obligation to care for and nurture their children in shaping their character and directing their moral compass. Rather, the state may consider it politically wise to tolerate these families and their religious traditions. But it would not be as a matter of principle based on the order and nature of things.

Ironically, if this view of marriage were dominant in our legal culture when the Supreme Court rejected the prohibition of interracial marriage in the case of Loving v. Virginia (1967), the moral grounds for its opinion would have been lost. That is, in order for the Court to have concluded that forbidding interracial marriage is wrong, it would have to know what marriage is. But if marriage is merely a social construction and not a natural institution, the state of Virginia could have argued, like contemporary same-sex marriage proponents, that marriage is merely a social construction subject to our will and nothing more. It is only because the Court knew that marriage is between a man and a woman that it could say that race, like height, geography, or place of residence, is not a relevant characteristic for two people to marry.

(2) Hadley Arkes points out that a legal regime which does not withhold endorsement of same-sex unions sets into motion a certain moral logic that will likely result in the condemnation and marginalization of those, especially traditional Christians and Jews, who resist this endorsement in their communities and institutions. For example (this is my example, not Arkes’s), a philosophy department at an Evangelical Christian college that refuses to hire “married” same-sex couples while receiving federal funds, may, according to this moral logic, have its government funding withdrawn because it would be engaging in unlawful discrimination based on marital status. This is why Arkes refers to one congressional bill that would have banned discrimination against homosexuals by private businesses, as the “Christian and Jewish Removal Act,” “for it promises to purge serious Christians and Jews from the executive suites of corporations, universities, and law firms.” After all, why would a university hire a Christian philosophy professor who holds “discriminatory” views if the espousal of such views could put the school at risk of civil or criminal litigation? Arkes tells of the case of “the wife of a shop owner in Boulder, Colorado, [who] had given a pamphlet on homosexuality to a gay employee. For that offense, she was charged under the local ordinance on gay rights, and compelled to enter a program of compulsory counseling.” Imagine if “same-sex marriage” were to become legal in every jurisdiction in the United States. Does anybody seriously doubt that recalcitrant social conservatives, serious Christians, Jews, and Muslims, who resist this change in any public way, would receive the swift and certain punishment of the law?

Thanks to Lydia, Michael, and Francis for your thoughtful comments.

Michael, you say: "So far as I know, proof that SSM is better for children than an orphanage is yet to be produced." I think this is an important point (assuming it is true, although I wonder if any social science studies have been done on the kids raised by two homosexual men/women versus a similar sample of kids raised in orphanages) and can help us speak to the broader public about the dangers of changing society's definition of marriage. As Zippy points out with his original post, there are serious consequences for society if we don't establish moral guidelines on what the family should be. The pain and suffering in the inner-city, of which I read about in the papers daily and can point to literally hundreds of studies showing the link between the breakdown of the two-parent black family and disfunctional kids, is legion.

You also say "Even in cases where SSMers want to adopt, it seems to me to be more about them having what nature forbids them from having rather than their concern for the next generation. In my view, they are pretending; they are posing. It's make-believe for grown-ups. They are pretending to be parents, and they want us to pretend too -- culturally, politically, socially and legally."

Here again, I'm not so sure. I agree with both you and Lydia that the desire for legal recognition of homosexual marriage is definitely about the adults. However, I really doubt those who adopt kids are "pretending" or "posing" in the sense you suggest. I think they are motivated by a strong sense of love and probably duty to the next generation (they have families too and many of their parents who have accepted the fact that their sons and/or daughters are gay want grandkids) -- it is just too easy for gays (especially these days) to live a life of easy hedonism to imagine that they would take on the responsibilities of a parent simply to play "make-believe" grown-up.

Someone like Dan Savage, who represents in his writing everything we think is wrong with the world, nevertheless writes eloquently and thoughtfully about raising his adopted son in this book:


I'm not sure we can dismiss the Dan Savages of the world (well, maybe we can dismiss his "sex advice" -- scare quotes necessary) with the claim that they don't care about kids, only their disordered egos.

Jeff, I definitely would say (and I suspect you would agree) that the adoption issue has been _used_ by homosexual activists as part of their agenda, even though "what about the poor children" is a rhetorical talking point. This goes back to the Anita Bryant days. Pushing for the "right to adopt" is part of pushing for an admission by society that a) same-sex attraction is not a mental disorder (which obviously would be relevant to the question of adoption) and b) same-sex couples are an "alternative form of family" and should be treated like any other couple. The fact that activists would rather drive Catholic adoption agencies out of business than see them continue to "discriminate" against homosexuals speaks volumes regarding the priorities as far as concern for children vs. concern for furthering an agenda. Anecdotally, I have certainly known at least one lesbian who said of herself and her partner, "Maybe we'll adopt some day" in a way that made it clear to me in conversation that this was about proving that they could "be a family" just like anyone else--in other words, about a political statement about themselves. Something similar is true about the legal battle surrounding the "divorced" lesbian couple from Vermont from which the unrelated mother is demanding visitation rights and originally tried to obtain joint custody of the child who was not her daughter (this after the other woman had decided her lifestyle was wrong and had fled to Virginia where neither "marriage" nor civil unions are recognized for lesbians). These fairly obvious sociological facts about the way the homosexual adoption and "parenting" debate has been introduced and has continued are compatible with there existing individual homosexuals who have real affection and love for individual children they have adopted.

But I kind of sense that Step2's introduction and my subsequent discussion of adoption--which was not originally about homosexual adoption at all but about a misguided analogy Step2 was trying to make regarding _all_ adoption, including the most traditional sort--has caused some confusion in the logic of the thread. So I should bow out lest I make confusion worse confounded, wishing you, Jeff, Michael, Frank, and everyone else a blessed Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. Merry Christmas!

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