I was chasing links a few days ago and ran into Disputing Definitions from the sequences (again), and was thinking about the idea of having definition-argument participants expand their definition of a word to dissolve the dispute. And I thought, I've tried it a couple of times, and I don't think it has ever actually worked. 

I think something else is going on here: People arguing about the "true" definition of a word are trying to lay social claim to its connotations by dictating its denotation.

Consider an atheist gay-rights supporter and a Christian gay-rights opponent. The former says "homosexuality is not immoral" the latter says "homosexuality is immoral."

Expand on "immoral." Perhaps the atheist considers an act immoral if it harms someone else without their consent, while the Christian considers an act immoral if it goes against the teachings of the Bible.

The expanded forms look like:

A: "Homosexuality does not harm anyone without their consent.
B: "Homosexuality goes against the teachings of the Bible.

The atheist is unlikely to disagree with B; Leviticus 18:22 is pretty straightforward. He won't *care* that homosexuality is against biblical teachings, but he won't disagree that it does. The Christian may disagree with A, but assume for the sake of argument that he doesn't.

It would seem the factual disagreement has been dissolved; they aren't actually contradicting each other, they are making *entirely orthogonal statements.*

Present the above analysis to both sides, though, and I suspect that instead of acknowledging the dissolution, they would fall to arguing over the *correct* definition of the *label* "immoral." Even after the expansion is presented. This has happened to me a couple of times.

Question: If they're not arguing about the biblical status or harm status of homosexuality, and they acknowledge that they mean entirely different things by the label "immoral," what are they actually contesting when they argue the proper denotation of that label?

This seems to me to be the reversed version of sneaking in connotations. For that someone applies a word to a case for which it is denotationally true but connotation-ally questionable, as when referring to Martin Luther King, Jr as a criminal.

Arging over definitions, though, strikes me as trying to *lay claim* to connotations rather than sneak them in. If you can dictate the denotation of a commonly-used but disputed word, then you succeed in applying its connotations to all cases that match that denotation. "Homosexuality is a larommi act" does not have the same impact as "Homosexuality is an immoral act," even if the two words are given the same literal definition.


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I think in that specific example, they're not arguing about the meaning of the word "immoral" so much as morality itself. So the actual argument is meta-ethical, i.e. "What is the correct source of knowledge on what is right and wrong?". Another argument they won't ever resolve of course, but at least a genuine one not a semantic one.

In other situations, sometimes the argument really boils down to something more like "Was person A an asshole for calling person B label X?". Here they can agree that person B has label X according to A's definition but not according to B's. But, the point is, if B's definition is the "right" one then A was an asshole for calling him X, while if A's definition is the "right" one then it was a perfectly justified statement to make. (excuse the language by the way but I genuinely can't see a replacement word that gets the point across)

I think in that specific example, they're not arguing about the meaning of the word "immoral" so much as morality itself.

That's my feeling as well. Morality is usually treated as a conceptual primary. If I were to substitute it out of a statement, I would substitute in it's place comments about my own recursive levels of approval/disapproval and associated reward/punishment. For the most part, people can't and won't substitute out for "morality", because there is just a lot of conceptual nonsense generally tied up in it.

If the OP hadn't started with morality, but had taken the more general case, I'd say he was correct. People argue over definition of terms in an attempt to lay definitive claim to a connotation of a word. But the point of claim is to thereby smuggle in an associated moral connotation.

The characterization of what one approves/disapproves of in terms of harm, fairness, in group solidarity, authority, etc., is usually identified as a disagreement over the "nature of morality". and not the definition of the term.

If the OP hadn't started with morality, but had taken the more general case, I'd say he was correct

I wanted an example to demonstrate the general case; but I'm beginning to think "morality" made a very poor example -- precisely because the "conceptual nonsense" you mention gets in the way of the point.

I'll see if I can come up with a better example by this evening.

I think the canonical example is whether a fetus is a human being.

But to give you my stock reply to this kind of argument by definition, I say it's grounded in a fundamental mistake - valuing according to your categories, instead of categorizing according to your values. It's not whether a fetus fits into some typology, it's whether you value it in the full context of all of it's qualities, regardless of what labels you apply to it.

That's both a better example and good answer to it; my point was that I think the mistake (or at least, its use and abuse in argument) is at least somewhat intentional.

is at least somewhat intentional.

That's a hard one. Recently, I've more and more concluded that there are fundamentally different modes of thinking and behaving that distinguish different types of people.

The intent is to win. The mind seeks out arguments that will win. Only a subset of minds are subconsciously concerned about the logical validity of the argument used to win. So I wouldn't say that people "intend to use a logically invalid argument to win"; the logical validity of the argument is just irrelevant to their minds, and thereby unnoticed, unless it is explicitly brought to their consciousness by their opponent, and even then it's often not so relevant.

How about:

  • Whether dolphins are fish or mammals
  • Whether the plural of "fish" is "fish" or "fishes"
  • Whether the author of the original post (that is, you), should be referred to as "he", "they", or "ey"

This is my first attempt at a full post instead of a comment. Comments on style and suitability are as welcome as comments on content. Also, not all markdown syntax appears to work in full-post mode, and I'm not sure why. (in particular I can't seem to use markdown syntax for links, and I hate having to do extra mousework) If anyone can enlighten me I'd appreciate it.

I do have a specific non-hypothetical example of laying claims of this sort in mind, but I suspect it might be mindkilling, so I'm keeping it to myself for now.

This is my first attempt at a full post instead of a comment.

I enjoyed this post, and hope you continue to do more. :)

Thanks. We'll see about more; most of the time when I come up with something I think is worth saying, I find it's already been covered better and in more detail somewhere in the archives.

Posts are edited in WYSIWYG, or you can work in the HTML editor. I'll fix your formatting for you if you like, or would you rather poke it yourself?

I think I eventually got the formatting right, but thanks anyway. I was just irked that the posting syntax wasn't the same as the commenting syntax.

Let me start by saying that I like the article, and found the main point both insightful and likely true. However, I think you chose a poor example, and did not explore the example thoroughly enough.

I think that your assumptions that both parties will accept your dissolution, or even should, are flawed. You're attempting to dissolve an argument between a straw atheist and a straw Christian.

As an atheist, I disagree with B. Leviticus 18:22 is not clear on the subject. The bible does not ban homosexual conduct any more than it bans wearing mixed fibers, requires animal sacrifice, or permits selling your daughters into slavery. Any Christian who claims that the Bible speaks to homosexuality without accepting as equally strong the other provisions, is clearly getting some of their morality and claims from sources outside the Bible, whether those are personal morality, their culture, historical interpretation of the Bible, or something else. (I choose not to use the uncharitable interpretation that Christians making such claims are hypocrites and only speaking loudly about the parts that are easy to follow for them, though I've heard that basic claim advanced. I don't think it's consistent with other observed behaviors.) Given that when people refer to "the teachings of the Bible", they seem to be referring to something more like "the teachings of the bible as interpreted by [me / my parents / my priest / talk radio / historical authors]", I think it's fair to say that B has connotation / denotation problems that you haven't yet resolved, and that it's fair for me as an atheist to disagree with statement B.

Furthermore, there are Biblical scholars more knowledgeable than I who say that Leviticus 18:22 bans male temple prostitutes, and should not be taken as law outside of that context. I'm not enough of a scholar to have a strong opinion on this, but it seems relevant if accurate. (I should also note I'm not familiar with the responses to those interpretations, and that I don't feel terribly inclined to find out all the details, because this is not my true rejection.)

I've also seen multiple arguments against A (none of which I agree with, but they do exist). You're hurting the other person you're engaging homosexual relations with, by damning them to Hell. Such an act can't properly be described as consensual, in the same way we don't let people consensually murder and eat each other.

There's also a fairly prevalent argument that homosexual relationships hurt other people in the society in one fashion or another.

(I feel compelled to state that I think both those arguments are horribly flawed, factually wrong, and fairly insulting. However, they are not arguments over definitions, and are not dissolved by your proposed definitions of the term "immoral", so they seem worth pointing out, distasteful as I find them. It didn't seem fair to call your atheist a strawman without making the strongest complementary claim about your straw Christian that I could.)

While I think it might be possible to dissolve much of this argument through good definitions, I don't think you can dissolve all of it, and I don't think you've yet dissolves it as far as possible. I still think that some of the points of debate actually need to be refuted on their merits, which you have not done.

(EDIT: fixed statement labels)

I think that your assumptions that both parties will accept your dissolution, or even should, are flawed. You're attempting to dissolve an argument between a straw atheist and a straw Christian.

They were never really intended to be more than straw. Sure, arguments A and B are open to attack; but here I'm interested in the participants' choice of what-to-argue, not merits-of-argument. You're right, my choice of example was crap. I think in future I may borrow Eliezer's rubes and bleggs for such things instead.

That's still a really good rebuttal of the assumed positions, and made me think a bit more than usual about how theists might view their sacred texts. Thanks.

Yep, this sure is a real thing that happens :D

So, next question - what are they disagreeing about, if we taboo "immoral"?

Or, to be a bit more suggestive - what is the difference between these two arguing cognitive entities, if we taboo away the argument? What kind of change to one entity would constitute the other side "winning the argumet?"

So, next question - what are they disagreeing about, if we taboo "immoral"?

Maybe they are not disagreeing about meaning of the words; they are just trying to influence how people behave.

Imagine that many people suddenly become interested in things being xyzzy. No one really knows what "xyzzy" means, or more precisely, you have thousand mutually contradictory explanations, some of them a bit more popular than the others. But for some reason people are enthusiastic about xyzzy things -- for over 90% of them, xyzzy is an automatic applause light. Perhaps they rationalize that debating "xyzzy", despite having no definition, must be xyzzy itself. It does not make sense at all.

Then some person says that reading LessWrong is very un-xyzzy, and some other person disagrees and says that reading LessWrong is actually very close to the real essence of xyzzy-ness. They argue by comparing LessWrong to other things, either popularly considered un-xyzzy, or popularly considered xyzzy; and then the other side counter-argues that xyzzy-ness or un-xyzzy-ness of X is not a good evidence for xyzzy-ness or un-xyzzy-ness of LessWrong, because LessWrong is not the same thing as X. Which side would you join? Assuming that you consider the whole concept of "xyzzy" meaningless, should you even try to join one of the sides?

Well, even assuming the whole thing is a nonsense, it is a nonsense with real-world consequences, if people care about that nonsense. If for 90% people being xyzzy is an automatic applause light, then successfully arguing that yes, LessWrong is xyzzy, means a huge increase in a number of readers. On he other hand, convincing people that LessWrong is un-xyzzy, means that many people will avoid this site. This may help or harm our instrumental goals.

I don't think the entire morality debate is exactly like this; but it has this component. If it didn't, we could just taboo "morality" and replace it with words like "harm-minimizing" and "religion-following". But by doing so, each side would give up a word with positive connotations for both sides, and replace it with a word appealing only to its followers. That would be wasteful. If there is a word with positive connotations, you want to associate it with your cause, the precision of the debate be damned.

You want to argue that -- to use the argument from the article -- tolerating homosexuality is harm-minimizing and xyzzy; or that supressing homosexuality is religion-following and xyzzy. Because humans are not completely rational, and that "and xyzzy" part is really going to make them more likely to join one of the sides.

This (more specifically the last couple paragraphs) is exactly what I was getting at. I don't know if it's more intelligible to anyone else than what I wrote, but from this perspective it looks like you clicked.

The problem could come from a couple different places.

By immoral, they could mean that:

  • It feels wrong. That imagining a person engaging in immoral act causes an emotional aversion similar to the one experienced in response to brutal murder or unfair manipulation.

  • indulging in immoral behavior inherently causes problems and does damage to psychological wellbeing. That there's a certain way to run the human machine and following certain vices are particularly suboptimal ways to do it.

  • Some kind of deontological rule that interacts with reality in subtle and abstract ways decrees the immorality of the relevant actions. i.e. that God forbids them, or that they don't logically follow from a person's nature, or a platonic form shuns them

  • Some confused combination of the above

If both parties agree that one of the above constitutes a useful and meaningful definition of "immoral", and that the actions or circumstances in question fit that category, then there shouldn't be a problem.

Some confused combination of the above

Alternately, the not-quite-so-confused combination that the above have causal relationships: in other words, that God has correctly informed us about which things have bad consequences; or that God will reward us (a good consequence) for obeying the deontological rules he set up; or that our moral sense ("it feels wrong") is a flawed attempt (thus, in need of both correction and forgiveness) to model or follow God's laws.

Fair enough. Although, one thing about theists I've only recently noticed is that they don't always anthropomorphize God as much as we like to imagine they do. A lot of the time they just think of Him as a kind of abstract force that's sort of analogous to a human mind, and maybe isn't distinct from even our sense of morality.

So in order to think that way and still claim the moral high ground, they do necessarily have to be confused.

This isn't quite what I was getting at. I was specifically covering the case where they're not using a mutual definition of "immoral," and on being made aware of that fact choose to argue the "correct" definition of the arbitrary label rather than acknowledging that it is arbitrary and their (expanded) points are quite compatible.

In this case (given the premise that the Christian agrees that homosexuality doesn't harm anyone without their consent,) I would say they're arguing over whether Utilitarianism or Divine Command Theory is the correct theory of moral foundations.

Question: If they're not arguing about the biblical status or harm status of homosexuality, and they acknowledge that they mean entirely different things by the label "immoral," what are they actually contesting when they argue the proper denotation of that label?

They could be contesting either:

  • Which definition fits common usage of the term "immoral", which can be investigated empirically (see the whole "experimental philosophy" project)
  • Which definition should be the common usage one (i.e. in this case, it boils down to metaethics).

To take a simpler topic, two people could be disagreeing about a point of grammar (say "who" vs. "whom"), and the disagreement could be either about the way most people speak, or about which way would make the language clearer and more efficient.

Or you could have a disagreement about whether a dolphin should be categorized as a fish or a mammal - and even if you're in a country where in common usage a dolphin is called a fish, you could still argue that it makes more sense to categorize it as a mammal, or as a third, separate category.