Thursday, June 23, 2016


by Gary K. Clabaugh 
Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

Explicit definitions mirror ordinary usage and are fully and clearly stated; leaving nothing implied. For instance, The Medical Dictionary explicitly defines abortion thusly:

abortion [ah-bor´shun]
termination of pregnancy before the fetus is viable. In the medical sense, this term and the term miscarriage both refer to the termination of pregnancy before the fetus is capable of survival outside the uterus. The term abortion is more commonly used as a synonym for induced abortion, the deliberate interruption of pregnancy, as opposed to miscarriage, which connotes a spontaneous or natural loss of the fetus. 

In contrast Pope Francis recently declared abortion to be a "crime" and an "absolute evil." If we accept this definition, we embrace the Roman Catholic program of action that underlies it. While that may have merit, it violates ordinary usage. Presently abortion is not a crime. Nor do a majority agree that it is an absolute evil. This violation of ordinary usage and popular consensus is what makes the Pope's definition programmatic. 

Programmatic definitions are particularly troublesome because they tend to delegitimize debate and stifle discussion. Accept the Pope's definition, for instance, and we need not wonder if a girl who has been forcibly raped by her father should have the option of abortion. If she chooses that, no matter how desperately, she is, by the Pope's definition, a criminal choosing an "absolute evil." Moreover, according to the Pope, this would be true even if the abortion is performed before the fetus is capable of independent survival outside her uterus.

The practical force of programmatic definitions is that their acceptance has consequences far exceeding mere linguistic preference. Accept Pope Francis's definition, for example, and there is no room for argument or contrary evidence. The choice has been made for us.

A handy, though by no means infallible, method of identifying programmatic definitions is the presence in the definition of adjectives such as “true “ or “real.” For example, "A true conservative is one who ...:". You can fill in the rest.

Now, those who offer programmatic definitions do not necessarily intend to deceive or slip us a linguistic Mickey. Individuals offering programmatic definitions often sincerely believe that the meanings they propose are the only “true” or “right” ones. 

Sincerity and good intentions, however, are not enough. To avoid being programmatic, definitions must mirror ordinary usage,  stand against contrary evidence and surmount informed disagreement. Mere assertion will not do.

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