Claiming Connotations

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.