By Definition

by Jon Mandle on April 25, 2004

Classically, when philosophers teach deductions, we trot out examples like the following: “If Jim is a bachelor, then it follows from the definition (or meaning) of ‘bachelor’ that Jim is an unmarried man.” The conclusion is supposed to follow deductively from the premise about Jim and the definition of “bachelor.” But there’s more: although we could imagine the premise about Jim being false, it’s supposed to be impossible to imagine a bachelor that’s not an unmarried man – that’s supposed to be the additional force of saying “by definition.”

Governor Mitt Romney says that a 1913 law requires that same-sex marriages in Massachusetts be limited to residents only. Here’s his argument:

Our current laws, as they exist, limit same-sex marriage to people from jurisdictions where such marriage would be legal,” Mr. Romney said. “And our understanding is that same-sex marriage is only legal in Massachusetts. And therefore, by definition, only people who reside in Massachusetts or intend to reside in Massachusetts would be able to be married under this provision.”

My question: “by definition” of what? Certainly not “marriage” which he recognizes can – and does – change as the law changes.

Extra credit: will a man who is not a resident of Massachusetts, but who marries a man who is a resident still be a bachelor?



Katherine 04.25.04 at 10:30 pm

What a piece of work is Mitt. It would serve him right if this leads gay couples to move to Massachusetts, establish residency, and cost him his re-election.

According to MSNBC that 1913 law was originally passed to limit interracial marriages. So he can certainly claim to be upholding both it’s letter and his spirit, but he probably doesn’t want to.

I also wonder how they handle the states that do not explicitly forbid gay marriage, especially New York, where the attorney general says the state’s laws require the recognition of gay unions performed in other states.

And more generally–there is a doctrine in U.S. equal protection law that giving effect to the prejudices of private actors is not a legitimate basis for a law. So–you could challenge the law to say, as applied to you, its only purpose is to give effect to another state’s discrimination against gay people, and that’s not a rational basis.

I mean, say there’s one state that still bans interracial marriage…Even assuming that Loving v. Virginia had never happened, would Massachusetts’ Supreme Court really be okay with a clerk refusing to give a marriage license to an interracial couple that lives there?

I suppose it could go to the SJC again. They must be psyched.


Dave 04.25.04 at 10:38 pm

The law itself, whatever reason it was enacted, says something to the effect of: a marriage which is entered into in Massachusetts specifically in order to circumvent the laws of another state is considered invalid.

While I think gay marriage should be legal in all states, the law is a perfectly good way to respect the “full faith and credit” clause of the U.S. Constitution while at the same time allowing Massachusetts to be more liberal in who it allows to marry.

In fact, I’d say that laws like those in MA are the only valid resolution to the current issue in the U.S., since nationwide, a majority of people are still against legalizing gay marriage.


entangledbank 04.25.04 at 11:51 pm

He seems to be using ‘by definition’ to mean ‘analytically’. This is actually an implication rather than an equivalence. If A is by definition B, then A is (by definition of ‘by definition’) analytically B. But A’s being analytically B (such as by being a logical rearrangement, as in the example) does not imply that A is B by virtue of a definition. I think.


npdoty 04.26.04 at 2:00 am

In my philosophy classes, we generally do use ‘by definition’ and ‘analytically’ to mean the same thing, and though I trust entangledbank that there may be some distinction, I wouldn’t call it cause for much criticism of Governor Romney. It seems to me that they have at least a close enough use in colloquial language to suffice for a political discussion.

Are there examples of analytical proofs that don’t rely soley on definitions as their premises?


Kenny Easwaran 04.26.04 at 2:09 am

I don’t think it’s fair to pick on a non-philosopher for misusing the phrase “by definition”. He basically meant “as a trivial consequence of the law” or something. Of course, the interpretation of just how legal the marriage has to be in the home state in order to be acceptable under the 1913 law is a bit complicated. Does the state have to have fully legal same-sex marriage, like MA? Or a specific ruling saying that out-of-state same-sex marriages are ok, like NY? Or just no law against same-sex marriage, like NJ and CT? Or is it even ok if there’s a law saying same-sex marriages may not be performed in the state, as long as it doesn’t say they’re invalid if performed elsewhere?


poor logic 04.26.04 at 4:02 am

There is a reasonable consistent parsing of that statement possible:

“Our current laws, as they exist, limit […]” -> definition
“our understanding […]” -> assumption
“therefore, by definition […]” -> deduction

“By definition” would indeed mean that there is no other conclusion imaginable given the definition and the assumption.

This may be a bit silly, but i found the question a bit unimaginative …


Shai 04.26.04 at 5:09 am

the pope isn’t exactly a bachelor but he is an unmarried man. oh, another post about same-sex marriage… nevermind.


raj 04.26.04 at 1:08 pm

It would be nice to consider the actual statute involved (obviously homo-hater Romney has not):

>Chapter 207: Section 11 Non-residents; marriages contrary to laws of domiciled state

>Section 11. No marriage shall be contracted in this commonwealth by a party residing and intending to continue to reside in another jurisdiction if such marriage would be void if contracted in such other jurisdiction, and every marriage contracted in this commonwealth in violation hereof shall be null and void.

I’m sure that the residents of Massachusetts are encouraged by the apparent fact that the most pressing issue for their governor is the same-sex marriage issue. Given the amount of time and effort he has expended in trying to head it off, of course.


Tom T. 04.26.04 at 1:46 pm

Ultimately, “by definition” in this context means “what the Supreme Judicial Court decides,” which is true of any Mass. law, of course.

Moreover, while presumably he’s correct from a philosophical perspective, from a legal standpoint, Jon Mandle has the concept of “definition” exactly backward. The point of defining something in a statute is to bar other possible interpretations. In other words, a definition is necessary precisely because it is possible to imagine other states of affairs; the definition is necessary in order to make clear the particular meaning intended by the legislature (or the judge). If a term is wholly unambiguous and susceptible to only one possible interpretation, then there is no possibility of misinterpretation and no need for definition.


Matt McIrvin 04.26.04 at 2:09 pm

Having examined this question earlier, I do think that Romney has the law on his side in this case– unlike his previous effort to keep the state from allowing same-sex marriages until the 2006 vote to ratify the state anti-marriage amendment, which had no legal support whatsoever.

I don’t like the result of the law, but I can see it supported as a reasonable way of respecting the federal full-faith-and-credit clause, as another commenter stated earlier.


Another Damned Medievalist 04.26.04 at 7:48 pm

Here’s what I don’t get: most people against gay marriage seem to oppose it on religious/moral grounds (duh) and likewise definitions of marriage. There is supposedly a separation of church and state here in the US. Why not split the ceremonies, as is done in some other countries. Everybody gets a license of Civil Union or Legal Union, or whatever, from the state, and that license is what defines the relationship for equal protections, tax purposes, health benefits, etc. Then, if you want a religious marriage ceremony, your church can perform it. Let the church/denomination decide whether gays can marry. It seems to me that also protects religious freedom, since there are members of clergy in this country who are willing to perform gay marriages. Just an idea.


Scaramouche 04.27.04 at 12:12 am

For the extra credit:

He would be a \”confirmed bachelor.\”

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