When we define our terms based on the results we want, rather than on the reality of the thing being defined, all hell breaks loose.continue at The Public Discourse
Allow me to begin with a story. A fellow walks up to the dog-licensing clerk and demands a license for his cat. The clerk points out that there is no such thing as a cat license, and thus he has no need of a cat license. Noting the man’s confusion, she explains that dogs and cats are different kinds of animals. Dogs tend to wander off and get lost, dig up other people’s yards, bite people, get into garbage, and leave their droppings in inconvenient places; cats generally do not do these things. Licensing would be pointless, for the government doesn’t need the same control over cats as it does over dogs.
The customer feels unaffirmed in his choice of a cat, and demands that the government recognize that his cat is just as important as a dog. Oh, but it’s not a question of importance, the clerk insists; it’s just that cats and dogs are quite different, and there is no government interest in licensing cats. He pesters her for so long that, eventually, the clerk, in sheer frustration, grabs a form, crosses out the word “dog” and writes in the word “cat” in crayon. The customer goes away pleased.
Unexpectedly, some of the man’s cat-owning friends soon follow suit. This raises concern for the licensing administrators. They really cannot justify taking money to license cats, yet it seems many people are made quite happy by having their choices validated. Finally, it occurs to someone that, since dogs are four-legged furry mammals with tails and claws, and cats are four-legged furry mammals with tails and claws—and after all, this really is the only set of characteristics that matters—then the obvious thing to do is to redefine “dog” so that it includes cats.