Julian Baggini brought up an interesting concept in the latest issue of The Skeptic magazine. One way people sometimes try to slide an unconvincing argument past you is by using “low (or high) redefinition”.
I hadn’t heard the phrase before, but his explanation was immediately familiar. When an argument centres around a particular definition with an imprecise meaning, it’s a common ploy to bolster one’s case by broadening, or narrowing, the definition of the word as much as possible, rendering it either unhelpfully all-inclusive or unattainably precise.
Some examples might help make this clear. Julian cites the idea common to Christian theology of committing a sin “in one’s heart”; it’s sometimes claimed that when it comes to, for instance, adultery, thoughts and acts are equally sinful in God’s eyes.
Leaving the language pedantry aside, it should be clear that there are substantial differences, in the details of the action and the consequences, between merely harbouring lustful thoughts and actually acting upon them. But it’s useful to some models of Christianity to conflate the two, applying low redefinition so that the single word “adultery” applies equally to both, and ostensibly supporting their argument that, not only is there a connection between such thoughts and actions, but they amount to the same thing.
His example of high redefinition refers to health scares, in which the bar demanded for words like “safe” is set unreasonably high, so that it can never realistically be met, and sensationalist newspaper headlines can make a noise about the “dangers” of what are actually minuscule risks.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, another example of this can be found in the Christian notion of what it means to be a “good” person. In examples such as this – which probably struck someone, somewhere, as a fine example of excellent Socratic reasoning – people’s claims of being a “good” person are struck down by the presence of any individual instance in which they’ve failed to adhere to any of a number of moral rules.
The way some Christians want to define the word, nobody can possibly be considered “good”; it’s crucial to the theology that we’re all sinners. But if good is really a zero-tolerance proposition at every level, it becomes an uninteresting concept. At the very start of that video, the interviewee gives us a much more accessible idea of what it means to be good, before the term is so precisely redefined by religious dogma: “I try to, most of the time… but I’m only a human being, we all make mistakes… I try to treat everybody with respect and dignity.”
The title of Julian’s piece was “That all depends what you mean by…”, which highlights the futility of getting distracted by semantic arguments about the precise definition of words in these sorts of discussions. If you know what you’re talking about, you don’t need an ambiguous word for it that’s just leading to irrelevant disagreements. Taboo the word, and just discuss the concepts, the exact probabilities, or the behaviours themselves that are in question.