As this is being written, the House has started its impeachment investigation of President Trump. While this is a matter of great importance, there is also an interesting question about Trump’s moral and political legitimacy. From a Lockean perspective, this is largely the question of whether Trump is a tyrant. A rather reasonable way to address this issue is to make use of an argument by definition.
This method of argumentation involves argue that a thing belongs to a general class because it fits the definition for that class. The goal of this method is to show that the thing in question adequately meets the definition. This method can be used to argue that Trump is a tyrant by showing he meets the conditions set by the definition of the term. Alternatively, it can be argued that he is not a tyrant.
The method involves the following steps:
Step 1: Present definition D.
Step 2: Describe the relevant qualities of X.
Step 3: Show how X meets (or fails to meet) definition D.
Step 4: Conclude that X belongs within that class (or does not belong within that class).
Since dictionaries conveniently provide a plethora of definitions it is tempting to use them as the basis for an argument from definition. However, such arguments tend to be rather weak when addressing matters of substantive dispute. For example, referring to the dictionary cannot resolve the debate over what it is to be a person. As another example, looking up “God” in the dictionary will not settle the questions of God’s nature or existence. This is because dictionaries just provide the definition that the editors regard as the correct, acceptable, or as the generally used definition as opposed to what would be the correct, philosophical definition of such a metaphysical concept. Dictionaries also generally do not back up their definitions with arguments-the definitions are simply provided and are not actually defended.
Dictionaries are very useful in terms of learning the meanings of words. But they are not the way by which substantial conceptual disputes can be settled. Naturally, an appeal to the dictionary could be taken as an argument from authority based on the expertise of those involved in the dictionary. Because of this, arguing about substantial matters requires crafting or locating a good definition outside of the dictionary. In the case of tyranny, a good place to look is in the works of great political thinkers like John Locke. Once a definition has been crafted or located, there is the matter of determining whether it is good.
When making an argument from definition it is important to begin with a good definition. In some cases, providing such a definition will involve settling a conceptual dispute. Resolving such a dispute involves, in part, showing that the definition of the concept being presented is superior to the competition and that it is at least an adequate definition.
An acceptable definition must be clear, plausible, and internally consistent. It must also either be in correspondence with our intuitions or be supported by arguments that show our intuitions are mistaken in this matter. Of course, people differ in their intuitions about meanings so this can be somewhat problematic. When in doubt about whether a definition is intuitively plausible or not, it is preferable to argue in support of the definition. A definition that fails to meet these conditions is defective.
An acceptable definition must avoid being circular, being too narrow, being too broad or being too vague. Definitions that fail to avoid these problems are defective.
A circular definition merely restates the term being defined and thus provides no progress in the understanding of the term. For example, defining “tyrant” as “someone who engages in tyranny” would be circular. Definitions also go bad by being two narrow or too broad.
A definition that is too narrow is one that excludes things that should be included-it leaves out too much. For example, defining “tyrant” as “a ruler who oppresses their people with military force” would be too narrow since there can be tyrants who do not use the military against the own people—or even have control over a military.
A definition that is too broad is one that includes things that should not be included—It allows for the term to cover too much. For example, defining “tyrant” as “an authority who act in their own self-interest while in office” would be too broad. This would make any authority who, for example, sought to get re-elected by doing a good job a tyrant.
While it might seem odd, a definition can be too broad and too narrow at the same time. For example, defining “tyrant” as “an elected official who acts in their own self-interest” would leave out unelected tyrants while including officials who try to get re-elected by doing a good job in office.
Definitions can also be too vague. A vague definition is one that is not precise enough for the task at hand. Not surprisingly, vague definitions will also tend to be too broad since their vagueness will generally allow in too many things that do not really belong. For example, defining “tyrant” as “a bad ruler” would be vague and also too broad.
In a controversial matter, such as whether Trump is a tyrant, there is bound to be considerable debate about what it is to be a tyrant. Any definition I present is likely to be challenged—which is perfectly reasonable. However, there are certain standards for responding to an argument by definition.
One way is to directly attack the definition used in the argument. This is done by showing how the definition used fails to meet one or more of the standards of a good definition. Obviously, since the argument rests on the definition, then if the definition is defective so too will be the argument.
A second option is to attack X (the thing that is claimed to fit or not fit the definition). This is done by arguing that X does not actually meet the definition. If this can be done, the argument would fail because X would not belong in the claimed category.
An argument by definition can also be countered by presenting an alternative definition. This is using another argument of the same type against the original. If the new definition is superior, then the old definition should be rejected and hence the argument would presumably fail. The quality of the definitions is compared using the standards above and the initial definition is attacked on the grounds that it is inferior to the counter definition. In the next essay I will present Locke’s definition of “tyranny” and make the case that it applies to Trump.