A simple way to improve definitions

We can help our readers understand an idea by contrasting it with a related but different idea.

One example, which I’ve already quoted here, is from the start of Stephen Darwall’s book Welfare and Rational Care:

[Welfare is] the good of a person in the sense of what benefits her. This differs … from what a person herself values, prefers, or takes an interest in.

Darwall is distinguishing objective and subjective welfare, and focusing on the former. Making the distinction explicit helps us see what he means.

In my earlier post about ‘non-definition definitions’, I criticised Isaiah Berlin’s lack of clarity over positive liberty. But Berlin is much clearer about negative liberty. One reason is that he distinguishes it from ability: if I cannot understand Hegel, this is a lack of ability, not a lack of negative freedom, because no one has stopped me from understanding Hegel. Further differentiation of these ideas would help: for example, Berlin is not explicit about whether negative freedom and ability are two separate things, or whether negative freedom is one kind of ability. But what he writes certainly gives us a better sense of what he has in mind.

A third example comes from Anita Sarkeesian’s fascinating analysis on the Feminist Frequency website, uncovering subtle and not-so-subtle stereotypes about women and violence in video games. The second video of Sarkeesian’s three-part series (warning: graphic scenes involving violence against women) is here. At 10 minutes 40, when Sarkeesian discusses ‘violence against women’, she states that she means violence which is

linked specifically to a character’s gender or sexuality. Female characters who happen to be involved in violent or combat situations on relatively equal footing with their opponents are typically exempt from this category because they are usually not framed as victims.

The video at this point shows two women fighting each other in a typical Streetfighter-style fighting game. That isn’t violence against women as women; it’s just violence which involves two people who happen to be women but could have been any gender.

By contrasting her notion to a different notion, Sarkeesian helps us understand what she is and isn’t discussing. It’s a simple but effective way of helping our readers see what we are focusing on.

When is a definition not a definition?

We often think that we have defined a term when we haven’t. Consider David Richards and Martin Smith’s ‘formal definition’ of ‘governance’, in their book Governance and Public Policy in the UK:

‘Governance’ is a descriptive label that is used to highlight the changing nature of the policy process in recent decades. In particular, it sensitizes us to the ever-increasing variety of terrains and actors involved in the making of public policy. Thus, it demands that we consider all the actors and locations beyond the ‘core executive’ involved in the policy-making process.

This tells us what governance highlights, what it sensitizes us to, and what it demands we consider. It doesn’t tell us what governance is.

Fortunately, this conceptual flaw doesn’t undermine Richards and Smith’s fine substantive analysis. The same cannot be said for Isaiah Berlin’s ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, one of the most destructive essays ever published in political theory. Berlin’s lack of clarity weakens his own claims and has led many people astray.

For example, when he introduces ‘positive liberty’ at the start of section 2, he writes that it ‘derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master’. That tells us what positive liberty derives from, not what it is. This error is repeated by Charles Taylor: positive liberty ‘resides …  in collective control over the common life’. Again, this does not tell us what positive liberty is, only where it resides. Note, too, that Berlin and Taylor depict the idea differently – a direct consequence of the unclear and inconsistent definitions of positive liberty in Berlin’s essay.

Here are two examples of much clearer definitions. The first is from the start of Stephen Darwall’s book Welfare and Rational Care: welfare is ‘the good of a person in the sense of what benefits her. This differs … from what a person herself values, prefers, or takes an interest in’.

The second example is from the start of George Tsebelis’s book Veto Players:

In order to change policies … a certain number of individual or collective actors have to agree to the proposed change. I call such actors veto players. Veto players are specified in a country by the constitution … or by the political system …. I call these two different types of veto players institutional and partisan veto players, respectively.

Beautifully clear – a model for all of us.