Bench Memos

Do Words Have Private Meanings?

With questions like that from the estimable Hadley Arkes, you know you’re in for an interesting discussion.  Hadley takes on the recently argued Snyder v. Phelps case today, in “Swastikas, Burning Crosses, and ‘God Hates Fags,’” at Public Discourse.  A sample:

I cannot go into town and order a corned beef sandwich and then later explain that I mean one of those things with ice cream and chocolate sauce. With “ordinary language” we are compelled to be guided by the way in which words are commonly understood. We are constituted as moral beings, given to praising and blaming, applauding and deriding, commending and condemning. We can refer to things we merely “dislike” but we move to another level when we complain about mistreatment or when we condemn genocide in Darfur. The moral functions of commending and condemning are built into our nature, and the words that carry those functions must be understandable at any given time. Words of course may alter over time in the way they are shaded and understood. But at any given moment, ordinary people must be able to know the words that are established in the language as the moral terms of commending and condemning, praising and assaulting.

Also worth reading, in case you missed them, are Robert Lowry Clinton’s “Elitism and Judicial Supremacy,” also at Public Discourse, and Jeff Jacoby’s recent Boston Globe column “The Most Conservative Court? Hardly.”

Matthew J. Franck — Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

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