On Purpose

Nothing has a purpose.  Wait, that’s not what I meant.

No “thing” has a purpose. Only living things can have a purpose. When we say a thing has a purpose, we really mean that people have a purpose for that thing.

Confusing? It should be. “Purpose” is one of the most abused words in our language. We see it in statements like, “The purpose of sex is procreation.” Or, as in NOM employee Jennifer Morse Roback’s recent testimony to the Minnesota legislature:

The essential public purpose of marriage is to attach mothers and fathers to their children and to one another.

“The essential public purpose of marriage.” That’s NOM’s new catchphrase and it’s sprinkled all through their rhetoric. But it’s meaningless. How about we rip it apart and make sure they never get away with it again.

No thing has a purpose

What’s the purpose of a chair? To sit on, obviously. Except when it’s not. I visited Versailles once, the royal estate which is now a museum of excess. Sitting on some of the chairs in that place will get you thrown out. The original owner’s purpose for the chair may have been to sit on, but the current owner’s purpose is to show how the French royal family lived.

Closer to our own lives, someone might tell you, Or, “Don’t sit there – it’s where I put my laptop.” Or, “Don’t sit in that chair, it’s falling apart – we keep it because it belonged to our grandma.”

Purpose depends on the person. So what’s the purpose of sex? Ask the people having sex. What’s the purpose of marriage? Ask the people getting married.

No thing has a purpose; people have a purpose for things. It’s an easy and honest trap door if you find yourself in a rhetorical corner.

THE purpose?

The moment I hear “The purpose of…” I know somebody’s trying to get something past me. If purpose doesn’t reside in a thing, but in the intent of the person, then a thing can “have” as many purposes as there are people. What’s the purpose of sex? Procreation, intimacy, recreation, revenge, validation, profit. And many, many others.

People who invoke “the purpose” are usually referring to:  

  • the most common purpose
  • the most productive or useful purpose
  • the purpose intended by the owner of the thing
  • the purpose intended by the designer of the thing

But even on those terms, procreation is hardly the purpose of sex. I doubt it’s the most common purpose. Sex produces pleasure or intimacy much more often that it produces children. And no one “owns” sex, so forget that.

It’s that last item, the purpose intended by the designer of the thing, where people part ways. Many devoutly religious folk do think sex had a designer (God) with an intention (procreation). But given the many, many ways that sex can enrich our relationships and lives, it would ludicrous to think this would be HisHer only purpose for sex. Same goes for marriage

There’s almost never such a thing as the purpose for something. Another easy and honest trap door to remember.


“The essential public purpose of marriage.” This might be NOM’s way of getting the question of answering the question of “Whose purpose are we talking about? Why, it’s the public’s purpose, of course!” Which means…well, what does that mean?

It can’t mean the general public because the general public is diverse and full of varied, contradictory purposes. NOM’s rhetoric suggests they simply mean the government’s purpose, as in: Why does the government regulate marriage? What is the purpose of marriage in the eyes of the government?

Hey, that’s easy, and I can even offer citations. Step back and ask, what is the citizenry’s purpose for having a government? Check our nation’s founding document:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men

Emphasis, um, added.

So our purpose for government is to secure our rights, and thus the government’s purpose for recognizing marriage should be to aid in securing those rights, including the pursuit of happiness, which may or may not include procreation.

Securing our right to the pursuit of happiness – that’s a public purpose of marriage.


Again, NOM doesn’t do much of a job defining its terms. What does NOM mean by “essential”? They don’t say. Let’s take a stab and define it to mean, that without which it would not exist.

This is one of NOM’s biggest lie: that there would be no reason for marriage if it weren’t for the kids. Because, apparently, without kids no one wants to build a life with a partner. Combine homes and lives and finances. Arrange for the care of your loved one in the event of your own death. Be secure in knowing that your partner won’t be deported. Exercise the right to claim the body of one’s partner after a tragedy.

This kind of malarkey, divorced from the reality of everyday life, is enough to make you doubt the National Organization for Marriage knows anything about marriage at all.

So what was NOM’s phrase again? “The essential public purpose of marriage.” They manage to cram five lies into just six words. Of course, when it comes to NOM, that’s underachieving.

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18 comments to On Purpose

  • 1
    MKandefer says:

    Great topic! ;)

  • 2
    Andrew says:

    That’s six words, but otherwise, well said!

    [Grrr. You’re right. Fixed. Thanks. — Rob]

  • 3
    Regan DuCasse says:

    Those who are anti gay tend to spew overly simplistic opinions. Anyone listening to them would have to conclude that they aren’t very smart themselves, or they don’t think the people they are talking to are.
    Eventually what they say contradicts, serves hypocrisy and otherwise weaves more opinions that are low on facts or evidence. To dig through all the layers they spackle on takes more brain work than apparently most people aren’t able to do.
    They count on NOM to do their thinking for them, and people like BB and MG are assured no one will have the mental capacity or time to take these layers down bit by bit. In broadcast media, it’s impossible to get past the epidermis of their lies, to say nothing of MG’s screeching and talking over anyone else there to challenge her.
    No one is even questioning exactly HOW all this discrimination protects anything, and why BB and MG are begging money from their supporter’s wallets to travel, and make speeches and get on the tee vee,  while things in real lives are pretty much going to hell in some quarters.
    And to very frank with all y’all, those people that talk about what the purpose of sex is at gay folks, are doing something very unintended I think.
    They are revealing just how mechanical, boring and lacking in creativity THEIR sex lives have to be. No wonder they are this obsessed with what they think gay people do sexually.

  • 4
    Scott P. says:

    This would be a good place to bring in Aristotle on the “telos” (end/purpose) of objects. Aristotle argued that every object has a telos, but some teloi are external (things made by humans), others are internal (natural objects). The Greek word “telos” does not necessarily carry the intentionality implied by the English word “purpose”, which gives his argument more nuance than yours or the view you are arguing against. See link.

  • 5
    Matt says:

    I understand your purpose for writing this piece, but if you’re going to rationalize anything by linguistics and nomenclature alone, I must argue your doing so, because you’re wrong.
    Some objects do have a purpose.  Let’s say I build a shelf.  You’re correct to say ‘You have a purpose for that shelf,’ but you’re mistaken when you say ‘that shelf does not have a purpose.’  It does – it would not exist were I not to have made it.  As a result of its formation into a shelf from a piece of wood, it has been given an intrisic purpose.  You may say ‘for someone else, it has no purpose’ and you may be right, but the shelf does intrinsically have purpose – to hold things – it was given that purpose in its making.  As a more concrete example, this keyboard I am typing on was made for a purpose – input to a computer.  I may remove it from the computer, and now it is useless, but it still has a purpose.  I may give it to someone else who has no computer, and they may be inclined to use it as a weapon.  It has not lost its purpose – it is an object intended for input into a computer – but rather it has gained additional use.  It has not gained additional purpose, because purpose is derived in creation and the intent behind it.  In the same way, your chair has an intrinsic purpose — in breaking it has become useless, not purposeless.
    That being said, I don’t disagree with the point you’re trying to make.  It’s just an absurd path to get there.  You choose one of many definitions of the word purpose and try to build an argument that all other definitions in Merriam Websiter are incorrect because they don’t follow your logic.  Don’t do that.

  • 6
    Dan says:

    While I agree with the politics of your post, I disagree with you on the philosophical claim that nothing has a purpose.
    The mistake arises from the enlightenment distinction between subject and object (as well as fact and value).  In this view “purpose” is a secondary property that people impose on things, but not something that things have in themselves.  We first encounter objects (like hammers) and institutions (like marriage) that are laying around in the world and then, after the fact, add purpose to them.
    But this gets things backwards.  We first encouter a thing, whether a hammer or marriage, in the context of its functional relationship to other objects and institutions.  Only by a subsequent process of reduction do we flatten it out to a set of primary properties from which purpose, meaning, and value are excluded.
    We articulate the purpose of things all the time in our everyday speech and actions – as part of the unexamined background assumptions that allow us to get around our environment.  We pressupose that a door nob has the purpose of opening a door every time we use it to do just that.  I am assuming the purpose of a whole range of equipment – computer, chair, mouse, keyboard – just by using it.  I didn’t add these purposes, I just found them there, waiting to link up with other purposes.
    The political point that your post makes, however, is still valid, not because things have no purpose, but because that purpose is malleable.  We can change it.  It is not necessary.  We can extract a thing from one network of means and ends and insert it into another, both in practice and in argument.  We do this all the time.  Yesterday I used my keys as a box opener and a screwdriver as well as to open doors.  Viagra was invented with the purpose of treating hypertension, but now it obviously has other purposes.  No one suggests that Viagra should only be used for its earlier purpose; why do they make the same argument with regard to marriage?

  • 7
    BobN says:

    There’s no need to go into the philosophical realm — especially the rather useless argument that nothing has a purpose — when there are so many other approaches one can take in regard to NOM’s false assertion.
    #1 The purpose of marriage is to link to otherwise unrelated persons into what this society sees as the strongest legal bond two people can have.
    #2 If the purpose of marriage is to create the ties that bind parents to children then why do those ties not dissolve when a marriage is dissolved?

  • 8
    robtish says:

    Matt, what would be the purpose of a shelf if there were no people left in the world?

    Also, I disagree with your statement about using nomenclature and linguistics alone. First, because it’s always useful to ask of your opponents: “What does your slogan mean?” Second, because the it’s not linguistics alone, but using linguistics as a springboard to deeper analysis.

  • 9
    Anonymous says:

    As a look at how people use “purpose,” I think you make astute observations. But as commentary on things philosophical, I suspect you make a category error of another kind. . “Purpose” does not inhere in “persons” instead of “things;” it inheres in language in its multifarious contexts and bewilderingly complex expressions. Your attempt to deny validity to  uses of the word that you don’t like smacks of the sort of nonsensical assertion that you want to attack.

  • 10
    Christopher Mongeau says:

    “The essential public purpose of marriage is to attach mothers and fathers to their children and to one another.”
    This is the mistake they always make, making the assumption that there is one meaning of marriage shared by all humans. They always lump all heterosexuals as all sharing the same attitudes and belief system. They think of heterosexuals as a single homogenous group. (Oh, the irony!)

  • 11
    MKandefer says:

    “What do you suppose this one is Manok?”, the furbling said to his companion handing him a shelf. “I don’t know, but thankfully we have developed the Purpotron,” Manok said eyeing over the shelf with the name “Matt” etched into it. Manok activated the Purpotron and the machine hummed as it scanned the shelf. After minutes of analysis the machine responded, “The intrinsic purpose of this entity is to place objects on for support.” The furblings had no use for shelves, they were short creatures and the ground served allowed this for them. However, the furblings were expert machinists and scientists, and discovered the properties in nature that allowed one to find the intrisic purpose of things without having to know the psychology responsible for their construction…

  • 12
    zep says:

    This is really a silly claim – biologists are constantly asking what the purpose of something is. Of course they would go on to say that the meaning of purpose is to be cashed out in terms of effects on survival, etc etc. Nonetheless it’s a perfectly intelligible thing to do – some organism has a certain structure, and they ask what its purpose is.

  • 13
    robtish says:

    Zep, you’re still focusing on living things. Perhaps I should amend this to: only living things can have a purpose. In which case the point remains.

  • 14
    mkandefer says:

    Rob I think you’ve stepped into a debate about the uses of words without need to do so. I think you were pretty explicit about what use of “purpose” you were using. That your argument doesn’t cover every use of the word, by every creature that utters the word “purpose” is a red herring. However, if it helps your audience you can replace the word purpose with another string of words (i.e., the definition you are using), which I took to be, the intended use of an object by conscious entities.
    I find this happens frequently when I discuss moral claims, so whenever I talk about morality I try and replace it with the phrase “that which maximizes well-being for conscious creatures”. Arguments about word use have their place, but they are not here. Especially since you’re using a common usage of the term.

  • 15
    robtish says:

    mkandefer, the whole exchange certainly has been thought-provoking.  I suppose I could have short-circuited the whole debate by condensing the first part to something like this:

    When people say the purpose of sex (or marriage) is procreation, ask them, “Whose purpose?”

    That’s certainly a quick shorthand response, pretty clear, and would avoid blanket definitions about the meaning of a word. And it’s more useful in conversation debate with our opponents.

    On the other hand, I like thinking out loud on paper (on screen?) and reading thoughtful disagreement. Both of those things do me good.


  • 16

    […] words, same-sex marriage will obscure the purpose of marriage. She hits this theme a lot, and I’ve previously pointed out the problems that arise when you talk about the purpose of marriage. So now let me hit something […]

  • 17

    […] words, same-sex marriage will obscure the purpose of marriage. She hits this theme a lot, and I’ve previously pointed out the problems that arise when you talk about the purpose of marriage. So now let me hit something […]

  • 18

    […] of marriage, it must be the true purpose, as if there exist no others worth considering. And that doesn’t follow at all. Marriage is about adults, too — a fact our opponents always promoted until they […]

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