Does the U.S. judicial system have a right to intervene in the choice of a child’s name?

August 13, 2013 § Leave a comment


The story that a U.S. judge ordered a baby’s name to be changed from “Messiah to Martin” seems to neatly coincide with Max Borders’ article over at the Freeman observing the attitude predominantly found among the Left that children belong to the community. The decision by the judge in Tennessee has provoked the ire of online commenters, with many arguing that the judge has “no right to force her religious views on others” and others similarly arguing that the judge has “overstepped her boundaries”. At the outset, this argument may seemingly appeal to conservatives and those who love liberty, but deeper analysis reveals that what such groups of people should support is more counterintuitive than they may like to think.

Judge Lu Anne Ballew, who ordered the child’s name to be changed in a child support hearing, justified her decision on the grounds that it “could put him at odds with a lot of people and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is”. This isn’t unprecedented. In New Zealand, there is a list of names that you are not allowed to name your child. Lucifer and Hitler are among two names that are prohibited from being used as a name for a child, according to CNN. In certain parts of Europe at various periods of time, it was customary to prevent people from using the word “von” in their name if they were not a member of nobility. Therefore, this decision shouldn’t come as a surprise to observers. It has happened before and most certainly will happen again.

Is the Government, or the judicial system, overstepping its boundaries by prohibiting certain names from being used as many are arguing? Not necessarily. Remember, that although one should love liberty, liberty does not exactly mean “no government” (unless you are an anarchist).  The Government and the judiciary has a legitimate role in society too: to uphold private property rights, resolve disputes and ensure that law and order is maintained.

Judge Lu Anne Ballew was correct to order the child’s name be changed because a name denotes essence. This was discussed at length in Plato’s Cratylus. In it, Socrates is asked by two men, Cratylus and Hermogenes, whether names exist because of society or whether names exist because they denote a characteristic intrinsic to that which it pertains. Hermogenes advances the former argument. He argues that names arise out of societal convention. They do not express anything about essence. Meanwhile, Craclytus proposes a diametrically opposed view. Namely, that names always correctly denote the essence of things. Socrates appears to take a “mid-way” approach. Socrates differs from Craclytus in that he does admit that sometimes a name can be incorrectly attributed to a person or thing, and this is something that must be rectified. However, he disagrees with Hermogenes in arguing that names should indeed, and ideally, denote something intrinsic about the person. This is why Socrates believed that to study the nature of things was more important than to study the name of things (i.e. the philosophy of language). To study the nature of things is to study directly, whereas to study the name of things is to study indirectly.

To name a child “Messiah” is a misapplication of a name because there is nothing inherent in the child that denotes that he is a “messiah”. Just as it would be wrong for someone to sell you a bootleg, make-shift device erroneously advertised as an iPhone, so too would it be wrong for someone to name a child “messiah” when there is no evidence that could possibly indicate such. And in the same way we would expect the judiciary system to intervene in the case of someone passing off a DIY phone as an iPhone, so too should we expect the judiciary system to intervene in cases where parents name their child a name that fundamentally diverges from their intrinsic nature, whether that be Messiah, Lucifer or Hitler.

Some people will respond to this argument by saying something along the lines of: “Jesus isn’t the only Messiah. There are other messiahs too. This child could be the messiah for all we know. So the parents must be free to name their child as messiah”. This is a standard nihilistic response that denies the existence of Truth. And if we are to deny the existence of Truth, what makes the aforementioned argument anymore true than any other argument? This is the line of thinking that forced Hermogenes to concede that Socrates was at least partially correct.

The real reason why people are outraged over the decision is not because a judge has supposedly overstepped her boundaries. The real reason why people are outraged over the decision is because we live in a nihilistic culture that adamantly believes there is no such thing as meaning or Truth. This is not about a matter of to what extent the size and scope of the judiciary system should be as it is a matter of culture. Conservatives and those who love liberty should be quick to realize this story as such.



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