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Was political failure to compensate deserving victims of the troubles inevitable given the incoherent thinking in the 2006 Victims and Survivors Order?

 There is a clear consensus abroad in Northern Ireland that the 2006 Victims and Survivors Order No. 2953 (N.I.17) permits the terrorist who takes the life of an innocent member of the public to be deemed as much a “victim” as the unwitting individual he or she kills.   The conflation of the innocent and those who terrorised them is achieved through the definition of the term “victim” in section three of the Order.  The Order’s approach to the meaning of “victim” is such that it can apply equally to the innocent citizen who finds herself in the vicinity of a bomb, and to the terrorist who planted it.


This brief essay argues that the meaning of the term “victim” cannot consist in a definition. Moreover, the Order’s definition is entirely at odds with the meaning of “victim.” The case is made that the project to include those who murdered innocent men, women and children in the category “victim,” stands reasoning its head.  In order for terrorists to be construed as victims, the Order must effect a reappraisal of the very meaning of the word “victim.”

Since the Order’s definition of “victim” is entirely at odds with the meaning of that term (see below), can it be any wonder that the basic issue of addressing the needs of victims remains unresolved years after the Good Friday Agreement?

The central argument of this essay draws on the ideas of one of the greatest 20th century philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Wittgenstein demonstrates that the meaning of a word cannot consist in any verbal or written formulation. Rather, to investigate the meaning of any word, one must look at how it is used in everyday practice.  For Wittgenstein, “the meaning of a word is its use in language.”  The difficulty with section three of the 2006 Order is that it gives the appearance of establishing (through definition) the meaning of “victim” in the Northern Ireland context.  But the meaning of the word “victim” cannot be established via re-definition because meaning resides in human practices and not in definitions.


To illustrate Wittgenstein’s reasoning, consider the meaning of the concept “force” in physics.  Force is defined as the time derivative of momentum.  But the community of scientists do not treat someone who merely has access to the definition of force, as having grasped its meaning.  Rather, only those who can use the concept of force to solve a wide range of problems, of increasing complexity, over an extended period of time, are deemed to have grasped the concept.  Michael Oakeshott argues, with Wittgenstein, that the practice is the essential thing, the definition being little more than an “abridgement” of that all-important practice.  Meaning can never consist in a definition.  Meanings reside in practices and the physics undergraduate, for example, gets access to meaning through being enculturated into the practice of physics.  (This move from definition to use is vital to the analysis presented here, for people rarely use the term “victim” in respect of terrorists.)


In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn writes: “If, for example, the student of Newtonian dynamics ever discovers the meaning of terms like ‘force,’ ‘mass,’ ‘space,’ and ‘time,’ he does so less from the incomplete though sometimes helpful definitions in his text than by observing and participating in the application of these concepts to problem-solution. … That process of learning … by doing continues throughout the process of professional initiation.  As the student proceeds from his freshman course to and through his doctoral dissertation, the problems assigned to him become more complex and less completely precedented.”  We would never countenance reducing Einstein’s grasp of general relativity to his ability to complete the sentence: “General Relativity is __________________ .“


This all-important relation between meaning and use goes beyond physics; it is completely generalizable.  For example, the definition of the tort of battery in Black’s Law Dictionary (9th edition) is: “an intentional and offensive touching of another without lawful justification.”  The novice law student will quickly realise that legal reasoning does not involve the straightforward application of such textbook definitions or rules to particular cases.  Once again, to learn the meaning of the tort of battery one must learn to use “battery” as it is used by experienced legal experts; the practice of law is the repository of meaning.

The great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that the life of the law is not to be found in definitions; only “experience” gives access to legal meaning.  Definitions get their life through the role they play in the practice of the law; divorced from the practice, a definition can determine no course of action.  Through experience the novice learns to use the legal term “battery” as more experienced colleagues do.  Only through experience can a student learn that legal rules have an intrinsic vagueness or “open texture” (Hart’s The Concept of Law). The meaning of a legal term does not consist in a precisely formulated definition; rather, meaning depends on the way terms are used over time.


In his Introduction to Legal Reasoning, Edward H. Levi writes: “It is important that the mechanism of legal reasoning should not be concealed by its pretence.  The pretence is that the law is a system of known rules applied by a judge; the pretence has long been under attack.  In an important sense, legal rules are never clear, and, if a rule had to be clear before it could be imposed, society would be impossible.”  If meaning resided in definitions and rules rather than in the practice of the law (where the emphasis is on use), the pivotal relationship between precedent and all legal deliberation would dissolve away.


In summary then, the central issue in this essay is Wittgenstein’s teaching that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”   The definition published in section three of the Victims and Survivors Order, which seeks to blur the distinction between terrorist and innocent victim, is at odds with the meaning of “victim” because that word is only used in everyday conversation to refer to the innocent.  The Order gives the impression that it is forced to define victim in such all-embracing language in order to take account of Northern Ireland’s troubled past.  However, Wittgenstein writes as follows on page 183 of his Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics:

“To know [the meaning of a word] is to use it in the same way as other people do.  ‘In the right way’ means nothing.”

Because the Order does not use the term “victim” as other people do, the definition of victim in the Order, in effect, contradicts its meaning.