The argument over whether it is proper to say that “Black Lives Matter” or that “All Lives Matter” is chiefly rhetorical, but there is an important philosophical question masked by it. In order to see that important question, however, we need a firmer foundation to the discussion. Specifically, we need answers to two questions that the debate has not addressed:
- What is a life?
- What does it mean for a life to matter?
Consider a person at the very end of life. In the moments before death, that person is alive. In the moments after, the person is dead, but the body consists of all and only the same parts. The DNA is not yet changed; the organs are all still present. The difference is not in the material parts, but in an activity.
What activity? Breathing has stopped, but breathing also stops temporarily during life. One may pass out from lack of breathing, and then resume breathing unconsciously. Brain activity has stopped, but that can also happen. There are cases in which people have fallen into a freezing river and entered a coma, yet been restored to life. Thinking has stopped, but that happens at points during sleep. The activity is more basic than any of these.
The difference between the living body and the dead one is self-organization. (This answer I adopt from the work of philosopher Hans Jonas, which I find convincing on this point.) Life is the activity of taking things from the world, and ordering them into the thing that is also you. We eat food that contains calcium and protein, and our body breaks that food down and then orders these things into our parts like bones and muscle. We breathe air, and our body takes the oxygen and uses it to provide a necessary resource to our cells. It is a continual process, and while it continues, there is a life. When it ceases, the life is no longer present.
Therefore: life is this activity, and “a life” is a single instance of something engaged in that activity. That answers (1).
What does it mean for a life to matter? Well, we have considered the end of life; let’s look at the beginning. If that activity is “a life,” then a life begins when the activity of self-organization begins. When does a human body begin taking external material and putting it into its own order? Just a little after conception, as it happens. The body (quite small at this point) begins drawing on the resources in its environment, and self-ordering them, almost immediately. Thus, if the definition of “a life” is right, then life begins long before birth.
Yet if unborn Americans count as Americans, then abortion is the leading cause of death among Americans at 862,000 (a number that is down from over a million a year). Heart disease falls to number two (635,260); cancer to number three (598,038). This is not to take a position on abortion, but merely to point out that human killing of American lives exceeds any natural causes of death — and that’s before we include homicide of post-birth American lives. If “all lives matter,” we certainly don’t act like it.
Now, it is possible to distinguish between the claims that “Lives DO matter” and “Lives SHOULD matter.” Perhaps they should, but it appears that they do not — at least not to us. It is also possible to distinguish between the idea that the proper judge of whether a life matters is a human being, a collective human beings, or something else (e.g., many religions would say something like “All lives matter to God”). Assigning the question to religion allows “All lives (do) matter” to be a sensible claim, but only for those who accept religion. Under the First Amendment, we cannot require Americans to accept any religion, let alone any particular one.
Alternatively, we could say that not all lives matter, or that no lives matter. To do so, however, we still need a definition for (2): What does it mean for a life to matter? Who gets to say that one does, or does not?
The important philosophical question that is unearthed by this discussion is clarified by the fact that we, as a society, cannot answer (2). What does it mean that we cannot say whether or not a life matters? What does it mean that we treat so many as if they do not? Without an answer to (2), we cannot say whether it is even right or wrong to treat a life as mattering, or not mattering — not as a society or a civilization. Only as individuals or as sub-national communities can we arrive at an answer that can be affirmed as right. Then we are left with battles between those groups.
That is an important matter. The photo heading this essay is of a piece of graffiti left by a Communist protester. The sentiment “Liberals get the bullet too” is certainly verified by history: since the French Revolution, and throughout the Communist revolutions, the hard left has eventually killed the moderate left to consolidate its own power. Communists have acted this way out of a belief that it is right to do so, because these deaths enable the creation of a better kind of human society. The lives, then, don’t matter — at least not as much as the movement’s goals.
The rhetorical fight thus hides a dangerous rift in our society, one much more basic than the question of which slogan to endorse. We need to bring this rift to light, and begin to address it however we can.