One week after the terrorist attacks in Paris, the Western world remains, to a large degree, enveloped in demonstrations of grief and solidarity.
Facebook recently added a feature that allowed users to overlay their profile pictures in the colors of the French tricolore. In the ensuing days, thousands of users displayed overlays of broad blue, white and red stripes over their profile photos on Facebook and Twitter.
It’s worthwhile to note, however, that within 24 hours of the attacks, which have thus far claimed 130 lives in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad were also bombed. Terrorists stormed a hotel Nov. 20 in Mali’s capital, Bamako, taking hostages and killing at least 19.
Overwhelmingly, however, the West remains for the most part concerned with Paris and with potential terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe. Right-wing politicians in the U.S. have since called for denying entry into the country to additional Syrian refugees. The tricolore remains ubiquitous on social media.
Following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, “All Lives Matter” became a popular rallying cry for the opposition. Why should there be so much special attention paid exclusively to black lives, when all lives are valuable, critics argued.
My aim here is not to examine our still-lacking claims to racial equality in this country – though I would certainly recommend reading anything by Ta-Nehisi Coates for extremely cogent contemporary views on the subject – but to philosophically evaluate the truth value of the phrase “All Lives Matter.”
Let’s leave aside the fervent adoption of the phrase by supporters of the status quo for a moment and examine it in and of itself.
On the surface, to claim that “all lives matter” seems little different to me from when Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal” in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. For the sake of argumentation, let’s pretend Jefferson’s claim extended not simply to landed white men, but to all human beings in general.
Under this interpretation, both claims seem philosophically appealing to me. Aboveboard, equal esteem for all human lives appears to me fueled by a noble idealism.
But there are shortcomings to these broad, universal assertions. The Western world’s reaction (or perhaps, lack thereof) to the atrocities carried out in Beirut, Baghdad and now Bamako, in fact suggest that all lives don’t matter – or at the very least, some matter less than others.
Phenomenally, it also appears that we value some lives more than others in our day-to-day routines. Would we feel the same amount of grief at the death of a stranger as we would for a relative, or a close friend, for example? Would we be more compelled to offer one of our kidneys to a friend we’ve known for years or to a vagrant we’ve never met before?
Still, that doesn’t quite answer the central question. Whether humans do in practice value certain lives more than others isn’t by necessity reflective of any objective truth that Human Life A is more valuable than Human Life B.
Again, was Jefferson right at his most purely idealistic? Was Plato correct in affirming in the Republic that “as dear unto God is the poor peasant as the mighty prince?” These are no games. They demand an answer.
In order to answer such a question, we’ll have to do some ontology. That is, we must be ready to define what it is to be human, and whether qua human, one subject can have more inherent value than another.
In metaphysics, we typically define a thing with respect to its attributes. These attributes, although dispersed among a number of objects, nevertheless refer to a single totality of characteristics that make an object what it is. A rock, for example, tends to be a very dense object composed of highly compacted minerals; a clock is a man-made device, mechanical or digital, that is meant to provide an hour and a minute quantity for the time of day with respect to one’s longitudinal position on the Earth.
That being said, what is it, then, that makes a human “human?” What is “humanness?” Can one human have more “humanness” than another? Though by all means, these are questions that Parmenides could answer better than me, I’ll take a stab at it.
On a crude level, humans are bipedal animals with two hands and two feet who walk upright. They tend to enjoy a far greater rational capacity compared to non-human animals and have so thoroughly proliferated around the world that there are now upwards of seven billion of them living on Earth, most of them in urban communities.
Humans can be readily distinguished from other animals through their creative capacities – we are the only species on Earth to have authored books and created paintings and sculpture, for example. But there are far too many properties unique to humans that it would require at least a whole book to discuss them, rather than this article.
So can one human be more “human” than another?
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics remains a landmark philosophical text in part due to its claim that being a good human entails the proper exercise of rational capacity and that this is best manifested through virtuous conduct. Under this interpretation, there can be good humans and depraved humans, with the former having more “humanness” than the latter.
But even then, the sight of another human should prompt a response to the effect of “this is someone like me.”
When we observe another person, in any context, I think we can still manage to recognize another bipedal, two-handed, rational animal, like ourselves, who has to navigate a world that, for all the advances of science, will never cease to daunt and baffle and who goes through the same motions of human life – albeit in another context – as we do.
There is humanness inherent in all this, and I think that, notwithstanding how many mistakes an individual has made, and no matter how much they might fall short of any ideal of humanness, they still retain some human element based on the simple, shared experience of being a human.
I emerge from this metaphysical labyrinth siding with Plato – no matter how much we deceive ourselves, all humans have a common benchmark value qua human. Virtue and vice may raise or lower this value, but our starting point is the same.
That being the case, I think it’s a shortcoming that we don’t value all lives equally in practice. I think it’s wrong that we don’t seem to care as much for the dead in Bamako, Baghdad and Beirut as we do for those of Paris.
And maybe in the end, I’m wrong here. Maybe it is completely justified, as some say, that we be more upset for Paris at the moment than for anywhere else in the world.
But I can’t help but feel that it would be better and more noble – more human, I think – to be as outraged and perturbed when a tragedy of this sort unfolds anywhere in the world as it has in Paris.
There is nobility in caring for one’s family, friends, community and country. But how much more so if we don’t stop there?
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of pixabay.
Horus Alas is senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.