Logic and Black Lives Matter

A little thought uncovers the flaw in criticisms of "Black lives matter."

Posted Jun 11, 2020

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

"Black lives matter."

This short claim is obviously true. Anyone with a sound mind and a good heart can see that. But like any claim with political content these days, people would prefer to argue rather than accept a basic moral claim at face value. For example, rather than just affirming the truth of this statement, many counter with another statement: "All lives matter." I would argue that this kind of response fails to account for what it means, logically, to say that Black lives matter, especially in our context.

First, consider the fact that when someone says "Black lives matter" that in no way logically implies that other lives don't also matter. If I say "This book matters" it in no way logically entails or implies that other books aren't important or don't matter. If I proclaim that we ought to "Save the whales" that does not mean that the lives of other animals matter less. Instead, it means that we ought to do something to save the whales because they are under a particularly significant threat. 

UPDATE: Some discussion I've had with people about this piece merits a clarification. Some have pointed out a problem with the book analogy. When I say "This book matters" I'm also saying that it should be read over other less important books. So there is a disanalogy in the book case compared to the claim that black lives matter. Not all books do matter, so that’s a limitation of the analogy, compared to human beings. But we can fix the analogy so it more closely resembles the claim "Black lives matter."  Imagine a world where all books are important and worth reading, but many in society think a particular book isn’t. If I say “This book matters” I’m pointing out a mistake others are making, not denigrating the value of the other books. Rather, I’m highlighting the importance of the denigrated one. This clarification and revision, then, more clearly reveals the flaw in logic many are guilty of when they respond "all lives matter" to those who say "Black lives matter".

This leads us to the second reason why "all lives matter" is an illogical response to "Black lives matter."

The point of proclaiming that Black lives matter is that in so many ways, the value of Black lives is ignored in the United States. There is racism in America, past and present. For those who are interested in learning more about this, there is a wealth of resources online and in books, as well as numerous documentaries, providing the opportunity to learn more. (Last year I read Jemar Tisby's The Color of Compromise, which I highly recommend.)

I'm a philosophy professor. My research focuses on ethical issues and character. The research for my latest book dealing with gun violence and religious ethics in America showed that racial injustice and prejudice is present in stand your ground laws. This is but one example of both personal racism and systemic racism in America today.

Consider Florida's stand your ground law: 

A person is justified in using or threatening to use deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony. A person who uses or threatens to use deadly force in accordance with this subsection does not have a duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground if the person using or threatening to use the deadly force is not engaged in a criminal activity and is in a place where he or she has a right to be.

As Caroline Light points out, the presumed reasonableness of perceptions of danger is often the product of bias or prejudice, including racial bias or prejudice. This leads to terrible consequences in states with stand your ground laws. For example, Whites who kill Blacks are 11 times more likely to be found innocent of a crime in states with stand your ground laws than Blacks who kill Whites. As Light points out, rationalizations for the killings of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis—and we can add many others, like Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Walter Scott, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor—reveal “a common thread: our legal structures and agents deemed it reasonable to perceive (unarmed) Black people as threatening.”

In this context, it is clear why Black lives matter is a needed message. In many cases, at the interpersonal and systemic levels, Black lives are not taken to matter. They are seen as less valuable, expendable, or not worthy of love and respect. But of course this is wrong, and this is why the cries for racial justice are needed in America right now.

In a world where Black lives mattered to all, we wouldn't need this message, because we'd already believe and live out the truth that it proclaims.

But that is not our world, at least not yet.

References

Michael W. Austin, God and Guns in America. Eerdmans, 2020.