Updated: Nov 15, 2020
Black lives matter.”
“Blue lives matter.”
“White lives matter.”
“Downs Syndrome lives matter.”
“Baby lives matter.”
Voices cry out, vying to be heard, trying to climb above the clamour.
Like rainforest trees they race upward, desperate to burst out from under canopy shadows and reach that got-to-have-it sunlight.
Whether there’s space for everyone up there or some have to be deposed for others to ascend I leave for others to discuss. I want to ask a more fundamental question here.
What if, when you get up there, you discover that you have no roots? Without roots, the very sunlight that you seek only accelerates your withering demise. What if the very basis for your entire cause is missing? What if human rights don’t exist?
Come with me if you will, dive deeper beneath the waves of tribalism and signals, analysis of people’s motives, the correctness of people’s wordings. (Anyone else weary of all that?) Come below the currents of competing political theories and ideologies. There’s something more fundamental, more important to explore.
Do humans matter?
Do Any Humans Matter?
It would be silly to dismiss this as a silly question. A brief survey of the history of the human race could be summed up in Robert Burns’s four booming words: “man’s inhumanity to man”. Even today, a human being’s most likely cause of death is being killed by another human being. Much as we would all like to believe that we uphold the value of other human beings, at best our conviction is shaky and easily overridden, at worst we have no regard for one another whatsoever.
It should go without saying that if we struggle to make the case for human beings in general, any attempt to alleviate the plight of a particular segment of that race – for example, black lives – is doomed to failure. It cannot provide a rationale for itself. You have to put the strings on a guitar before you can fine-tune the guitar. The viability of every human rights cause depends on this, so it is not a merely “academic” question.
If we find ourselves unable to justify our belief in the absolute value of all human beings, it is reasonable to question whether the idea is true at all in the first place.
So: do human beings matter? Can we find a basis for human rights? And might that basis also provide some helpful definition and even guidance as to how to advance human rights, in general and in particular?
Intrinsic Or Instrumental?
At this point it is worth clarifying what we actually mean by human rights and worth. Human beings can be considered valuable either intrinsically or instrumentally.
If human beings have value intrinsically, it means that they have value in and of themselves, simply by merit of being what they are: human beings. Nothing to do with what they may or may not be able to “bring to the table”, and regardless of their functions or capacities (size, age, sex, disability, happiness, intelligence, memory).
If humans are valuable instrumentally, by contrast, they are considered valuable only insofar as they contribute to or benefit from other things that are themselves considered intrinsically good (economic prosperity, health, ethnic or genetic “improvement”, the advancement of certain politics or ideology, happiness, education, national security, quality of life). Their value is not inherent, it is only incidental, and it is taken away the moment that the function in question ceases. It is fair to say, therefore, that this “value” is not really value at all. Under this view humans are no more valuable than a carton is to someone eating a Big Mac: it can and should be thrown away as soon as it’s no longer of use.
So what we really need to discover is this: Can the case be made for the intrinsic value of all human beings? Regardless of their functions or capacities. If it can, we have a solid basis for human rights. If it can’t, we have no basis for human rights at all.
There really are only these two options.
Black Lives ARE Matter?!
It can be argued that the prevailing worldview in the West right now is, broadly speaking, secularism: the belief that there is no Creator God but instead all there really is, is matter. Everything around us is here by chance. Collisions happened, over billions of years, and here we are today. No design.
And therefore, though this conclusion is rarely said out loud, there is no meaning.
If all is matter, nothing really matters. It merely happens.
Human beings, far from being intrinsically valuable, are simply the latest model in a long line of (accidentally produced) carriers of “selfish” genes. Their “value” in the evolutionary narrative is totally contingent on function (speed, intelligence, size, fertility): they “matter” only insofar as they help to advance the species. But, of course, “selfish” and “value” and “matter” are only used as kinds of metaphor in this world: ideas of personality and moral worth are actually just constructs projected by chemicals in the brain; they don’t really exist. As Dawkins put it so eloquently, and honestly: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
The logical conclusion of all this is that caring for the vulnerable, the elderly, the disabled is nothing more than slowing down the onward march of evolutionary progress. What a waste of precious fuel and oxygen – propping up faulty gene-carriers!
It is horrifying to see instances past and present where this logic is followed, but mercifully most atheists are inconsistent and we are spared the full weight of these terrible conclusions. Even card-carrying atheists like Dawkins live as though love, purpose, evil, good are real, though logically they ought to practise what they preach and dispense with them altogether.
Being consistent doesn’t prove that you’re right. But being inconsistent does prove that you’re wrong. Atheists who want to uphold any sense of the intrinsic worth of human beings are inconsistent and therefore wrong. Their worldview provides no basis whatsoever for the intrinsic worth of human beings; indeed, it expressly works against the notion.
Can a rational basis for human worth and dignity be found elsewhere, then?
The only way to make sense of the idea of intrinsic human rights, the inherent worth of every human being, is if human beings have been endowed with dignity by their Creator.
Morality needs a higher authority – a source – to be anything more than arbitrary scrapping, in which the strong impose their preferences on the weak.
One child says to another in the classroom, “You need to give me all your pencils.” Hopefully, the second will reply, “Says who?” In that environment, it is not the preferences of individual children, vouchsafed by their relative strength, that dictates right and wrong. It is the teacher, and the rules of the school.
At a human rights level, if there’s no ultimate authority, there’s no objective morality. Just preferences. If I’m strong enough, I get to decide who has rights and who doesn’t.
The intrinsic worth of human beings and the reality of good and evil that we all intuit so deeply can only be true if there is a God. If there is no God, we need to do away with all the rest: human beings don’t matter, they are matter. Atheist philosophy professor Mark Joel in his “Amoral Manifesto” gets this: “without God, there is no morality”.
Human rights didn’t appear out of a vacuum; they were founded, sometimes expressly, on a worldview whereby people are created and dignified by God. The United States’ Declaration of Independence includes the statement “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”.
This is based on the Judaeo-Christian belief that humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-7; 9:6) – they bear the likeness, and something of the dignity, of their Maker. They are not just stuff. They can’t be treated as stuff.
There’s more: according to a biblical worldview, not only is our value derived from God: we ourselves are somehow derived from God, we are in some sense “his offspring” (Acts 17:28). Adam is described as “son of God” (Luke 3:38), and all human beings are descended from Adam. As Adam bore “the image” of God, so Adam’s son Seth bore “the image” of Adam (Genesis 5:3). We are all part of one family, one race.
I think twice before going too close to a nest full of cygnets – not because of what they might do to me, but because of what mummy or daddy swan might do to me. So with human beings: they are under the watchful eye of their heavenly Maker. An attack on them, is an attack on him (see Genesis 9:5-6).
If you want to believe in human rights, you have to believe in God.
This is true philosophically; it can also be observed as a trend historically.
Root And Fruit
It is of course no secret that in the United States as elsewhere, adherence to these expressed convictions has been reluctant and shoddy. There have been many pretenders who have claimed the name of Christ yet done horrific things clearly contradicting the character and commands of Christ. Nevertheless, a strong correlation can be mapped between how closely nations have stuck to a Christian worldview (notice that I said “stuck to a Christian worldview” as opposed to “called themselves Christian”), and their esteem of human worth.
In recent days a lot of energy has been put into critiquing the nations of the (post-Christian) West. Essentially this is no bad thing: we have plenty we still need to repent of (though sadly the biggest issues are not always the ones picked up on by popular culture).
But we need to exercise some perspective here. If we think racism is bad in the UK (and I am not dismissing the problem of racism that is here), maybe we should go and spend some time in China, where it is believed that over 1 million people are actually being detained (and worse) simply because they are Uighur Muslims? Or India, where some school children are formally required to sit apart from everyone else at meals because they were born in a “lower caste” with darker skin. If we think the UK criminal justice system is harsh, perhaps consider North Korea. If we think our politicians and police are corrupt, observe the elections and roadside checks in some sub-Saharan countries. Gender equality: Saudi Arabia?
We have plenty of planks in our own eye, but it is very difficult to maintain that the Christian-based West is more oppressive than, for example, cultures based on atheistic communism or Islam. (Although held to be a creator, Allah is not believed to have dignified his creatures with his own image, as the Jewish/Christian God has; the imago Dei is unique to Judaism/Christianity.) The freedom even to write and read things like this is not something that could be taken for granted in many parts of the world today.
The great measure of liberty, equality, democracy, rule of law, care for the vulnerable that we have up till now enjoyed in this part of the world, is absolutely derived from a Christian worldview. Countless hospitals, schools, orphanages worldwide are the result of Christian-based philanthropy, especially in the wake of the evangelical revival of the 18th century. Slavery is as old as time all round the world, practised by almost every powerful “civilisation” including ours to our shame, but very few cultures have ever turned around and abolished it, sacrificed so much for emancipation, even if it was with much struggle and reluctance from within.
Running Out Of Gas
Someone might retort, “But we’ve long since departed from Christianity in the West and we’re doing fine! Human rights continue to advance!”
Do they? Are we doing fine?
True, mercifully our society has not completely disintegrated since departing from Christianity. But in large part that’s only because we are still benefiting from the moral capital of previous generations far more than we care to realise. Like a car that’s run out of petrol, our momentum is keeping us going for a while, but when you really find out you’ve got no fuel left is when you try to accelerate, or go uphill, or bring others with you. We’ve got nothing left in the tank.
Indeed, the wheels are already coming off. Some of those who think they are the world’s leading campaigners for human rights are actively agitating for the killing of more humans. Some who claim to care for black lives seem not to care very much when the black lives in question are not on the same political side as them. Some of their actions actually result in the death of the very people they say they are trying to help. That these casualties are tolerated is proof that it is not humans that are the intrinsic good here, it’s certain ideological outcomes; people matter only insofar as they are pawns in these political manoeuvres.
Now that we in the West (through our laws) have formally dispensed with the intrinsic worth of all human beings, things are going to get much, much worse.
Throwing The Baby Out
The statistic that really discredits all our puffed-up notions of moral progress and integrity is this: Last year in England and Wales one quarter of babies in the womb were deliberately killed by our doctors, with our permission and our money. Worldwide, some 50 million babies are killed every year. This killing is far more prolific – and state-sanctioned – than any other killing in the history of the world.
It is inexcusable hypocrisy to fight for justice for one group and yet at the very same time stand by and tolerate, even show support for, an even larger injustice waged against an even more vulnerable group. We did not find ourselves able to forgive Colston for this great sin. But it is even more absurd when the vulnerable group from whom we are withholding human rights, are human babies, since every single person that we are campaigning for, was once a baby. If babies don’t matter, no-one matters, because each of us was a baby to begin with. It’s just a stage of development.
In this sense, the rights of the child in the womb are the defining human rights battle of the day. Not all of us are black, Jewish, disabled, or female. But every single one of us was once a baby. If babies don’t have intrinsic value, none of us do. If babies do matter, all of us do – because if we mattered then, we matter now.
There can be no true justice for black lives, blue lives, or any lives, unless we first establish that baby lives matter (black, blue, or otherwise). Anyone who declares “black lives matter” whilst upholding “access” to “abortion” contradicts themselves instantly and their campaign is set to self-destruct. Black lives don’t matter if baby lives don’t matter.
How can it be argued that baby lives do matter? Pathetic, speechless, weak, undeveloped, needy, inconvenient, productivity-negative babies? Only if a secure basis for the intrinsic worth of all human beings, regardless of function or capacity, can be convincingly presented.
For that, you need a loving Creator, who has endowed even the least of us with this immeasurable dignity: that we are made in the image of God.
That, and only that, is why lives matter.