Today the statement that “all lives matter” would probably seem like a provocation in light of the current ideological struggles being waged about which lives matter and, by implication, which lives don’t. But, in fact, no one can claim, on ideological grounds, that certain human beings are more valuable than others. 

As living beings, they are all equally valuable, regardless of their race or culture — which does not mean that some humans can commit reprehensible acts like murdering fellow-humans on ideological grounds and get away with it. Some ideologies (including racist ideology) may seem to justify such killing, but this is because ideologies are usually exclusivist; that is, they apply only to a certain group of people, ostensibly making of the others “fair game” for discriminatory actions of all kinds, and even for murder.

To anyone who accepts the equality — please note: not the sameness — of all people, no matter their race, culture or gender, it seems incomprehensible that there are many who do not share their position. I have stressed that equality does not mean sameness, because all people are different. We differ culturally, racially, in terms of gender, intelligence, interests, temperament and the list goes on. 

Even within the same culture, race, or gender there are individual differences that are sometimes astounding, but all these differences notwithstanding, as human beings all people are equal, that is, in principle of equal value. Why “in principle”, and not in fact? Because, although mass murderers like Ted Bundy are “in principle” equal in value to other people, arguably “in fact” they undermine their own value by their actions of destroying others. The same could be said of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

Lessons from ‘The Photographer of Mauthausen’

This point was forcefully driven home to me and my partner last night when we watched the Spanish biographical-historical film, The Photographer of Mauthausen (Mar Targarona, 2018), which is based on actual events that played out in a concentration camp called Mauthausen in Austria during World War II. It centres on the life of Francisco Boix, a Catalan Spaniard who worked as an assistant photographer in the camp until it was liberated by American soldiers in 1945.

At great risk to his own life, Boix kept about 20 000 photographic negatives on which harrowing events incriminating German officers and soldiers in Mauthausen were recorded, hiding them in various places with the help of his comrades. After the war, these negatives were used at the Nuremberg and Dachau trials in 1946 to convict some Germans of war crimes. The film is a reconstruction of the lengths Boix and others went to in their efforts to preserve this crucial photographic evidence against the backdrop of life in the concentration camp.

To return to what I wrote earlier about all people being equal, and some forfeiting this inclusive principle by their persecution and destruction of others, there are several scene sequences in the film that demonstrate this point graphically, evoking corresponding horror on the part of viewers. One such sequence, particularly, exemplifies the fact that some individuals throughout history have regarded their fellow humans as being not human at all, unmasking their own inhumanity in the process. The way this scene sequence has been filmed vividly shows how someone can almost literally “see” other people as non-human.

It shows Boix being enlisted to take photographs for Franz Ziereis, the commandant of the camp, on the occasion of his son’s birthday, at their residence. In the course of the celebrations, the boy — who seems about six or seven years old — walks around the garden in which guests are talking, eating and drinking, pointing a Luger pistol at some of the camp inmates who have been enlisted to serve the guests as waiters and, in the case of Boix, as photographer. A teenage Spanish boy waiter winces as the German boy aims the pistol at him and pulls the trigger, but only clicks are heard because the pistol chamber is empty. However, the boy’s father takes the opportunity to teach the boy how to shoot, loading the pistol and helping his son take aim at a wooden target in the garden, with the guests looking on uneasily.

With admirably timed direction, Targarona switches from the disturbing to the horrifying when the commandant tells the boy that he has to learn how to shoot at moving targets, too, instructing him to aim at the prisoner-waiters. They, predictably, move around in an effort to avoid being shot, with some not being successful, to the alarm of the guests. But things reach a climax when the boy’s aim seems to settle on the teenage Spanish waiter, who has in his pocket a bundle of photographic negatives that Boix has just entrusted to his care. 

While his father shows him how to steady his aim at the Spanish boy, the German to whose department the latter has been allocated tries to intervene, pleading with the commandant to spare the boy’s life. Outraged, Ziereis grabs his pistol from his son and shoots another waiter at random, shouting in frustration at being interrupted in this “fatherly lesson” to the Spanish boy’s rescuer that he can have him, but obviously at the cost of someone else’s life.

What this incident (and others like it in the film) demonstrates is precisely what I meant earlier by writing that some people literally “see” others as not being human — in fact, when the commandant shouts at the man who wants him to desist from letting his son shoot, and kill, the Spanish boy, he uses the German word for “it” (“es”), saying something like “You can have it!” The boy is an “it”, not a person, in other words. 

That the Nazi ideology functioned as a kind of filter, or a set of spectacles, through which the world was divided into people (German National-Socialists) and non-people, is shown in this scene in horrifying detail. This was the case, first and foremost, with Jews, but most of the Spanish prisoners were not Jewish, and still regarded in the same way.

This attitude was not restricted to Nazi ideology, of course. Under apartheid, black people in South Africa were regarded through similar ideological spectacles as not being fully human by many people who were interpellated by that invidious ideology; in the American South, during the time of slavery, black slaves were seen in the same way. Interestingly, going further back in history to the Roman Empire, slaves were not race-specific — a slave could be of any race or culture, for example people conquered by the Romans in war, but they were similarly dehumanised.

All human lives matter

Turning back to the present, it is impossible for me to tell whether the police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck, causing him to exclaim that he could not breathe, saw Floyd as not being human. But whatever the case was, there was no justification for him to continue to kneel on Floyd’s neck when Floyd was clearly in distress. Floyd’s life mattered, as do the lives of other black people in the United States and the rest of the world. But — and this is my point — they matter because they are all individuals belonging to the human species. As such, the fact that they matter cannot be restricted to their cultural-racial group; all human lives matter, from that of the fictional Spanish boy in the film detail above, to those of Jews, and of all other cultural groups in the world.

Unless one admits this, you are not thinking in universalisable moral terms — which simply means, in cultural-racial terms, that what is good for the goose is good for the gander (initially a reference to man and woman). If black lives matter, so do all human lives, because underpinning the belief that black lives matter, is the universalistic claim that this is because black people are human. By implication, if you grant that statement, therefore, you also have to grant what it presupposes — that all human lives matter: black lives, Jewish lives, Caucasian (or white) lives, Japanese lives, Indigenous American lives, Inuit lives, Russian lives and so on.

Personally I would go much further, and claim that all life matters, that is, all forms of life, because all human beings are part of the encompassing family of living beings — including all plants and other animals (not only human animals, for that is what we are). If you disagree with this, use the scientific sources of information available today to check on the origins of life, and you’ll find that there is largely scientific agreement that living organisms originated in a process of abiogenesis; ultimately, the genetic architecture of all living beings is basically the same, despite an evolutionary increase in complexity. We, therefore, have a moral duty to respect all life forms, not just those groups of humans with whom we identify.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

Leave a comment