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Epistemology and Morality: The Case of the Ferguson Shooting

One cannot know the good and act rightly if one cannot sift evidence and construct sound arguments with a virtuous character. This is evident in the Ferguson shooting incident. As rioters destroy, pundits declare, and confusion reigns, consider these principles of epistemology (the study of knowledge):

  1. Truth is not determined by feeling. A true statement is one that corresponds to reality; it matches reality; it fits the facts. Your belief about X (any proposition) does not make X true or false.

  2. Some beliefs are false. Many of our ideas fail discern reality aright. Therefore, if we care about truth, we will test our own beliefs against reality as best we can. We need knowledge, not merely opinion. This is especially so for things of great moment, such as whether a killing was justified or unjustified.

  3. To have knowledge of X:

  4. One must believe X

  5. X must be true

  6. X must be justified

  7. Standards for justification (3.C) vary from discipline to discipline. Our court system is structured to weigh evidence carefully, to minimize prejudice, and to give the accused a fair hearing according to stated standards.

  8. Grand juries are charged to determine whether the accused should be brought to trial. They are made up of citizens from the location of the incident. In the case of Ferguson, they considered evidence of all sorts and deliberated for three months. In other words, they know more about the situation than anyone outside of this setting, except God.

  9. The nine Ferguson grand jury members—six white, three black—decided that Police officer Darrin Wilson should not be put on trial, since the evidence was not strong enough to warrant this. Grand juries do not decide the innocence of guilt of anyone. They, rather, determine whether a case should be brought to trial.

  10. In light of 1-6, it is reasonable to conclude that the police officer did not wrongfully kill Brown. Beyond that, the evidence released to the public shows that Brown tried to take the officer’s gun and was aggressively attacking the policeman.

Concluding comment:

Slogans can obscure truth. In the Ferguson case, the situation was often reduced to “a policeman shot to death an unarmed man.” This is true, but misleading, since it communicates that it is always wrong for the police to kill an unarmed man. This is not so for at least two reasons. First, the officer may not know the man is unarmed. He has to assume otherwise to protect his own life. Second, unarmed people can be lethal. They can kill with their bare hands or otherwise. Those enraged, especially if they are on illegal drugs, may continue to attack even after having been shot several times. Those who get concealed carry permits in Colorado are taught this in the required class.

This essay is not meant to address all the sad issues raised by the death of a young black man. But unless we heed basic logic, reasoning, and intellectual probity, no justice will be served.

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