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Is Self-Interest Humane?

Updated on October 15, 2012

A Broader View of Human Responsibility

On this day before the second presidential debate of 2012, I'd encourage us to reflect a bit on one comment made in the vice-presidential debate last Thursday (10/11/12). Martha Raddatz, the moderator, followed up on comments about the tragic slayings of four U.S. personnel in Benghazi by asking nominee Paul Ryan under what circumstances would he support U.S. intervention in another country, e.g. Syria, where so many citizens are being slaughtered. His answer was generic and predictable: 'We should intervene whenever it serves our own interests.' Raddatz immediately asked, "For humane purposes?" and Ryan repeated, "only if it is in our own interests."

That exchange sums up not only this year's presidential election. It also focuses on a key element of U.S. history and policy. Matthew Fox in his book Original Blessing [Tarcher/Putnam, 1983] says that creativity can be used in ways that are either good or bad (ala nuclear destruction), and suggests if we do not choose to be creative in ways that bless us and the entire creation, "our creativity will destroy us." Then he adds, "Is our creativity to be for life or for death? For people or for profits?" [p. 182]

That's the ultimate question behind everything we do as individuals and as a nation. It is also the crux of that exchange between Raddatz and Ryan last Thursday. What does it say about us as a nation if we are willing to stand with freedom-seeking people or those who are suffering abuse at the hands of their own government only when it is in our own national interests?

The United States is a great nation and we all view ourselves as patriots, even when we disagree with our leaders or policies. But we all know that our history has been marred at times when we acted in our own interest at the expense of the dignity and safety of others. We nearly wiped out all Native American peoples for the purposes of expansion and profit, not to mention demeaning tribal beliefs and practices as "primitive" and "less enlightened." We resisted ending the slavery of blacks and had to fight a war to abolish that practice, long after other countries had peacefully giving up owning slaves, and we still struggle with the ugly aspects of racism today (consider the recent comment of a legislative member who suggested that slavery was actually good for blacks because it gave them the eventual chance to share in the American dream). We imprisoned German-Americans during WW I and Japanese-Americans during WW II, and we turned down pleas to bomb the rail lines leading into Nazi death camps because our government didn't want to tip our hand about the quality of our intelligence gathering.

So, let's face the question squarely: is it humane to put our own interests ahead of the safety and suffering of others? No American doubts that we must defend this nation and do whatever we can to make this nation great. But if we put our well-being ahead of humanitarian concerns, whether for profit or political gain, we are at risk of selling out our own heritage that says that all people are created equally and endowed with certain unalienable rights - namely life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Right now the people of Syria aren't doing so well on that score, nor are many others who look to us for leadership and help.

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