Column on Is the U. S. Self-Interested?

Is the U. S. Self-Interested?

Tibor R. Machan

It baffles me why so many people are apologetic about the U. S. having a self-interested foreign policy. When President Obama recently declared that the U. S. "is not a self-interested empire," the part about being self-interested, pace Obama, sounded just right to me. (It is the "empire" portion that would be disturbing since an empire is a country that aims needlessly to lord it over other countries.) Being self-interested could mean no more than being vigilant in the defense of one’s country, making sure it is safe from invasion or attack.

Who can dispute that self-defense is self-interested? Of course, with the prominence of altruism among intellectuals and public figures, it is probably no great surprise that Mr. Obama would reject characterizing American foreign policy as self-interested. "Selfish" has this bad odor about it and has had that since when philosophers, theologians and psychologists have decided that the human self is something malign.

At one time, of course, it used to be a good thing for one to be self-interested. I am thinking of ancient Greece where both Socrates, as presented by his pupil Plato, and later Aristotle defended self-interest and self-love, respectively. That’s because the ancient Greeks tended to view human nature favorably, not as innately tending toward evil, something that became more in vogue later in the history of Western thought. Both religious and secular thinking veered off in this misanthropic direction in part through the doctrine of original sin and then with Thomas Hobbes’ idea that everyone is basically motivated by a fierce passion for power, including, especially, power over other persons. If that is indeed what the human self aims for, then no wonder it doesn’t have a sterling reputation and selfishness or being self-interested no longer amounts to something honorable as Socrates thought it was.

Yet even in our time something of the ancient Greek attitude remains in play. Just notice how often people say "You take care now" or "Take care of yourself" as their parting words to each other. I have been noticing this for many years and just a few days ago it was in evidence again as I watched some saying farewell. No hesitation at all: Go and make sure you do well for yourself! So self-interest, prudence, taking care of oneself cannot be taken to be all that bad by most of us, even though the sentiment isn’t given much support among those who write on morality and public policy, including American foreign affairs.

For some it is just a matter of cynical realism to accept that a country’s foreign policy will be dictated by its international interests. But is this something one must apologize for or even deny, as Mr. Obama apparently feels necessary to do?

Only if self-interested conduct, including in matters of diplomacy and military policy, must be reckless. But must it be? Does one’s country really benefit from a reckless, loose cannon foreign or military policy? No. Properly conceived and undertaken self-interested foreign and military policy, just as personal conduct, needs to be decent, guided by virtues or moral principles. Indeed, as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others have maintained–but recently with only a few such as Ayn Rand and quite a few psychotherapists joining them–the virtues are necessary to advance one’s proper self-interest. Morality for these thinkers is about making it possible to succeed in one’s human life, doing well at living as a human individual. It includes the virtues of prudence, honesty, moderation, temperance, courage, and such but also generosity, compassion, and even charity when it is needed. Only with these virtues in full display in one’s life will someone accomplish that most vital task in of being morally good, being a good person.

The same, it can be argued, applies to foreign and, especially, military affairs. A country’s foreign policy must not aim for martyrdom, for self-sacrifice. Thus, putting this into practice, General George C. Patton Jr. is supposed to have told his troop, "The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other guy die for his.

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