We humans tend to associate human emotions and motivations to everything from our pets to inanimate objects to corporate entities. Yesterday I got into a very bizarre argument with someone on Facebook about a “Make America Kind Again” meme. My take on the meme was that it was an invitation to re-introduce more kindness into American culture. To work at making kindness a civic virtue. To be individually kind to each other as part of what it means to be an American. The other person’s take was a foreign policy one, and his stance was that America has been too kind already in its treatment of other countries.
I think this is crazy talk, though maybe not for what you might think of as the first line of reasoning. Sure, for every “kind” thing we think America might or might not have done, there’s probably an “unkind” example. But this line of thinking is entirely spurious. “America” (i.e. the United States of America) is a country, a “non physical juridical entity”, to quote Wikipedia. As such, it does not have human emotions or motivations, even though it is led by the will of human beings. America the country’s actions are based mostly in utilitarianism. While the majority of us want our country to be a moral actor on the world stage, and follow just and rational laws, this is not synonymous with kindness.
Kindness is so relative. Can a country act with kindness? I return to contemplating my dog. Can my dog be kind, or am I simply anthropomorphizing the actions of a creature whose mental processes are opaque to me? I think that the answer is yes, my dog can be kind. There are many examples of dogs, cats, and non-domestic animals acting in generous, selfless ways towards humans and each other.
So what makes my dog capable of kindness, and a country not? I think the answer lies in sentience. My dog is a sentient being, and while his instincts and emotional states are not identical to a human’s, he’s part of the interconnected web of life in a way that an artificial entity like a country can never be. And yet that desire to act with collective kindness is very strong in a lot of us, as irrational as it is. We want our country to be kind, or at least be known for kindness. Your country can’t be kind. It is outside its skillset. You can be kind however, in your country’s name. That individual action might be tiny, but millions of tiny individual actions can make a country of kindness. I hope we’ll try my thesis out!