In 1901, the sociologist Thomas Francis Moran warned: “I would not attempt to belittle the production of wealth in the least. It is a great economic blessing; but I would here emphasize the consumption of wealth as an important factor in economic and moral progress. If wealth is produced only to be consumed in an unproductive, wasteful, or harmful manner, evil rather than good must be the inevitable result.” (Moran 823)
He continued: “The individual is under certain moral obligations to use his abilities for the general good—for the good of the state.” (Moran 823) How is it, then, that so many of us feel a lack of responsibility to the general good in our daily lives; especially, it would seem, those in the highest echelons of power and wealth?
While economic analysts have slowly and carefully shown that the myth of wasteful poor people was a calculated creation of the rich, often with racist under (or over) tones, relatively little attention has been turned toward the extravagances of the ultra-wealthy, who buy ever-larger yachts, fleets of private aircraft, multitudinous mansions, and other luxuries while those around them live in or on the edge of poverty. One needn’t be a Buddhist philosopher to recall the advice of the eighth century Buddhist monk Shantideva, that the suffering of others must be considered as one’s own. As Shantideva put it in the Bodhicharyavatara:
If I give them no protection because their suffering does not afflict me, why do I protect my body against future suffering when it does not afflict me? (97)
If you think it is for the person who has the pain to guard against it, a pain in the foot is not of the hand, so why is the one protected by the other? (99)
The continuum of consciousness, like a queue, and the combination of constituents, like an army, are not real. The person who experiences suffering does not exist. To whom will that suffering belong? (101)
Without exception, no sufferings belong to anyone. They must be warded off simply because they are suffering. Why is any limitation put on this? (102)
For Buddhists, the question of limitation is rhetorical and can be resolved through seeing our interconnectedness clearly in meditation. Another path to—hopefully—the same realization comes from social science:
“Occupying privileged positions in society has this natural psychological effect of insulating you from others,” said psychologist Paul Piff of the University of California, Berkeley. “You’re less likely to perceive the impact your behavior has on others. As a result . . . you’re more likely to break the rules.” (Wired)
We are, as Aristotle pointed out 2,500 years ago, social creatures and as such we are raised up and shaped by society. But the very wealthy are not, or at least are not to the same degree as others. Instead, their wealth cuts them off from the suffering of those around them as well as the everyday wisdom gleaned from toiling for one’s livelihood: from learning to grow food to fixing minor plumbing and electrical problems, the rich are exceedingly helpless when it comes to what many consider to be basic tasks. But they have wealth that allows them to call upon others to cater to their needs.
However, this reliance can become pathological. As one is insulated from others, one might covet ever more the one thing that can satisfy needs and desires: more wealth. And thus greed for money is born. According to Piff, this drives a transactional relationship between people. We’ve all had relationships in which we have felt used by the other person and discarded when we could no longer serve some instrumental need they had for us. This, according to psychologists, is due to a decrease in empathy and increase in feelings of entitlement that can be observed as people become more wealthy.
One of the first concepts we often learn about when exploring Buddhism is that of karma. Karma in the Buddha’s time meant actions, often specifically ritual actions carried out by Brahmin priests. But the Buddha altered the meaning, moving it from the external, socially stratified context, to instead mean intention, which of course all of us have in each of our conscious moments. Sometimes, of course, our intentions are not clear to us, or we are simply carrying out intentions we set long ago, such as when we go on “autopilot.”
But our intentions create dispositions to build a sort of karmic momentum. Over time, this momentum develops into habits that develop into our character and shape our lives.
When we look at many of the elites who gather each year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, we must understand that each of them has their own karmic momentum. And to the extent that they are rich, as most are, they have a momentum that is cut off from the concerns and troubles of ordinary people. As Jenny Ricks, the Global Convenor of the Fight Inequality Alliance, poignantly writes: “Let us be blunt, the World Economic Forum happening in Davos this month will not solve the inequality crisis because its participants—the ultra-rich and powerful 1 per cent—are the primary beneficiaries of the system that ravages the planet and discards the 99 per cent.” (Al Jazeera)
Nonetheless, activists, non-profit founders, and scholars also mingle with the economic powerhouses each year at Davos. Greta Thunberg was there, along with fellow climate activists Vanessa Nakate, Luisa Neubauer, Isabelle Axelsson, and Loukina Tille. So was Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch.
So there is hope that at least the message of the world’s “foot,” so to speak, with all of the symbolism of being lowly and dirty, will find its way to the hands of power. Will those in power listen and act? Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman is skeptical.
Reminiscing on the disagreement between Thunberg and US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, Krugman warns us of the overwhelming greed on display in the words and deeds of many powerful world leaders today. Those leaders, for instance, continue to give public subsidies to fossil fuel industries, which then generously reward CEOs while at the same time contributing to disasters such as this year’s Australian bushfires.
If those in power truly see the suffering of those to whom they are so tenuously connected, they would tax those industries for the sake of the general good—for the good of the state, to reiterate Moran’s century-old wisdom. But, Krugman notes, echoing the psychologist Piff, the industries have bought political influence with people like Mnuchin such that he can, “claim not to see anything wrong with industries whose profits depend almost entirely on hurting people.” (The New York Times)
As the world grows increasingly imperiled by this intentional ignorance, it is increasingly necessary for the rest of us to do our part to see, and in seeing, to care for those who are hurt. We must see the koala and the kangaroo. We must see the islanders whose homes may be swallowed by rising seas. We must see and continue see to all who are suffering.
Moran, Thomas Francis. 1901. “The Ethics of Wealth.” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 6, No. 6, pp 823–38.
Greed Isn’t Good: Wealth Could Make People Unethical (Wired)
It is time to bill the billionaires (Al Jazeera)
Greta Versus the Greedy Grifters (The New York Times)