When it comes to creating wealth and thereby improving people’s material conditions, capitalism is without doubt effective, but capitalism is clearly inadequate as any kind of social ideal, since it is only motivated by profit, without any ethical principle guiding it.
One of the most significant truths brought to light by the present political crisis in the US is the overwhelming depth and pervasiveness of greed in our society. The propensity to spend and accumulate is so imbedded in the fabric of our nation that it has become nearly invisible to us; it pervades every dimension of our lives; it is the way we live. With a kind of breezy nonchalance, we spend ‘our’ money with little, if any, regard for the extreme suffering of others.
Though we do not think of ourselves as billionaires, in a sense we are. For, if we earn more than $20,000 per year, we are in the top 10% of the wealthiest people in the world. If we earn more than $52,000, we are in the top 1% per cent of the wealthiest people in the world. Contrast this with the most impoverished 1% who live on less than $1.25 per day, less than we pay for a cup of coffee. No matter how we feel, we are among the wealthiest people in the world.
Wealth should serve humanity, and not vice-versa.
In his recent book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, The Dalai Lama discusses “The Problem of Greed Versus the Joys of Philanthropy.” In it he says:
“In today’s materialistic world there is a trend of people becoming slaves to money, as though they are parts of a huge money-making machine. This does nothing for human dignity, freedom, and genuine well-being. Wealth should serve humanity, and not vice-versa. The massive disparities that are more extreme than ever before and are still growing, are distressing. The stark economic inequalities of today’s world, not just between the global north and the global south, but between rich and poor within individual nations, are not only morally wrong but sources of many practical problems, including war, sectarian violence, and the social tensions created by large-scale economic migration. “
Looking outward at “today’s materialistic world,” it is easy for us to agree with The Dalai Lama, but it’s far more difficult to focus the light on ourselves, to look inward, to search for the ways we perpetuate this in our own small way – spending money so casually, without even thinking of what that money could do for someone in extreme poverty. We forget that even small amounts of money are enough to save lives. If we lived a bit more frugally and donated some of that money to an effective charity – money we would otherwise spend on boutique coffee, bottled water, fancy restaurants, expensive vacations, and endless upgrades – we could make a significant difference to someone who makes only $1.25 per day, someone who cannot send her children to school, cannot feed her family, and cannot obtain minimal healthcare.
The Dalai Lama goes on with his critique:
“When it comes to creating wealth and thereby improving people’s material conditions, capitalism is without doubt effective, but capitalism is clearly inadequate as any kind of social ideal, since it is only motivated by profit, without any ethical principle guiding it. Unbridled capitalism can involve terrible exploitation of the weak. Thus we need to adopt an approach to economic justice which respects the dynamism of capitalism while combining it with a concern for the less fortunate.”
In regard to this issue, we cannot wait until a better system comes along, and we cannot look to the wealthy to give of their millions or billions. We must bridle our own personal capitalism. It is up to each one of us, each day, to go beyond capitalism, to do the most we can to help those in extreme poverty, where doing “the most we can” involves not only deep and disciplined soul-searching but also a fundamental change in how we view ‘our’ money and the good things we think of as ours.
If you have not recently experienced the joy of philanthropy, you can BEGIN HERE.