Give Something Away to a Stranger
When it comes to vaccines, rich countries are looking out for themselves. According to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, which is a coalition that includes Oxfam and Amnesty International and some other groups, this report that they wrote in December, it says that rich countries, which have 14 percent of the population have reserved 53 percent of the world’s vaccine doses. This report also said that rich countries have enough doses pre-ordered to vaccinate their own populations three times over. And poor countries don’t even have enough to vaccinate their health workers.
The worst vaccine hoarder is Canada. They’ve reserved five times what they need to vaccinate all Canadians. I think this probably made sense last year when we didn’t know which vaccines would work. They pre-ordered enough of each so that if one of them worked they could vaccinate everybody. But then it turned out that all the vaccines worked, and so now Canada has extra. I assume they’re eventually going to release those preorders, and I hope they even donate them to poor countries, but no matter what, Canadians come first. It’s not because Canadians deserve more, or because they need it more, it’s because they are citizens of a country with a rich and powerful government.
The next worst hoarder of vaccines is the United States, which has four times the preorders that we need. And unlike almost every other country on Earth, we did not join COVAX, which is the global vaccine-sharing agreement. The Trump Administration made a bet that we could secure vaccines on our own: We didn’t need a promise from other countries that they would share their vaccines with us, and we didn’t want to make a promise that we would share ours with them. And that bet has paid off, but it makes me wonder—if China had developed a vaccine, say, and we had not, and there was no agreement in place, how generous would they have been? (The Biden Administration is going to join COVAX now.)
Drug companies are also looking out for themselves. If you consider Moderna, they basically had all of their research costs paid by the federal government. And they also had a preorder for 100 million doses. So they had no risk, and they had no cost. And yet they’re keeping exclusive rights to their vaccine for themselves. They plan to charge 15 bucks a dose, which is a very high profit margin. And all the other vaccine makers have made similar deals with the government. All of them are hoarding their intellectual property for themselves.
Universities are not necessarily doing better. Oxford University, they announced last April that the vaccine they’d developed, they were going to release it to the public. They would let any drug manufacturer make it for free. But a few weeks after that they reversed, and they signed an exclusive deal with AstraZeneca, with no requirement that AstraZeneca would charge an affordable price. Both AstraZeneca and Oxford stand to gain an enormous amount of money off of this deal.
Oxford University developed their vaccine with help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and I’ve read that Bill Gates advised Oxford to sign this exclusive deal—to reverse their plan to release the vaccine for free. Gates guessed that no drug company would make a vaccine unless they had exclusive rights to it, because otherwise the profit margin would be too low. And if there’s anybody who understands the decision-making of rapacious executives it’s probably Bill Gates, so maybe he has a point.
Everybody’s looking out for themselves. At this moment of crisis, rich countries are like Titanic passengers hogging the life rafts and letting the rest of the world drown. And drug companies are doing what they do.
What it means to look out for yourself is different depending on what your definition of “self” is. A corporation’s self is its legal entity, which has obligations to its shareholders. A nation-state has its definition of self, which is its territory and its citizens. A nation-state’s self is not the rest of humanity. And it’s not trees and birds, and it’s not stars, and it’s not all beings and the whole universe. So when a nation-state is threatened, until all its territory and citizens are secure, all other beings' interests come second. It hoards vaccines, it hoards masks, until it’s sure that everybody is safe inside the country.
Individual people behave this way too. We usually place our own interests and those of our immediate family first, followed by friends and acquaintances, followed by strangers, and finally animals, and the world, maybe, last. And I think that this is probably instinctive, that we have a hierarchy of goodwill in this way. If you subscribe to the Selfish Gene hypothesis, then it would make sense that our selfish DNA would encode instincts for us to help ourselves and people who share our genome first.
If you want to take the bio-psych view, if you imagine that our behaviors evolved when we were in small cooperative bands of hunter-gatherers, then it makes sense that we would help our friends, that we would do favors for people who are likely to do favors for us in return. So it’s no surprise that evolutionary pressures led to a species of selfish creatures who prioritize themselves, their families and their friends, and are indifferent or even hostile to strangers.
But—and this is a really interesting contradiction—even though we behave this way, we admire people who act with universal goodwill toward strangers and toward humanity as a whole. Somebody who inverts the natural hierarchy, somebody who sacrifices themselves for strangers, that person is a hero or a saint.
Based on what I personally know of Western ethical theories—which is limited—in the modern era, when we sit down to write the rules of ethical conduct, we generally say that each individual should act with goodwill towards everybody, equally. Take Utilitarianism; the simplest formula of that philosophy is that we should take actions that promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Many Utilitarians explicitly reject the idea that we should favor our own parents or our own children over the general welfare of humanity.
There’s an extremely influential Utilitarian philosopher named Peter Singer, and in 1971 he wrote an essay called “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” He asked, what would you do if you noticed a child drowning in a pond? You’d jump in and save the child, even if it meant ruining your clothes. In fact, you have a moral obligation to do that, despite the small cost to yourself. At the time Peter Singer wrote this essay, there was a horrible famine in Bangladesh. And Singer wrote that we can save a life in Bangladesh for less money than it would cost you to replace an outfit of clothes:
It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards away from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. The moral point of view requires us to look beyond the interests of our own society. Previously, this may hardly have been feasible, but it is quite feasible now.
So he’s saying that if sacrificing your clothes to save a nearby child is not just a good thing to do but it’s actually required of you ethically, then it’s also ethically required that you send an equivalent amount of money to help somebody in Bangladesh, or whoever is most in need today.
I basically agree with this, and I think the Buddha did too. In the Vatthūpama Sutta, Buddha described how to practice goodwill. He said:
One abides, having suffused with a mind of benevolence
one direction of the world,
likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise the fourth,
and so above, below, around and
everywhere, and the same to all as to oneself.
So this is pretty clearly universal goodwill. Also, in the Karaniya Metta Sutta, Buddha says,
Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life,
even so, let one cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings.
Right? He’s saying that this hierarchy of our family over others, we should not practice this. We should practice universal goodwill. And this is a principle of Buddhism just the same as it’s a principle of Utilitarianism, and every other ethical philosophy that I know of.
By the way, sometimes when we’re talking about Buddhism in English we say “goodwill” or “benevolence,” and that’s usually a translation of metta in Pali, or maitri in Sanskrit. Metta is an intention to put into action, to do good for others. On the other hand, when we say “compassion,” that might be a translation of karuna, which is more like a feeling of sympathy toward other beings. So, I’m concentrating more here on metta, the intention to do good for others, because that seems more actionable to me. I can practice goodwill towards my enemy. Whereas feeling sympathy for my enemy is tougher. And anyway, who cares how I feel.
In Buddhism, we have a personification of goodwill, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. We often see Avalokiteshvara with a thousand hands, and on the palm of each hand is an eye to see the suffering of all beings. So the thousand hands help all beings, and the thousand eyes witness their suffering and their needs. And these thousand arms kind of fan out from the Bodhisattva’s shoulders like a peacock tail. There’s a koan about Avalokiteshvara’s thousand hands and eyes and it’s one of the most beautiful in our tradition. It goes like this.
Ungan asked Dogo, “What does the bodhisattva of great compassion use so many hands and eyes for?”
Dogo said, “It’s like someone reaching back for a pillow in the middle of the night.”
Ungan said, “I understand.”
Dogo said, “How do you understand?”
Ungan said, “All over the body are hands and eyes.”
Dogo said, “You’ve said quite a bit, but you’ve only expressed eighty percent.”
Ungan said, “What about you?”
Dogo said, “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”
So I’m not sure here if we’re talking about goodwill or compassion. Ungan asks what the Bodhisattva uses so many hands and eyes for, which sounds like goodwill to me, more like the intention to take action for others. And Dogo said that this is like reaching behind your head to adjust your pillow in the middle of the night, when you’re half-asleep, to be comfortable. It’s natural.
Once I studied under a teacher named Tenshin, he’s a carpenter, and he said it’s like when you hit your thumb with a hammer, and your other hand immediately goes to comfort the injured hand. It’s natural. The two hands are one body.
But if this hand is the U.S. and this hand is, say, Ecuador, we don’t recognize the one body. We say, “This hand is myself and this hand is not myself. So this hand gets the vaccine and this hand has to wait.”
For me this natural goodwill, it’s helping my partner Keishin when she’s sick, or if she wants my advice, or just if I’m making a nice dinner to share together. That’s reaching back to adjust my pillow. When I do that it’s natural. These two hands and eyes are part of the Avalokiteshvara peacock tail of hands and eyes. On the other hand, helping an abstract stranger on the other side of the world does not feel that way. My selfish genes and my small-tribe instincts, they compel me to favor myself and my family first, and to put others second.
But what I like about Buddhists is we recognize this problem, and we have a training program for it. Many philosophers debate what’s the right thing to do, but they don’t actually consider how to make ourselves do it when we don’t want to. But Buddhists, we get together and we train our universal goodwill muscle together. Buddhism is a training program for being ethical. And living ethically is a method for accessing wisdom! So it’s a self-reinforcing cycle.
A training exercise that we do for universal goodwill is called metta meditation. It dates back to Buddhism’s very early days, and there are many different scripts for doing this meditation. I’m gonna take one from Jack Kornfield. So, you sit in meditation, and you direct goodwill towards yourself first, and you say:
- May I be filled with lovingkindness.
- May I be safe from inner and outer dangers.
- May I be well in body and mind.
- May I be at ease and happy.
Then you expand it out a little bit. You do the same for somebody who loves you and cares about you. And you say:
May you be filled with lovingkindness.
May you be safe from inner and outer dangers. May you be well in body and mind. May you be at ease and happy.
And you extend this goodwill farther and farther out to your family, your neighborhood, your sangha, stretching it wider and wider. And finally, you extend this goodwill to your enemy. And you say:
May you be filled with lovingkindness.
May you be safe from inner and outer dangers.
May you be well in body and mind.
May you be at ease and happy.
This is really hard training. I don’t feel a lot of universal compassion, karuna, sympathy. And I don’t act with universal goodwill. I’m generous toward the people who are close to me, but much, much less so with strangers. I have the means to act with goodwill. I have a lot of money, I have skills, I have time, but I don’t do it that much. I believe in universal goodwill, in the abstract, but that’s not actually how I live. I think I need to do more metta meditation.
Peter Singer—the philosopher I mentioned earlier, he’s got the drowning child parable—he’s associated with a movement called Effective Altruism. And Effective Altruists argue that we should use our resources to do the most good according to some standard that’s measurable and evidence-based. And they also argue for impartiality, that the well-being of all people is equally valuable.
There’s an Effective Altruism group that Peter Singer founded called The Life You Can Save. It finds charities that save or improve the most lives for every dollar. So they recommend charities that fight malaria or treat fistulas, or just give money to poor people with direct cash transfers. And all of these, according to the research, are shown to be highly effective ways to help strangers.
But it’s still kind of an opportunity to pick and choose. Maybe I care more about malaria this month, and I care more about poverty next month, so I do the one that I feel more sympathy for. Or you can just split your donation equally among all their top charities, and not express any choice at all. That’s the least satisfying for my primitive human emotions, so I think that is the best training for universal goodwill.
Because the thing is that metta is not a moral virtue. It’s just a muscle. We make it stronger bit by bit by taking on harder challenges. The more we use it, the stronger it gets, just like any other muscle.
So I’ve got the page open right now for The Life You Can Save in a tab, it’s next to my browser tab where I’ve got my talk notes. And they recommend that somebody with my income should give 6 percent of my income. That’s the bare minimum. It would do a lot of good in the world without inconveniencing me. So that’s what I’m going to do, just for this month, but it’s a start. I’m going to give them 6 percent of this month’s income. I’m not going to pick a charity, I’m just going to tell them to split it evenly among all of them.
Now, for me, this is not a sacrifice, because I’m doing really well financially. But emotionally, it is difficult, because I’m human, and I prioritize myself and the people who are close to me. I would rather use the money for something else. But I’m going to exercise some universal goodwill now instead.
You might have some money to spare or you might not. You might have some time to spare, you might have a skill that’s useful. I invite you to think of a way that you’re able, now, to give that away to a total stranger.
Image: Statue of Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva (Quán Thế Âm) of the Lê or Nguyễn Dynasty, circa 1750-1850.