On Privilege, Right Action, and Charity

September 14, 2015 · Leave a Comment

I’ve been reflecting a lot on privilege and the Buddhist concept of Right Action, as both apply to charitable labor and donations. Here’s what I’ve got so far.

Two Charities, and Who They Benefit

The charity Child’s Play uses your donations to buy toys and games for children in hospitals. Playing ought to reduce hospitalized children’s trauma while they recover from surgery or treatment.

The charity charity: water uses your donations to build wells for people who need clean water. Drinking clean water ought to reduce deaths caused by dehydration and illnesses caused by contaminated water.

Both charities help people who need help.

But if you can only give a finite percentage of your annual income and effort to charity, how do you decide who to give to?

Many factors may weigh into your decision.

Let’s simplify by considering how you might do the most good with what you have to offer. You might ask, “How can my finite donation of money and/or effort decrease human suffering the most?”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs


Psychologist Abraham Maslow theorized that humans suffer less when their needs are met, and that some human needs are more dire than others.

He grouped and ranked human needs as show here. The most dire needs are at the bottom of the pyramid. A person might go for 4 minutes without breathing before she begins to experience damage to brain cells; prolonged suffocation will culminate in death. Likewise, food, water, sleep, homeostasis, and excretion cannot be delayed or perturbed for long without causing damage or death to the body. (Sex, in my opinion, is the least dire of these level one, or “Maslow 1,” needs. Contrary to entertainment-media superstition, you won’t die if you don’t have sex.)

It’s reasonable to predict that, once a human recognizes that a Physiological need is not being met, then that Physiological need will occupy most or all of the human’s thoughts and efforts, until the need is met or until the person expires without meeting the need.

If a human meets all Physiological needs, she can relax greatly, and turn her attention to Maslow 2: Safety needs. And so on up the pyramid; only if the lower needs are reliably, habitually, sufficiently, dependably met can the human relax and turn her attention and effort to the upper needs.

Likewise, any new threat to Maslow 1 will immediately commandeer the human’s attention and divert her effort to restoring reliable fulfillment of Physiological needs.

Given that charitable organizations exist to help humans meet needs that they are having difficulty meeting alone, you can argue that charities can be grouped according to what needs they are designed to meet.

Charity Types

Maslow 1 Charities, Targeting Physiological Needs

Some charities that address Maslow 1 needs:

Maslow 2 Charities, Targeting Safety Needs

Some charities focusing on Maslow 2 needs: Equality Now (security of body); Jobs with Justice (job security); United Nations Foundation (resource security); ShelterBox (family safety); PublicCitizen (health and safety). I’m currently unaware of a charity that focuses on making homes safe, or an inclusive charity that directly assists humans with fulfilling moral needs.

Maslow 3, 4, and 5 Charities…?

Not surprisingly, there exist few charitable organizations that will help people achieve their Maslow 3, 4, and 5 needs. This makes sense: once you can reliably and consistently meet your Maslow 1 and 2 needs, you can take time to think about how to meet your 3, 4, and 5 needs, and proceed at your leisure. If your Maslow 3, 4, and 5 needs are not met, you suffer, but you live long enough to re-strategize and try again. A person stuck at Maslow 1 or 2 suffers acutely, and may be injured or may die without charitable help.

Degrees of Suffering

Let’s revisit the two charities mentioned at the beginning: Child’s Play, and charity: water. Which of Maslow’s needs to these charities help a person meet, and, what are the consequences of not meeting those needs?

Child’s Play‘s toys and games help a child relax and connect with family and friends while she is at the hospital. Without toys and games, a child may become anxious if she believes that her physiological needs are threatened. (“Will I die?”) A child may become anxious that her life will never again be as safe as it was. (“Will I ever be well again?”) Time spent away from her family may make a child feel anxious. (“Do they love me? Will they forget me in here?”) The potential stigma of illness may make a child fear for her reputation. (“Will people treat me worse?”) Without puzzles to distract, a child may begin to cycle through the same anxious thoughts over and over.

This anxiety would be difficult for a child to experience, and given the mind-body connection, stress may result in slower healing and therefore an extended hospital stay. Lessening the child’s anxiety ought to promote health and well-being, and any empathetic person, especially one who has stayed in a hospital, would want to lessen a child’s anxiety.

charity: water‘s clean-water wells help a human hydrate, bathe, prepare food, and clean her belongings and environment. Without clean water to drink, a human can live for only 2 to 7 days. If unable to bathe or clean her belongings and environment, a human may fall ill, and may spread that illness to her family and friends, causing permanent injury or death. Without water to help prepare food, a human may infect herself and her family and friends with bacteria that produce food poisoning, which could result in all their deaths.

A person with no clean water suffers the mental anguish of anxiety, plus the physical anguish of rapidly deteriorating health. A human must source sufficiently clean water, daily, or risk weakness, muscle cramps, delirium, loss of homeostasis, disease, overheating, collapse, organ failure, and finally, death.

Addressing the Obvious

At this point, I’ll pause to address the obvious juxtaposition here, and clarify my intent.

  • I do not mean to say that either of these charities is “bad” or undeserving of funds.
  • I do not mean to imply that the existence of acute human suffering nullifies the importance of addressing less severe human suffering.
  • I do not mean to require you to choose between these two charities, only donating to one or the other.
  • I do not mean to imply that these two charities are the only two you, or I, should consider donating time or money to.

Really I’ve just been walking you through my thought process, and laying the contextual groundwork needed for contemplating the next sections.



At this point, we have two charities. Each serves a distinct group of suffering humans, with little or no overlap in the groups. Each seeks to remove a different cause of suffering.

One group’s suffering, if unchecked, may result in death within one week.


Right Action

One distillation of the Buddhist concept of Right Action might be: there are actions that increase suffering (for you or for others), and actions that decrease suffering. Actions that decrease suffering for you and others could be called Right Actions.

For which “others?” Hopefully, your actions decrease suffering for all others.

But let’s be honest: more often, your actions help some, and neglect or hurt others. And that to me seems natural: it’s rare to find one action to take that can literally benefit every creature; but Buddhism encourages us to think deeply about it and give it a try. Tony Robbins says, rightly, that sailors find value in orienting off the North Star; they know they can sail forever, and they will never reach the North Star. But there is value in orienting your actions around an ideal.

So we try.

The Buddhists’ Eightfold Path talks about Right Action, along with Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. The theory, as I understand it, is that if your action hurts another, that action is not in harmony with at least one of these seven aspects of the Path.

Let’s go back to the two groups our two charities are trying to help.

One group’s suffering, if unchecked, may result in death within one week. The other group’s situation is not as dire. And yet, you may find yourself more drawn to help the group that is not in imminent danger of dying. Why?

Consider now whether this instinctual preference may be due to an error in Right View – what psychologists call a “cognitive bias.”

Cognitive Bias

“People create their own ‘subjective social reality’ from their perceptions; their view of the world may dictate their behavior. Thus, cognitive biases may lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.”


If you are reading this on a computer, there is a good chance you live in a society that enjoys easy access to electricity and water. Your social reality is that clean water is relatively simple to obtain on a daily basis, and, very few people you know have ever been in danger of dying from thirst.

Chances are, if you’re past a certain age, you have stayed in a hospital, or visited a loved one there, and you know either first- or second-hand how frightening a hospital stay can be.

I assert that each of us instinctively feels more empathy for those people we consider to be “like” us: people whose formative experiences, we imagine, resemble our own.

So if one of your formative experiences was a hospital visit… and one of your formative experiences was not “that time I almost died of dehydration,” which group of suffering people will seem more relatable: kids in hospitals, or families without clean water?

I offer to you that cognitive bias may be illogically influencing your charitable giving.

“Illogically?” Yes – if your goal is to decrease as much human suffering as you can in the time you have left.

If you think at all about charitable giving, I imagine you enjoy some measure of privilege; the people who have come before you have smoothed the way for you. You rarely struggle with meeting your Maslow 1 needs. You spend time working on your Maslow 2, 3, 4, and 5 needs, and, you have built enough security to feel that giving away some of your time and money will not endanger your own well-being. You are ready to use what privilege you have to help others.

So the question again comes around to “who to help” with your limited money and time.

Minding the Gap

I assert that much of the world’s strife comes from individuals’ fear of failing to meet Maslow 1 and 2 needs reliably (thus risking death), and, anger towards privileged people whose efforts seem illogically concentrated on making their own continued existence at Maslow 3, 4, and 5 more assured.

If this is true, it follows that our species will never see world peace, unless we make a conscious effort to pull every human off of Maslow 1.

I assert that our species needs a critical mass of humans who will dedicate their charitable efforts towards helping all humans meet their Maslow 1 needs.



I predict that if we do not unite enough people to act on this one idea, all of us will suffer war indefinitely. We privileged few cannot broadcast images of wealth and prosperity without creating anger in the people struggling to survive. We cannot ask them to “be happy for us” if we do nothing to help them become safe. Those struggling will either (rationally) want to take what we have for themselves, or, irrationally, destroy it, so that we all know what it is like to fear for our lives from minute to minute.

Rowing Together

It will take more than a handful of givers to elevate all humans from Maslow 1. We need a massive team.

Years ago, one part of an episode of Survivor caught my attention. Two teams raced their rowboats across open water. One team’s members rowed whenever they felt like it, out of sync, and their boat moved forward, but slowly. The other team’s members rowed in unison, and their boat leapt ahead. I’d never rowed with a team, so this massive speed difference surprised me.

I find this metaphor apt.

Operating under our individual biases, we can each donate to our pet charity and decrease all kinds of human suffering. But if we row together, can we focus on helping humans meet their Maslow 1 needs, and make a massive, positive impact on world peace, in our lifetimes?


How will we know, unless we try?


So, for me, the questions become:

  • Do I want to contribute to enhancing the privilege of people “like me” (however I define that), or, do I want to contribute to elevating all of humanity off of Maslow level 1? Or is there a third and better option I haven’t considered?
  • What Right Actions do I believe will most greatly benefit not just myself and “my” people, but all of humanity?
  • What Right Actions do I owe, if any, to “my” society, and what Right Actions do I owe to strangers?
  • How can my efforts have the greatest positive impact on decreasing human suffering?

Maybe you have questions of your own. Certainly this is a lot to think about.

Short-Term Actions

While I think on this, I plan to give to charity: water (a Maslow 1 charity), and volunteer for Habitat for Humanity or similar Maslow 2 charity. Certainly there is value in giving to any reputable charity while debating weighty issues and waiting for the conversation to evolve.

The Future

It is right and normal to adjust one’s actions when new information challenges one’s beliefs. Expect that the answers you arrive at today will change as circumstances change and new information comes to you. What is important is that you are always acting on your understanding of how you can best decrease human suffering, and that you are open to your understanding shifting as you process new information.



Special thanks to Charity Navigator for making 4-star charities easy to find.

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