I am a Person not a Pump

One serious issue utilitarians have to deal with is the problem of the “happiness pump”. If your morals are based on the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number, then you will be obliged to give up whatever advantages you have for the benefit of those who need it more. And there will always be someone less well off than you, even if that someone is halfway round the world in a Mumbai slum.

The problem is, however much you give to charity to help the needy and alleviate suffering in the world, you could always potentially give more. Was that meal out with your friends really necessary? You could have cooked at home for a fraction of the price and sent the money you saved to a dog home.

Pumps work by seeking equilibrium. Lower pressure on one side of a water pump draws water from the other side, which is at a higher pressure. The same is true of other kinds of pump, including the “happiness pump”. The reason the pump keeps going is because a small decrease in your personal happiness (eating in instead of going out for example) can produce a potentially higher increase in happiness for someone else (the ability to eat at all).

Only when perfect parity is achieved does the pump stop working. So, if you subscribe to this logic, what are your options? Well, you could either give everything away, or you could keep it all anyway, or you could give some of it away. Which one will absolve you of guilt? There’s the rub. None of them.

You will feel horribly guilty if you don’t give anything away. You will feel relatively guilty if you give some of it away (because you know you could give more). But you will also feel guilty if you give everything away, because then you will depend on charity from others to survive, charity that could be better spent on other people. You can’t win.

What if you could subsist on next to nothing without depending on charity? Well, then you are not producing the wealth that could be used to help others and alleviate suffering. So the only possible “solution” to the “happiness pump” problem is to become a successful philanthropist who makes lots of money but instantly gives it away to charity and chooses to live like a pauper.

Is that a realistic aim? The seventeenth century spiritual writer William Law takes this line in chapter 8 if his classic, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life: “How the Wise and Pious Use of an Estate, Naturally Carrieth us to Great Perfection in All the Virtues of the Christian Life; Represented in the Character of Miranda.”

Here we have a perfect example of the “happiness pump” through a Christian lens. The Quakers seem to be particularly prone to the pressure and accompanying guilt of the “happiness pump”. No charity is ever charitable enough.

The only consolation, perhaps, is in comparing oneself with the less virtuous. We may not be perfectly good, but at least we’re better than them. Chapter 7 in William Law’s book is titled, “How the Imprudent Use of an Estate Corrupts all the Tempers of the Mind, and Fills the Heart with Poor and Ridiculous Passions, Through the Whole Course of Life; Represented in the Character of Flavia.”

So Miranda is at least consoled by the fact that she isn’t as bad as her dissolute, theatre-going sister. Quakers should feel consoled that at least they’re better than their less charitable Christian brothers and sisters, not to mention the selfish heathen outside the faith. But the tendency is always to compare oneself with those inside one’s community, where the competition is obviously much stiffer, not with those outside it. So the guilt complex is always there. Even if you are the best “pump” in the world, you will inevitably fall short of the ideal “pump”, Jesus, who always puts you to shame (he gave up his life). On the plus side, Jesus forgives. Otherwise, the whole thing would be unbearable.

At least the Christian “happiness pump” is something worked out between you and your God. In other words, it’s optional. It’s your call. The particular levels of guilt and good works and the relationship between them is a private matter, a matter of personal conscience. God is your judge, and that judgment is passed in the next life, not this one.

What happens when the Communists get hold of the “happiness pump”? They employ the same utilitarian argument: the greatest good for the greatest number. The difference is the Communists lost patience with the niceties of people’s “personal conscience”. People are obviously hypocrites. They spout virtue, but still keep their wealth to themselves. They talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. So, the “happiness pump” must be enforced by the state. The state has a moral duty to take from the rich and give to the poor, because the rich obviously won’t do it of their own free will.

The unintended consequences, as with the massacre of six million Kulak farmers, is that everyone else starves. It seems that wealth, let alone happiness, is not a zero-sum game. The shocking disaster of Communism powerfully illustrates the underlying fallacy of the utilitarian claim. Happiness is not a good that merely need to be re-distributed more equitably. Not only is happiness not a limited resource, it’s not even a “thing”. Neither is wealth. Parceling it up and giving it away helps nobody in the long run.

I would argue that the same goes for the latest fashion in “happiness pumping”: identity politics and the concept of “privilege”. The logic is the same, but translated from the realm of material capital to social capital. Why should you “check your privilege”? If you have more privilege than someone else (more social advantages and social status), then justice demands that you compensate for that inequality by humbling yourself, and giving priority to the less privileged. This is not so much a “happiness pump”, or a “charity pump”, but a “privilege pump”, or a “platform pump”.

If I have “white privilege” because I live in a predominantly white society, and white people have historically been perceived as superior to non-whites, then I should cede my privilege and defer to the opinion of someone of colour. The same goes for my “male privilege” and my “heterosexual privilege” (cis?). Anything I might have to say about any subject is tainted by my privilege. My opinions are compromised and carry less weight by virtue of my identity. If I subscribe to this logic, I become a “platform pump”, constantly giving the platform to speak to others I consider lower than me in the privilege hierarchy.

This perspective hides a painfully obvious performative contradiction. I am a white cis male (although I’m actually Chilean). In a culture (or sub-culture) where the “privilege pump” is in effect, I will very quickly fall to the bottom of the status hierarchy, because my voice is worth less than everyone else. At that point, the pump should reverse: the pressure has all gone to the other side and now white cis males are undervalued and have no voice.

But that will never happen, if you factor in the weight of history. Because white heterosexual men have been in positions of power and authority for centuries, it will take more than a mere reversal of the status hierarchy in the present to expiate the white heterosexual male guilt. Even if I end up at the bottom of the heap, I have to carry the guilt of my forefathers with me. There is no atonement for me. Just as there was no atonement for the Jews under the Nazis.

“Pumps” are rubbish. They always lead to guilt, confusion and enmity, and sometimes to destruction and genocide. Much better to judge our selves and each other according to our characters, not by our identity, privilege, wealth or even by how much we give to charity. True virtue does not work simply by debasing and devaluing yourself. It is about becoming the best person you can be. Then you might do some real good in the world, but as a person, not a pump.