The sum total of human happiness is one minus part of my neighbour’s sorrow

IndustrialRevolutionOne of the reasons I love learning about the Georgian era is that I find so many parallels to our own time. It was a time of rapid change, not just because of the industrial revolution, but because of the ideas that were beginning to gain foothold: ideas about individual human rights, about economic theory and the use of capital, about class and religion. It was a time of great and growing rifts between the rich and the poor, and of sudden changes in the ways that people lived. It was, of course, a time when ideas became manifest in a raft of inventions – from gas lighting to better road surfacing to flushing indoor toilets. It was a watershed time, when the old ways lingered side by side with thinking that is recognisably modern.

Today, we teeter on the brink of another great sea change in human thinking and endeavour, and the direction we may travel is by no means clear. Perhaps, by thinking about the past, we can be clearer about the present?

Thanks to a conversation on Goodreads, I’ve been thinking about the differences between standard of living and quality of living, and whether we can fairly say that our standard of living is better than that of past eras. The problem lies with what we mean by ‘our’ and who we’re comparing ourselves to in past eras.

Are we comparing a top movie or sports star  with the peasant of Medieval Germancy? Or a shanty-town dweller in Rio de Janeiro  with the very rich of Georgian England? Either would be a nonsense, of course. But it is common enough to compare the average middle-class Westerner with a slum dweller from the worst cribs in St Giles, the poorest part of Georgian London.

If we want to compare apples with apples, we can. According to some economic historians, around 80% of the world’s population lived in poverty in 1820. According to OECD figures, around 80% of the world’s population lives on less than $10 a day today. So not much change then.

We tend to think of the great poverty that Hogarth drew and Dickens wrote about as indicative of how things were since time immemorial. But as I began this post by saying, Georgian England was a society in transition, and the number of people who suffered from extreme poverty was one of the consequences.

In 18th and 19th century England, enclosure had a massive impact on ordinary working people. Before enclosure, the average farm labourer had little money but access to game, grazing for their cows, gleaning in the landlord’s fields, a pig and some chickens on the common, maybe a few vegetables also on common ground, and so on. None of this showed in the broader economic statistics, but it meant that life was liveable, even comfortable (by the standards of the time).

After enclosure, they had lost everything but the bit of money, and many of them lost that as well. They moved to town to work in factories or the like, and they may have shown up in the economic statistics, but they certainly weren’t comfortable.

All his auxiliary resources had been taken from him, and he was now a wage earner and nothing more. Enclosure had robbed him of the strip that he tilled, of the cow that he kept on the village pasture, of the fuel that he picked up in the woods, and of the turf that he tore from the common. And while a social revolution had swept away his possessions, an industrial revolution had swept away his family’s earnings. To families living on the scale of the village poor, each of these losses was a crippling blow, and the total effect of the changes was to destroy their economic independence. [The Village Labourer, 1760-1832: A Study in the Government of England before the Reform Bill, by J.L. and Barbara Hammond]

To give you an idea of the extent of the change, here’s a summary of the number of Acts of enclosure, and number of acres enclosed, in England over a 100 year period.

Common Field and

some waste

Waste only

Years

Acts

Acreage

Acts

Acreage

1750-1760

152

237,845

56

74,518

1761-1801

1,479 2

428,721 

521

752,150

1802-1844

1,075

1,610,302

808

939,043

Total

2,706

4,276,868

1,385

1,765,711

The logic behind enclosure was improving the efficiency of the land. Which it certainly did. After enclosure, those who had benefited from land ownership certainly got richer.

William_Hogarth_-_Gin_Lane (1)The lives of the judges, the landlords, the parsons, and the rest of the governing class were not become more meagre but more spacious in the last fifty years. During that period many of the great palaces of the English nobility had been built, noble libraries had been collected, and famous galleries had grown up, wing upon wing. The agricultural labourers whose fathers had eaten meat, bacon, cheese, and vegetables were living on bread and potatoes. They had lost their gardens, they had ceased to brew their beer in their cottages. In their work they had no sense of ownership or interest. They no longer ‘sauntered after cattle’ on the open common, and at twilight they no longer ‘played down the setting sun;’ the games had almost disappeared from the English tillage, their wives and children were starting before their eyes, their homes were more squalid, and the philosophy of the hour taught the upper classes that to mend a window or to put in a brick to shield the cottage from damp or wind was to increase the ultimate miseries of the poor. The sense of sympathy and comradeship, which had been mixed with rude and unskilful government, in the old village had been destroyed in the bitter days of want and distress. Degrading and repulsive work was invented for those whom the farmer would not or could not employ. [ibid.]

We can see the results in statistics such as Dan Cruikshank‘s suggestion that 1 in 5 women in London made their living from the sex trade.

In the words of those in favour of enclosures, am I alone in hearing some of today’s economists? (No, I’m not.)

Not is it a consequence that there must be depopulation, because men are not seen wasting their labour in the open field…. If, by converting the little farmers into a body of men who must work for others, more labour is produced, it is an advantage which the nation should wish for … the produce being greater when their joint labours are employed on one farm, there will be a surplus for manufactures, and by this means manufactures, one of the mines of the nation, will increase, in proportion to the quantity of corn produced. [An Inquiry into the Connexion between the Present Price of Provisions, &c, John Arbuthnot of Mitcham, 1773]

And views about the poor seem also to have travelled well.

Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor or they will never be industrious. [Arthur Young, 1771]

The title of this post is based on two related concepts. One is that happiness, being a feeling, is not additive. Long ago, in another forum, I wrote about the sum total of human misery.

What is the sum total of human suffering? A stupid cliché, that’s what.

It implies that human suffering – or, for that matter, any other human experience – is additive; that if a whole heap of people are, for example, all bereaved simultaneously, then the experience is somehow worse than if only one is bereaved.

I might, if I am miserable, cause you to suffer in some way, if you feel sorry for me, or if I lash out in my misery to make you suffer too. But my misery remains my own; it isn’t added to yours.

Furthermore, suffering is time-bound. I might remember a past pain or anticipate a coming pain. But what I suffer in my present is the memory or the anticipation, not the pain. If you think you can accurately remember or anticipate pain, just think about a painful experience you’ve had, then repeat it. You’ll find the actuality is quantitatively and qualitatively different. (It may be lesser or greater; but it will be different.)

So the sum total of human suffering is the maximum amount that any one person can suffer at any one time.

And the same applies to human happiness. The sum total of human happiness is the amount of happiness that one person can feel.

The second concept is that – for normal, non-sociopathic people who feel empathy – the misery of others decreases happiness. If we know about the suffering of others and can help, we should. We cannot be fully happy until everyone else is, too. Even on a very pragmatic and selfish level, ignoring the suffering of others is stupid, as French aristocrats discovered in the late 18th century – and there have been many other examples before or since. Read Morris West’s Children of the Sun for a chilling and prescient forecast of the consequences of ignoring the plight of children in post-WWII Italy, as just one example.

So, while I’m still not equating standard of living and quality of life, if one person in the world is too poor to be able to enjoy life, the happiness of each other individual is a little diminished.

When I write about late-Georgian life, I want – first and foremost – to tell a good story. I want my readers to care about the love story of my characters, and to cheer them on to a happy ending. But I also want to do this against the background of a world with eerie similarities to our own.

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