Very few doctors would view altruism as a symptom. But it is no surprise that the cynical Dr. Gregory House, on the road back to his “normal” (for him, anyway) would see it that way. Wentworth Miller (Prison Break) plays Benjamin, the overly generous patient of the week in “Charity Case,” episode three of House, M.D.’s eighth season.
Of course House is right, eventually, anyway. Ben owns a computer company. A wealthy man, he endeavors to pay it forward by giving away pretty much everything he owns—including both of his kidneys—just for the asking. No one quite believes House, suggesting that his ingrained cynicism fuels his refusal to believe in Benjamin’s kindness for kindness sake.
The week’s case provides an interesting context for examining motivation, generosity and even an ethical relativism that creates conflict between House and Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard). Conventional wisdom would suggest that Benjamin’s altruism is kindness and caring—selflessness, albeit a tad extreme
But giving gifts, small and large, monetary and less tangible, can be viewed from a more self-serving point of view: it makes us happy to make others happy. “It’s better to give than receive,” says an old proverb. But why? Giving becomes a balm for an unhappy soul—or an attempt to buy a little happiness. That’s the prism through which the chronically cynical House would view it, anyway: generosity as selfish selflessness; altruism with an agenda.
But at this point, House is mostly just trying to get back to his life. Giving himself a much needed haircut (and I’m loving the fact that The Powers That Be have decided not to cover his thinning hair this season), House is a new man—or not. The haircut symbolizes House’s re-entry into his universe: familiar hair, familiar toys—and though he’s not successful, he wants to surround himself with familiar physicians with whom to brainstorm.
Opportunistic ex-con with a sob story looking to re-fund his defunded diagnostics department, House sees a potential mark in Benjamin—at least that what he admits to his pathologically generous patient. As House grapples with the ethics of taking money from a patient whom he believes not to be in his right mind, Wilson does his Jiminy Cricket routine, reminding House about things he already knows (but sometimes needs to hear from his more morally straightforward friend. House knows that he cannot ethically take money from Benjamin, no matter what the purpose—or motives. On the other hand, Wilson’s own ethics go out the window when Benjamin offers to donate kidney (and then two!)
The ethics involved in taking advantage of someone like Benjamin are tricky. At what point does generosity become pathological, or in House’s world, a symptom? Is it $1 million? A kidney? Two? Is it less morally reprehensible to harvest a vital organ from a man with altered mental status than to request of him a substantial contribution to adequately fund a needed medical department?
Ultimately, neither Wilson nor House get what they want. Wilson’s patient dies and because House cures Benjamin—and cures his pathological altruism—House is out $1 million in funding needed to rebuild his team. House is right. Once Benjamin is cured, he’s suddenly not quite so gullible…er…generous.
But rebuilding his team, even if he’d had the funding, might prove a bit of a challenge. Chase and Taub are nowhere to be seen (I miss them), and Thirteen? She’s given up medicine (or so she wants to make herself believe) to travel the world with the woman she loves . She wants “normal” for the short amount of time she has left before Huntington’s Chorea makes her life just this side of impossible.
But what really makes her happy? Is fleeing to Greece hand-in-hand with a new lover really going to trump medicine? House doesn’t believe that, and does his best to test the theory, tempting Thirteen with the challenges of diagnostic medicine. But when he discovers that her return to Team House is more out of guilt than her pursuit of happiness, House sacrifices a bit of his own happiness to ensure hers. When he begins to understand that her ultimate happiness would be to find love in another person, and not her job at Princeton-Plainsboro, he lets her go—literally. Firing her, House does her the greatest kindness he can, absolving her of responsibility for the lives unsaved by taking the impossible choice from her.