I have had the great fortune to sit through many discussions introducing students to utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, both at Stanford and in other situations, and the outcome is always quite entertaining. Singer’s most famous thought experiment is essentially the trolley problem but with much higher stakes: If you see a drowning child, would you save him despite knowing it would ruin your $200 clothes? If you answered yes: Would you spend $200 on clothes knowing that you could easily spend that $200 toward life-saving medicine for a child? What is morally different about these situations? I find it darkly entertaining to watch flummoxed students as they embrace clearly questionable moral positions to absolve themselves of their newfound guilt. I’m certainly no better, but I’ve become accustomed to living with guilt since an early flirtation with Catholicism. I’ve given up trying to justify myself, postponing my self-judgment until after graduation while millions of sick babies die in the meantime. I suspect everybody else comes to the same conclusion. We know we aren’t living moral lives, and we care, but not quite enough.
But what about those with a modicum of moral fortitude? People who devote their lives in earnest to complete altruism, who can actually say they have done everything possible to lead a good life? These exceptional people are the subject of Larissa MacFarquhar’s new book, Strangers Drowning, available now through Penguin Press. Ms. MacFarquhar, through the efforts of Stanford’s Center for Ethics in Society, spoke here on Tuesday for her book’s release. Strangers Drowning, titled after Singer’s thought experiment, is a motley work focusing on profiles of a few real-life saints (and I feel completely comfortable with using a word so powerful): a couple who adopted twenty developmentally challenged children into their family, a man who put himself through abject poverty to devote his life to ending the suffering of factory chickens in America, a woman who donated her kidney anonymously to a complete stranger. She writes in taut and evocative prose cultivated during her time at The New Yorker, where some of these profiles have appeared. Each story forces the reader to confront those icky, brutal questions that tickle the part of us that changes the channel when we see commercials with Sarah McLachlan songs and one-eyed puppies.
MacFarquhar isn’t interested in answering these questions for us. Her book does something a little crueler. We’re confronted by people who have made the choice to live their lives completely morally in several different ways. Some take Singer’s utilitarianism to the extreme and seek to reduce suffering affecting millions, while others focus on just a few whose suffering is greatest. And each have already dealt with every excuse that we might proffer. While Orwell might claim that “the essence of being human is that one…does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible,” these people have quite deliberately forsaken their own relationships because of the more pressing moral imperatives bearing upon them. The aforementioned chicken savior only sees his wife a few times a week for dinner, because anything more would obstruct his work. I don’t even remember the last time I went half an hour without wasting time in some capacity. What excuse do I have?
MacFarquhar seeks to answer this through a thorough examination of the treatment of altruism and the trope of the “do-gooder” throughout modern thought, touching on everyone from Immanuel Kant to James Baldwin. Why do we pathologize altruism as being a facade for selfishness, a desire to be seen as good rather than to be good? And moreover, why do we care? Countless examples try to convince us of the pernicious secret narcissism of do-gooders, or that attribute altruism to childlike naivete, or that conflate its moral absolutism with the (we must imagine well-intentioned) absolutism of Robespierre or Hitler or bin Laden. Moral ambiguity is what makes Shakespeare eternally relevant while the painfully didactic Uncle Tom’s Cabin lingers on as the least enjoyable but most directly impactful book on the classics shelf. As soon as we hear tales of virtuous action, we turn into armchair moralists, looking for ways to besmirch the actor while ignoring the positive change that has actually been wrought. MacFarquhar’s anticipation of our natural counterarguments grounds the work, breaking down the social factors that enable us to sit idly and still call ourselves ethical.
It’s a supremely difficult topic to discuss, but MacFarquhar handles it deftly, not openly proselytizing but unafraid to praise those who, more than almost anyone, actually deserve it. She mentioned during the talk that her subjects don’t have the self-righteousness that we expect from the supremely good (though she points out that using self-righteousness to denigrate do-gooders is a pretty obvious false equivalency) because their primary motivation is self-criticism. They live this way because they can’t bear to live any other way. And if they judge others, it’s not as a negative: “Making judgments is a matter of infinite hope,” MacFarquhar says. Judging others is a recognition of the fact that we all have this potential within us, damnable and laughable assertions about “human nature” aside. Complacency is the devil whispering in our left ear that virtue is something finitely attainable, of which we might accrue enough to assuage our guilt and then be satisfied, when the truth of the matter is that we are maximally capable of effecting positive change in myriad ways. MacFarquhar’s book is uplifting if you believe yourself capable of the challenge it sets (curiously, one that MacFarquhar never makes, but that arises almost inevitably).
My favorite quotation from the night came not from Ms. MacFarquhar’s book but from a misquotation of James Baldwin (the original quote of which I can’t find, though the paraphrase is lovely enough in its own right) by an older man during the Q&A section: “The greatest thing a man can do for another man is to bar the door to his spiritual ease.” Ms. MacFarquhar’s book has the potential to do something incredible that very few books in history have done: actually inspire positive change in the world. By her own admission, her goal is not to convert everyone who reads it to asceticism. But in taking such a powerful ethical stance in an age when to do so is regarded as passe or problematic, she elevates her book beyond the amoral world of aesthetics where most literature languishes. Reading it is a great personal challenge. If you let it, Strangers Drowning affords you a glimpse into your own ethical understanding, something that we try our damnedest to avoid. Rather than ignoring it because of that ickiness, I hope its readers (myself very much included) take the opportunity to dwell in that space of discomfort. MacFarquhar’s work is a testament to the power of human endeavor. Aim to be included in its sequel.