What should we make of extreme ‘do-gooders’? (Review of ‘Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity’)

Macfarquhar’s book, Strangers Drowning, was certainly the perfect text to read following Singer’s The Most Good You Can Do. Rather than present a case for a certain moral course of action, Macfarquhar (a writer for The New Yorker) instead explores extreme altruists (or ‘do gooders’) through a psychological, philosophical and sociological dissection of the characters of the very rescuers that Singer implores us to consider becoming. Indeed, the very title of the book, ‘Drowning Strangers’, is clearly taken from Singer’s infamous analogy offered in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” in which he compares our failure to act to assist those in developing countries to us watching children die in a swimming pool, when we could assist with minimal damage to our our interests.

Macfarquhar doesn’t offer any details of her own lifestyle; indeed, a sense of her own voice is difficult to find until the end of the work, where she appears to reject the notion of a world where everyone devotes their lives to serving others (“people talk about changing the world…but they don’t mean a world in which helping is the only world there is”), but also denounces a world without ‘do-gooders’ (stating that without ‘these strange, hopeful, tough, idealistic, demanding, life-threatening, and relentless people, by their extravagant example, help keep those life-sustaining qualities alive.’) This appears to be the central paradox implicit in altruism that defines this narrative: that ‘do-gooders’ (extreme altruists) inspire ‘both awe, and dread’, somewhat simultaneously.

Macfarquhar peppers passages of absorbing analysis and philosophy with the stories of people who have gone beyond the normal expectations of moral action: those who go far beyond the ‘Good Samaritan’ ethics of Luke, towards a care for others that somewhat ironically seems to undermine their value of their own humanity, that they seek to protect in others. We meet individuals who have given kidneys to strangers, worked with the sole purpose of giving money away, founded leper colonies in India and adopted numerous children. The presence of these stories serves as a reminder that it is people and their actions that are at the heart of ethical analysis, asking us to move away from hypothetical analysis of character and virtue, into a penetrating analysis of human action in reality. Her work presents the characters of those who feel a strong duty to offer themselves in service to others, and the alienation from those closest to them that this could lead to. In parts her voice comes through in advocating balance – suggesting that if the perceived goal of moral perfection is every reached, it is one that undermines humanity itself:

“The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals…It is too readily assumed…that the ordinary man only rejects [saintliness] because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.”

This also ultimately takes us to the core of what many find troubling about Singer’s ‘effective altruism’ which is referenced throughout the work: that it is part of our human nature to care most profoundly for those immediately closest to us – that it is the inexplicable and unfathomable emotional ties that we form for our family and friends that defines us as humans, rather than our ability to strive towards a strict and rational application of calculable moral systems.

Indeed, Macfarquhar urges us to understand the negative consequences of over-indulgence in the pursuit of ‘do-gooding’, comparing it to a form of self-harm (‘a kind of disease – a masochistic need for self-punishment, perhaps, or a kind of depression that makes its sufferer feel unworthy of pleasure’), that will ultimately destroy the individual through a sense of ‘unlimited crushing responsibility’ for the misery and suffering which exists in the world. Further to this, she questions whether such individuals are indeed the moral pinnacle at all: “Is it possible for a person to hold himself to unforgiving standards without becoming unforgiving?” Clearly, those who are led into excesses of altruism can struggle to find intimacy with others, because their focus is constantly upon giving to others, rather than allowing themselves to receive from others, too.

On an aside, I loved this quotation with respect to the role of an artist, another figure in life that she appears to think we can aspire to that is not in itself focused upon endless acts of giving, but rather on creating a love of life that inspires others to greater heights of humanity.

“The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.”

The ruminations in this book will certainly make you consider your role models in life; it appears, that like Aristotle, who advocated the necessarily of aiming for the ‘Golden Mean’ between two extremes of action, MacFarquhar is pointing to the need for balance in human behaviour. Her ability to communicate difficult conflicts within human nature is extraordinarily powerful. I think this would be a good passage to finish on:

“The life of a zealous do-gooder is a kind of human sublime — by which I mean that, although there is a hard beauty in it, the word “beautiful” doesn’t capture the ambivalence it stirs up. A beautiful object — a flower, a stream — is pleasing in a gentle way, inspiring a feeling that is like love. A sublime object, such as a mountain or a rough sea, inspires awe, but also dread. Confronting it, you see its formidable nobility, and at the same time you sense uncomfortably that you would not survive in it for long. It is this sense of sublime that I mean to apply to do-gooders: to confront such a life is to feel awe mixed with unease — a sense that you wouldn’t survive in that life for long, and might not want to.”

I couldn’t recommend it more.


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