The good life may not be the best path
In her thought-provoking and fascinating new book, Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help, Larissa MacFarquhar sets out to answer a simple question: “Is it good to try to live as moral a life as possible — a saintly life? Or does a life like that lack some crucial human quality?”
The instinctive answer is, yes, of course, a moral life is a good life. But within the book’s first 30 pages, that answer starts to quiver, then wobble and by book’s end, it has crashed in upon itself.
MacFarquhar, a New Yorker magazine staff writer, has done a splendid job with her research; it’s both broad and extensive.
She jumps into her examination of dogooders (as she calls them) using case studies peppered with chapters discussing ultra-selflessness from the perspective of psychoanalysis, literature, philosophy and history.
Interesting as those chapters are — George Orwell, in discussing Mahatma Gandhi, a man he greatly admired, rejects the saintly notion that no person, not your mother, husband, wife or children, should be more important to you than a stranger — it is in her profiles of the do-gooders that theory becomes practice, that the “beauty and cost of a certain kind of moral existence” comes home.
An extreme animal-rights activist chooses to save worms writhing out of the grass after a rainstorm, rather than be on time for an exam he needs to complete to get into grad school. Another offers a kidney to a woman she doesn’t know. A third seeks a high-paying job in order to give more money away to those in need. A fourth refuses to live on more than $1,200 a year.
All of these people would pass the pond test, a concept developed by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, whom MacFarquhar amply quotes.
Simply put, if you would rescue a child drowning in a shallow pond before you, then you should do the same for the child you cannot see thousands of kilometres away. In addition, “if we don’t give much of what we own and earn for the relief of suffering, then we’re responsible for many deaths.”
You can see where this is going. But MacFarquhar takes no sides, though she demonstrates that the good life is not an easy life, even for do-gooders.
These people can be exacting and unsympathetic — “Is it possible,” MacFarquhar asks, “for a person to hold himself to unforgiving standards without becoming unforgiving?” — but better them than an ex-hedge-fund manager defending a 5,000-per-cent price increase for a drug.