Toronto Star

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.

 ??  ?? Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquha­r, Penguin, 336 pages, $35.95.
Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquha­r, Penguin, 336 pages, $35.95.

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