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Doing good and do-gooding

Nakul Krishna | Updated on January 22, 2018

Strangers Drowning Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity; Larissa MacFarquhar; Penguin UK; ₹1,700

Journalist Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning is far more insightful than much of philosophical literature, as she asks what it is like to live a life of moral extremity

Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at the New Yorker for the last 17 years. Her journalistic speciality is the profile, but her profiles, of people and organisations, have a fierce integrity like nothing else in contemporary journalism. The essays in Strangers Drowning are profiles of people she labels ‘do-gooders’. The term is not usually a compliment, suggesting a well-meaning busybody, but it is one of the marks of MacFarquhar’s achievement that she restores the term to its simple and literal sense.

She does not do this by choosing subjects who are easy to like. On the contrary, some of the do-gooders in this book are thoroughly unpleasant. Their goodness is not spontaneous. They plan their good deeds, in her excellent phrase, “in cold blood”. Some of them are more moved by the abstract idea of suffering than by the suffering of an actual person. Others are driven by a pathological disregard for their own comfort: one of her subjects, Baba Amte, seems to have been inspired to work among leprosy patients less by their suffering than by his need for “life to be difficult”.

Many of them are, though not by intention, cruel to their friends and spouses, even when they share their ideals. They seem to find something morally suspect in the very idea of friendship or love or family. These things, they fear, “may look like selflessness, but [are] really just an extension of taking care of yourself.” The do-gooding of Baba Amte’s wife Indu falls under this category: “The evil in this world,” she believes, “is the creation of those who make a distinction between the self and other.”

But it turns out that this distinction is not so easy to eliminate from our thought. One of MacFarquhar’s cautionary tales is that of Aaron Pitkin, a tireless campaigner for chicken welfare. When his girlfriend Jen complains about the unwashed dishes and laundry in the house, he tells her that every minute spent washing the dishes is time lost to the animal rights movement. She can’t think of a counterargument. All she can say is, “But I need it, I want it, I’m asking you.” It is part of the logic of one kind of do-gooding MacFarquhar is interested in that there is always something else with a greater claim on our time and attention than the dishes or the person we love.

MacFarquhar is too perceptive to conclude just from this that morality is the last refuge of the scoundrel. She feels, like many of her subjects, the powerful appeal of an essay by the philosopher Peter Singer. Writing in the early 1970s about the Bangladeshi refugee crisis, Singer came up with a deceptively simple argument for why people in the west — indeed anyone who counts as affluent by global standards — have a moral duty to donate a large part of their incomes to effective charities that work with the world’s poorest people, at least 10 per cent, probably much more. “If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.” From this, Singer proceeds to his astonishing conclusion: if it is our duty to save this child, why should it make a difference if the child in danger is thousands of miles away? If we can help, we ought to even if the cost to ourselves is large.

Singer’s example gives MacFarquhar’s book its title. The argument itself has provoked a large literature of responses, some arguing that physical distance does make a difference to our duties, others that the solution had to be collective rather than individual, yet others that there is more to life than the claims of morality. Her own response is by a good measure more insightful than much of this philosophical literature. She does not ask whether Singer’s principle is right; she asks what it is like to live it. Where others have looked for argument, she gives us stories, some moving, some disturbing, but all of them gripping.

Her book ends on an appropriately uncertain note. Life, as we ordinarily understand it, is impossible without a capacity for indifference to the world’s suffering: there is so much of it that to have it always on one’s mind is to open oneself “to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility”. The do-gooders who keep their sanity are those who “found their limit and accepted it”. MacFarquhar concludes that it is best that not everyone aspires to be an extreme do-gooder, but we should be deeply grateful that some people do. Most of us find our limits too soon.

Nakul Krishna is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge

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Published on November 13, 2015
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