Strangers Drowning

What would the world be like if everyone thought like a do-gooder? What would it be like if that happy, useful blindness fell away and suddenly everyone became aware, not just intellectually but vividly, of all the world’s affliction?

Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning: Grapping with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help is a morally disturbing book. It calls into question some, if not many, of our ordinary, day-to-day behaviors.

Say we want to purchase a dress or coat that costs about $200. Do we really need another coat? How might we better spend the money? Give to a charity that delivers food and medicine to those who need it? Do the same for a charity that develops clean water programs in drought-stricken areas? Contribute to a charity working to eradicate malaria, parasite infections, or promotes literacy in developing countries?

The individuals described in MacFarquhar’s book raise such questions for every expenditure they are about to make. Most of them don’t spend the money and turn instead to a life of extreme poverty, slighting their own well-being while they to devote their life to alleviating suffering. MacFarquhar writes,

This book is about a human character who arouses conflicting emotions: the do-gooder. I don’t mean a part-time, normal do-gooder—someone who has a worthy job, or volunteers at a charity, and returns to an ordinary family life in the evenings. I mean a person who sets out to live as ethical a life as possible. I mean a person who’s drawn to moral goodness for its own sake. I mean someone who pushes himself to moral extremity, who commits himself wholly, beyond what seems reasonable. I mean the kind of do-gooder who makes people uneasy. 

She profiles the extraordinary ways these individuals undertake their moral projects. Sue and Hector Badeau, who in addition to their own two children, adopted twenty children with special needs.

Murlidhar Amte, born into a wealthy family in India, founded a leper colony in India.

Dorothy Granada, braving threats of rape, moved to Nicaragua in the 1980s to build a health clinic for women deep in the jungle.

Several individuals donated one of their kidneys to a person they didn’t know, often with unforeseen consequences. And others give away nearly everything they earn to the needy, even when it means that they go hungry at times.

MacFarquhar also discusses Peter Singer’s philosophical reasoning behind these expressions of extreme altruism. Singer argues that it is immoral to buy anything but the necessities when your money could be used to save lives and reduce the suffering of others. He would like us to consider if we would buy a cappuccino and croissant, if we knew the money was enough to buy a life-saving mosquito net in a malarial area of the world? Further, would you feel responsible for a lost life, if you bought the cappuccino and croissant?

The detail and understanding MacFarquhar displays in describing these individuals is the heart of the book. She writes, “I don’t think this question [So, is it good to try to live as moral a life as possible?] can be answered in the abstract. In the abstract, there are ideas about saints and perfection. Only actual lives convey fully and in a visceral way the beauty and cost of a certain kind of moral existence.”

Reading MacFarquhar’s book made me uneasy. It called into question many of my behaviors. I never think about how the money I spend for a Caramel Macchiato could be better used to aid a sick child in Kenya or provide a family with safe water in Uganda. The logic of thinking this way about every expenditure could drive me crazy. Instead, all I can do is give more of my resources to charities that reduce suffering. And if more and more people acted similarly, a great deal might be accomplished.

She concludes, “If everyone thought like a do-gooder, the world would not be our world any longer, and the new world that would take its place would be so utterly different as to be nearly unimaginable. … If there were no do-gooders, on the other hand, the world would be similar to ours, but worse.”


Stefanie said...

Sounds like an intense book. Like you, if I thought about whether my money would be better spent helping someone else on every single purchase I make I would go crazy pretty fast. I would think there is a tipping point in the equation where self-denial to help others damages the self too much and begins to hinder what one can do for others. I suppose the balance is different for everyone.

Richard Katzev said...

Stefanie: I do think more carefully about expenditures after reading the book. And I give more to charities than I used to. The degree of needless consumption in this country appalls me. At times I think we are digging our own graves. There is much to talk about in this book and I highly recommend it. A really good book in my view raises questions and keeps you thinking for days and months after reading it. Richard

Linda said...

I've heard about this book, but have not read it - I think because just the reviews made me uneasy, just as the author predicts. The book seems to have had that effect on you as well.

I often feel guilty because we are so lucky to live in a rich democracy, a simple accident of birth, especially when I see images of children starving, like we've seen coming out of Syria lately. More than the shock and sadness and anger, the helpless frustration is the worst. Do we deserve to have so much when so many are without food, water, and shelter?

But, at the same time, I cannot relate to Singer's altruistic extremists. They are a contradiction - saintliness with a measure of foolishness, a higher moral plane that requires a courage more akin to recklessness, renunciation to the point of self-destruction (Simone Weil comes to my mind - heartbreaking).

Even if they do make us uneasy, I think their sacrifices do inspire many of us to try to do something more, a little more in our own small way.

Thank you for the provocative review.

Richard Katzev said...

Linda: You are right. We can try to do more, but not let it get the better of us. It's a difficult book to read. I don't know how MacFarquhar managed to write it, page after page of do-gooders practically starving themselves so that others can eat. Weil is a perfect example of what extreme altruism can do to someone. Thank you for your comment. I don't think you need to add this book to your wobbly bedside table.