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Pushing morality to its limits

A new book about altruism that will make you re-examine your life

Hannah Rosefield | September 22nd 2015

Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at the New Yorker for nearly 20 years, specialising in virtuosic profiles of academics, writers and public intellectuals: Harold Bloom, John Ashbery, Hilary Mantel, Noam Chomsky. But the subjects in her new book, “Strangers Drowning”, are not famous for scholarly or creative work. Most of them are not famous at all. They are noteworthy, rather, for their altruism, which is extreme and directed at those outside their community. They include Dorothy Granada, who set up a health clinic in war-torn Nicaragua; Paul Wagner, who donated a kidney to a stranger; and Julia Wise, who gives her entire income to charity.

The book’s title comes from an old philosophical problem: if you could save either your child or two strangers from drowning, whom should you choose? Many people would save their child, and defend their choice as a moral one; some would save their child but feel they had chosen immorally. A few, a very few, would save the strangers. “Strangers Drowning” is about those few, and about our attitudes towards them.

Some of the book’s altruists endanger the lives of their children; all of them repeatedly place the claims of strangers above the claims of those they love. The knottiest and most absorbing chapters show how their subjects’ families are affected by and respond to this kind of altruism. In a double profile of Sue and Hector Badeau, MacFarquhar describes how the couple came to be parents of 20 adopted children, several with mental or physical disabilities, in addition to their two biological ones. At various points during their child-rearing years, Sue and Hector said they were done, they couldn’t care for any more. Then another needy child or family of children came along, often with no hope of being adopted elsewhere. How could they say no? “Most people would think first about how an adoption would affect the children they had; but to Sue and Hector, the need of the child who was still a stranger weighed equally in the balance,” MacFarquhar writes. Aaron Pitkin has devoted his life to improving the living conditions of America’s chickens. As a young man he refused to do the dishes, despite his girlfriend’s unhappiness at living in squalor, because time spent cleaning dishes was time not spent helping chickens, and the lives of billions of chickens were more important than the discomfort of one girlfriend (the relationship didn’t last, though he found another that has).

MacFarquhar calls her altruists “do-gooders”, a phrase that conveys the ambivalence, even hostility, that such individuals often provoke. This opposition isn’t just resentment at being made to feel selfish by the selflessness of others, and over several chapters she describes its history, from Adam Smith (the pursuit of self-interest results in public good) to Darwin (selfishness is natural) and Freud (selflessness is pathological). A number of her do-gooders are “effective altruists”, part of a movement associated with the philosopher Peter Singer. Its adherents donate a proportion of their income to the cause that saves the greatest number of lives per dollar, rather than to the cause with which they have the greatest emotional connection. One of MacFarquhar’s effective altruists resists her desire to reproduce (children are a drain on resources) until she realises that if her child ends up giving just 10% of her life’s earnings to charity, she will pay back the amount that has been spent raising her.

This level of utilitarianism can seem not just baffling but morally repugnant, because it treats individuals as abstractions, and appears to sideline the very things—love, empathy—that make life worth living. MacFarquhar takes this view seriously, but she also makes it clear that her subjects are not automatons, and at least some of them do what they do because they have an abnormally large capacity for empathy: thinking of the suffering of strangers distresses them as much as thinking of the suffering of a friend or relative. But though they are not able to push this distant suffering out of their minds the way most of us are, their lives do not consist exclusively of endless moral calculations and endless empathetic suffering. They fall in love. They enjoy their work. They like a glass of wine after dinner.

MacFarquhar has spoken in interviews about her admiration for do-gooders, but in “Strangers Drowning” she conceals her feelings until the final chapter, and even then expresses them sparingly. In contrast to her early writing for the New Yorker, in which her acrobatic prose matched her larger-than-life subjects, here her tone is matter-of-fact and her language simple. As much as she can, she gets out of the way, often allowing the do-gooders and their families to take over her narrative voice in a manner more common in fiction. (“She wanted to do big things. God was big and He did big things,” she writes of a pastor, missionary and kidney donor.) Elsewhere, she breaks up the narrative with block quotations.

The result of this self-effacement is that the conversation that takes place is not between the author and her subjects but between her subjects and the reader. I can’t imagine anyone, whether suspicious of do-gooders or suspicious of those suspicious of do-gooders, reading this book and not examining their choices, or making space for moral outlooks that they previously regarded as incomprehensible. “Strangers Drowning” provokes both the calculations and the empathy that it describes.

Strangers Drowning is published on September 29th by Penguin Press in America and by Allen Lane in Britain

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