excerpt from 'Strangers Drowning'

Strangers Drowning

By Larissa MacFarquhar

Penguin Press

Copyright © 2016 Larissa MacFarquhar
All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59420-433-3


A young man and an older man — a philosophy professor and his student — are having lunch together in a Thai restaurant in New Jersey.

YOUNG MAN: I'm not sure what the world would be like if everyone thought like me. In college we were given the thought experiment, Should you save your mother from drowning, or two strangers? I think I should save the strangers, but I would probably be too weak to, because I love my mom. And maybe it's good to have this disposition where you love your mom. I don't know what the world would be like if everyone saved the strangers rather than their mother. When I read books on Buddhism, and monks are talking about problems like this, they don't think of it as caring less for your mother — they think about it as caring about strangers more. And if you care about the strangers and your mother equally, it's just a numbers game at that point. But it's not a cold and calculating thing, it's extending empathy to others.

The young man's face is mostly blank. On first impression he seems to be deeply recessed inside himself — a person whose emotions are compressed under heavy strata of ideas about altruism and rationality and philosophical precision. But if he is questioned about his views on suffering, this word will recall to his mind facts he has encountered in books about terrible things endured by nameless human beings hundreds of years ago, or by prey animals in the wild, and the horror of this remote information will overcome him to the point where he starts to cry. What appears at first to be an absence of emotion then appears to be a need to control overwhelming emotion that is apt to surface without warning.

OLDER MAN: But that's impossible. If you're going to care the same about everybody, you're going to care less about your mother. You're not going to be able to care the same about everybody as you care about your children.

The professor is thin and bearded; he has children.

YOUNG MAN: Depends on what you mean by caring.

OLDER MAN: It does depend on what you mean by caring, but to make your view plausible, caring is going to have to be divorced from feeling — it's going to have to be a disposition to act, or something like that. I mean, just imagine that you cared about everyone in the world the way you care about your own child. You would know that there were people dying horrible, painful deaths all the time, and if you felt about that the way you would feel about your own child's horrible, painful death, you'd be completely paralyzed with grief and anguish and wouldn't be able to go on living.

YOUNG MAN: I don't think that's obvious. Suppose one of your children has died and the other child is about to die. You're not going to be paralyzed — you're going to do your best to save your other child.

OLDER MAN: Yes. But I know that there are thousands of people in the world dying horrible deaths right now, and if I cared about each of those people the way I care about my own child, life would be intolerable. The Buddhist monks are wrong. I think it's very hard to understand the extremes of human caring until you've been a parent.


Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.

-FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY, The Brothers Karamazov

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.

This person has a sense of duty that is very strong — so strong that he's able to repress most of his baser impulses in order to do what he believes to be right. This is a struggle, but one that he usually wins. He rarely permits himself time off from his work, and spends little money on himself so he has more to give away. He has his joys and pleasures but they must fit — they must gain admittance. Because of this, there is a certain rigidity and a focused narrowness to the way he lives: his life makes ordinary existence seem flabby and haphazard. The standards to which he holds himself and the emotions he cultivates — care for strangers, a degree of detachment from family in order to care for those strangers, indifference to low pleasures — can seem inhumanly lofty, and separate him from other people.

The life of a zealous do-gooder is a kind of human sublime — by which I mean that, although there is a hard beauty in it, the word "beautiful" doesn't capture the ambivalence it stirs up. A beautiful object — a flower, a stream — is pleasing in a gentle way, inspiring a feeling that is like love. A sublime object, such as a mountain or a rough sea, inspires awe, but also dread. Confronting it, you see its formidable nobility, and at the same time you sense uncomfortably that you would not survive in it for long. It is this sense of sublime that I mean to apply to do-gooders: to confront such a life is to feel awe mixed with unease — a sense that you wouldn't survive in that life for long, and might not want to.

The do-gooder is both more and less free than other people. In the usual sense of the word he is less free, because he believes it's his duty to act in certain ways, and he has to do his duty. But in an older sense he is more free, because he can control himself, so his intentions aren't frustrated by weaknesses that he'd rather not have. He knows that if he makes a promise he will keep it; that if a thing is right he will do it; that he will not turn away because something seems too hard. Because of this, his life is what he intends it to be.

The usual way to do good is to help those who are near you: a person grows up in a particular place, perceives that something is wrong there, and sets out to fix it. Or a person's job suddenly requires heroism of him and he rises to the occasion — he might be a priest whose church becomes a refuge in wartime, or a nurse working in a hospital at the start of a plague. Either way, he is taking care of his own, trying to make their lives better — lives that he understands because they are like his. He may not know personally the people he's helping, but he has something in common with them — they are, in some sense, his people. There's an organic connection between him and his work.

Then there's another sort of person, who starts out with something more abstract — a sense of injustice in the world at large, and a longing for goodness as such. This person wants to live a just life, feels obliged to right wrongs or relieve suffering, but he doesn't know right away how to do that, so he sets himself to figuring it out. He doesn't feel that he must attend first to people close to him: he is moved not by a sense of belonging but by the urge to do as much good as he can. There is no organic, necessary connection between him and his work — it doesn't choose him, he chooses it. The do-gooders I'm talking about are this second sort of person. They're not better or worse than the first sort, but they are rarer and harder to understand. It can seem unnatural to look away from one's own people toward a moral idea, but for these do-gooders it's not: it's natural for them.

The first sort of person doesn't provoke the discomfort that do-gooders do. The first sort of person is often called a hero, and "hero" is a much less ambivalent word than "do-gooder." (I'm using the word here in a modern, colloquial sense — I'm not talking about Achilles.) A hero of this type comes upon a problem and decides to help. He is moved to do so by compassion for something he sees, something outside himself. When he's not helping, he returns to his ordinary life. Because of this, his noble act isn't felt as a reproach: You couldn't have done what he did because you weren't there — you aren't part of his world. You can always imagine that you would have done what he did if you had been there — after all, the hero is an ordinary person like you.

The do-gooder, on the other hand, knows that there are crises everywhere, all the time, and he seeks them out. He is not spontaneous — he plans his good deeds in cold blood. He may be compassionate, but compassion is not why he does what he does — he committed himself to helping before he saw the person who needs him. He has no ordinary life: his good deeds are his life. This makes him good; but it can also make him seem perverse — a foul-weather friend, a kind of virtuous ambulance chaser. And it's also why do-gooders are a reproach: you know, as the do-gooder knows, that there is always, somewhere, a need for help.

The term "do-gooder" is, of course, often demeaning. It can mean a silly or intrusive person who tries to do good but ends up only meddling. It can mean someone who seems annoyingly earnest, or priggish, or self-righteous, or judgmental. Benjamin Franklin gave up his quest for moral perfection when he realized "that such extream nicety as I exacted of myself might be a kind of foppery in morals, which, if it were known, would make me ridiculous; that a perfect character might be attended with the inconvenience of being envied and hated; and that a benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself to keep his friends in countenance."

But even when "do-gooder" simply means a person who does good deeds, there's still some skepticism, even antagonism, in it. One reason may be guilt: nobody likes to be reminded, even implicitly, of his own selfishness. Another is irritation: nobody likes to be told, even implicitly, how he should live his life, or be reproached for how he is living it. And nobody likes to be the recipient of charity. But that's not the whole story. There's a certain suspicion of do-gooders who work in NGOs, because aid money is often wasted and sometimes harms the people it's supposed to help. But that's not the whole story, either.

Ambivalence toward do-gooders also arises out of a deep uncertainty about how a person ought to live. 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? Is it right to care for strangers at the expense of your own people? Is it good to bind yourself to a severe morality that constricts spontaneity and freedom? Is it possible for a person to hold himself to unforgiving standards without becoming unforgiving? Is it presumptuous, even blasphemous, for a person to imagine that he can transfigure the world — or to believe that it really matters what he does in his life when he's only a tiny flickering speck in a vast universe? Should morality be the highest human court — the one whose ruling overrides all others?

The philosopher Susan Wolf has written that a morally perfect person would be an unappealing, alien creature, driven not by the loves and delights of ordinary people but by an unnatural devotion to duty. In a life devoted only to duty, there's no room for art and little for enjoyment. "Morality itself," she writes, "does not seem to be a suitable object of passion." (It is a measure of how peculiar do-gooders have come to seem that a moral philosopher finds it unnatural to feel a passion for morality as such — and Wolf is not the only one who feels this way. A passion for morality is a passion for goodness — something like a secular version of a passion for God — and that did not used to seem so strange.) Wolf argues that if the ideal of the saintly do-gooder is not one we truly aspire to — if we feel that, in their strangeness or self-suppression, such people are missing some crucial human quality; if we believe, in other words, that the moral ideal is not a human ideal — then we should revise our ideas about the place of morality in life. Morality should not be the highest human court — the one whose ruling overrides all others.

So, yes, in the ambivalence toward do-gooders there can be petty defensiveness — resentment of being reproached and having to justify one's choices. There can be petty annoyance — irritation with earnestness or self-righteousness or priggishness. But there are also powerful forces that push against do-gooders which have nothing to do with any of those things, and which are not petty at all. Some of these forces are among the most fundamental, vital, and honorable urges of human life.

For instance: there is family and there are strangers. The do-gooder has a family like anyone else. If he doesn't have children, he has parents. But he holds himself to moral commitments that are so stringent and inflexible that they will at some point conflict with his caring for his family. Then he has to decide what to do.

To most people, it's obvious that they owe far more to family than to strangers. That's part of the very idea of family — family means those to whom you owe more. It might seem that caring for your family is the very heart of morality: charity begins at home. In some situations, it's true, preferring your family is called nepotism and is bad; in other situations, preferring your family is called incest and is very bad. But to most people, most of the time, the choice between family and strangers is no choice at all: caring for strangers' children as much as your own, say, would seem not so much difficult as unnatural, even monstrous. But the do-gooder doesn't believe his family deserves better than anyone else's. He loves his more, but he knows that other people love their families just as much. To a do-gooder, taking care of family can seem like a kind of moral alibi — something that may look like selflessness, but is really just an extension of taking care of yourself.

Political movements and religious orders have always known that a certain distance from the claims of family — sometimes to the point of celibacy or abandonment — is necessary for a total commitment to something larger. Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son; Agamemnon was ready to sacrifice his daughter; Buddha left his family behind. Saint Francis was brutal to his parents; Gandhi was brutal to his wife. Jesus says, in Luke: "If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple." Sometimes the claims of actual family have been not explicitly rejected so much as incorporated into spiritual family, to the point of disappearance: all humans become brothers; God becomes a husband.

A do-gooder might not go so far as hatred or abandonment, but the fact that he even asks himself how much he should do for his family and how much for strangers — weighing the two together in the same balance — may seem already a step too far. And not all religions permit the neglect of family for the sake of strangers. Under Sharia law, a Muslim must bequeath two thirds of his estate to his family, unless the family agrees otherwise. Sa'd Ibn Abi Waqqas, a wealthy convert, asked Mohammad whether he should leave two thirds of his estate to charity, since he possessed so much and had only one daughter; the prophet told him he should give away no more than one third lest he leave his daughter destitute. A Jew, by tradition, is obliged to give ten percent of his income to the poor, but must give no more than twenty percent, lest his family become poor itself, a public burden. In the Mishnah it is written: "If a man assigned his estate to strangers and leaves out his children, his arrangements are legally valid but the spirit of the Sages finds no delight in him."

Gandhi believed that the seeker after goodness is obliged to forswear close friendships and exclusive loves, because loyalty may tempt him to wrongdoing, and detracts from an impartial love of all mankind. Reviewing Gandhi's memoir, George Orwell found this belief repellent. He wrote:

The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. ... It is too readily assumed ... that the ordinary man only rejects [saintliness] because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.


Excerpted from Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar. Copyright © 2016 Larissa MacFarquhar. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press.
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