This has to be the best book I have read so far this year! It is the story of ‘extreme do – gooders’, obsessed altruists who push their lives to ‘moral extremity’, wanting above all to solve the world’s problems in a directly practical way – and to be a good person. They shun worlds of comfort, self indulgence and money, and engage with an extreme ethical commitment that means they must do good above all else. They show little interest in anything other than maximising their behaviour to have a good impact on the world. This ‘driveness’ largely come out of childhood experiences, and often religion. They lack the ability which most (?) of us seem to have to shut out the unbearable sufferings of the world- so we can just get on with our own life! Yet whilst these people face many difficulties, they are sort of happy. I wondered as I read the book if this was perhaps the start of a new field of enquiry: the sociology of ‘goodness’?
Larissa MacFarguahar is a journalist at the New Yorker and her book constructs intriguing third person accounts throughout – bringing her seemingly extraordinary people alive in their complexity; and at the same time she weaves through the book a much wider reading of the philosophers, social scientists, self help advocates and novelists who have been critical of such a stance of the world. It all makes for compelling reading.
Let me sample some of the key unusual and maybe uncommon people who tell their stories in this book. Here is Aaron who devotes his life to animal’s rights and has done a great deal to reduce the sufferings of chickens in the world. Here is Dorothy originally a nurse and now in her mid-80s, who has devoted her life to women’s health and midwifery in Mulukuku, Nicaragua. Her former husband, Charles, was impressed by Ghandi and had devoted his life to peace protests. (He also devised a scheme called the World Equity Budget (WEB), which allowed him to calculate, and live on, his fair share of the world’s wealth: $12,000 a year). We meet a couple, Sue and Hector, who adopt some 20 children, many with profound disabilities and troubled lives. They face one problem after another, but have no reservations at all about doing this. There’s Baba, a risk taker if ever there was one, who found a leper colony in India (and tests his son’s courage by sending him to fetch water at a well where a tiger has been heard roaring. And then there is Kimberley, a devoted church goer, who ends up as a missionary in Mozambique. She donates a kidney to a stranger, even as her act inspires hostility from others. And then there is the Buddhist priest in Japan who counsels people who want to commit suicide only to have them turn on him in his hour of need.
The book takes its title Strangers Drowning from Peter Singer’s ideas on ‘effective giving’, and charity as a purely rationalistic, utilitarian act. Human beings are really morally required to reduce the suffering of others in the most effective ways they can. Hence: if you saw two groups of people drowning – your mother, and two other people, who would you save? Saving your mother has less value than two other people. For me this is a non-starter as an ethical puzzle: I would save my mother. But not so for Singer – and most of the people in this book- for whom a refined moral calculus depends upon a highly rationalized counting system.
Of course, the big issue is whether will go along with this long standing tradition of rational utilitarianism, developed by Jeremy Bentham; and Peter Singer has to be the major and most well known of modern proponents. But this view raises a lot of problems. To start with, what might the world look like if everybody did these extremes acts for others, forsaking their own? As MacFarquhar puts it so pointedly: What would the world look like is everyone thought like a do gooder? (p300). This world would be a very different place from the one we live in now. Indeed it is hard to imagine. In part this is because the human problems of suffering and poverty etc would no longer be here; if the problem is solved , what is to be done? And partly because the very thing we take to be humanity – the muddled, vulnerable, frail little animal – would be no more. Suffering and dealing with problems is actually a key feature of our very humanity. A world where everything gets solved in one way only would not be a very human world.
This lively and highly readable book raises many issues and had given me a lot to think about.