2017: A new dawn is broken


The Second Coming: W.B.Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)

Vote for a Cosmopolitan and Caring World


The horrors of the Daily Mail

The day Jo Cox was murdered, the Daily Mail ran a shrill front page story about migrants, stoking fear and hate in the referendum campaign. The story was plain wrong — but instead of remorsefully retracting it, the Mail just buried a tiny correction in the paper.

Our democracy relies on media that tells the truth, but the Mail’s anti-EU editor, Paul Dacre, has spun a steady stream of misinformation and fear, adding to a climate where rage and xenophobia flourish. This is not what one of Britain’s biggest newspapers should do on such a significant national decision.

But there’s a chance to stop it. Rumours abound that the Mail’s owner Lord Rothermere, who is pro-Europe, sees Dacre as a growing liability, and is considering replacing him. If tens of thousands of us call him out for what he is — the Nigel Farage of newspapers — it could catch on, trigger a broad push and help end this hate media. Click to join this urgent call and share with everyone:



The Editor’s Code of Practice makes clear that newspapers should not publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and Paul Dacre claims to be a champion of a free press. But on Dacre’s watch, the Mail has published stories that say that EU migrants are swamping the NHS, are fuelling a crime wave and that EU membership makes it easier for terrorists to get into Britain. All of which are false.

The Daily Mail at least has a responsibility to tell the truth, and allow more than one perspective in its pages, but it’s getting away with its vitriolic Brexit campaign because no one will take it on. If enough of us flood the owner with messages, we could move him to greater responsibility, and alert readers to the dangers of trusting the Mail.

This is urgent — if the Daily Mail would just tell the truth, and allow some diversity of perspectives, Brexit would be far less likely. Click to call on Dacre’s boss to bring him back into line or remove him — when enough of us sign, we’ll make it a mega story in the Mail’s rival newspapers!


Sociology: The Basic 2nd Edition

Sociology: The Basics

2nd edition

will be published on May 31st

This lively and compact introduction to sociology provides a stimulating and critical guide to the ideas and debates that shape the discipline. The reader is invited to develop a sociological imagination relevant for today’s troubled world. It introduces theory, methods and the history of sociology and is packed with thought-provoking summaries, questions, quotations and activities. It also offers an engaging narrative about the role of sociology in the world showing how social change creates new challenges and how digitalism has brought new questions and methods. Weaving together discussions of the personal and the political, it links concepts and questions to vivid contemporary examples.

This welcome new edition is fully updated with the latest references and data. It engages with current pressing social challenges, such as violence and terrorism; migration; sustainability and the environment; the crisis of capitalism; and deepening social inequalities. With its comprehensive, wide ranging thematic structure, it consolidates its position as the perfect entry-point to the field – supportive of the reader new to sociology while also stimulating those already familiar with some of sociology’s ideas.


A Poetic for Sociology:The Haunting Of Social Things

A Poetic for Sociology

The Haunting Of Social Things

We live the social electric
The air we breathe is social.
The tiny things and the major things.
The social haunting of life in vast time and space.

The social is natural and the natural is social.
We do things together, drenched with people,
attuned to others: there is always the other.
And the haunting of social things.

We make social life stuffed full of the possible
yet we dwell in our habits, the patterns and structures,
the predictable positions we trap ourselves in.
The prisons that engulf us, a daily haunting.

Pounding patterns of structure and wobbly worlds of meaning.
We are prisoners, puppets, and people. Always fragile.
World making actions, and resistance, rebellion-
in worlds not of our making that haunt till we die.

Ubiquitous differences, divisions,dominations: the inhumanities of people.
A haunting ‘matrix of inequalities’: generations at war,
gendered classed races, sexy nations disabled.
And the troubled pathways of excluding and exploiting, dehumanizing and disempowering.

At the brink of a change- a world seething with gushing movements.
Pasts, presents and futures collide in the moment.
Where did it come from and where is it headed?
Cyber capitalisms in global ferment haunting the world.

Standing amazed at this chaos and complexity
of the humanly produced social world;
and its joys and its sufferings,
we celebrate it and we critique these hauntings.

Yet the dreadful dullness of professional knowledge.
Its earnest desire for respectability and order,
abstractions to kill you. Standards to die for.
A dark cloak thrown over the mind.

We need ‘the tricks of the trade’ : practical questions with practical answers.
Rich descriptions and explanations of dense social life.
An intimate familiarity through all the senses.
Explore and respect the empirical world. And look for it hauntings.

We dwell in social tensions, conflicts and contradiction.
Observing schisms, thinking paradox,
and struggling with opposing paths: living with the contradictions.
The hard trick of dealing with them in our lives.

The vast multiplicities of social life: Contested. Contingent. Creative.
And thriving. Progressing. Regressing. Sometimes surviving.
Incorrigibly plural. Intransigently vast.
The complex tales how we order our past.

And the blindness of human beings?
The taken for granted need not be taken for granted.
Doubting the familiar;
living with radical doubt.

Yet all we know is incomplete and open,
Necessarily provisional, partial, perspectival.
Reality is inexhaustible, too complex and dense to be fully comprehended
No finality.  Or closure.

The dream of a better world haunts sociology.
Empowering lives and imagining utopias.
More justice in each generation?
A flourishing life for all?

A dialogue: being personal, being  political?
Passionate knowledge? A garden to cultivate?
A quiet catharsis of comprehension? With the other?
Haunted by doubt, love and hope.

On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide – A review



On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide

By Ethan Mordden

Oxford University Press, New York; xiii, 186 (pp216)

ISBN 978-0199394814

Published January 21st 2016

Stephen Sondheim has been the mover and shaker of the modern musical for the past half-century. Widely honoured and celebrated, his work flags how the musical has evolved and become celebrated as both an intellectual and artistic endeavor. Indeed, there is now a minor academic industry of research and study on his works, instanced by the publication of The Oxford Handbook of Sondheim Studies in 2014. The study of the musical has come of age; scholars now research its genealogies, structures, and forms; courses and studies have started to take it seriously.

Newcomers and aficionados alike will welcome Ethan Mordden’s slim “Opinionated Guide’. Widely known for his gay novels, Mordden is a seasoned and intimate interpreter of the Broadway Musical (with seven idiosyncratic works chronicling its history, and culminating with Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre.). This book displays his own quirky engagement with Sondheim, primarily providing core tours of each of the 18 main works, and linking up with guides to recordings, films and publications.

He starts his short book with a mighty disclaimer: “This is not a reference work. A superb database is available online at www. sondheimguide. com.” So now we know what not to expect: he has passed this main task to others! And this leaves him free for a personal “positioning “ of Sondheim in Western art, music and theatre. Situating his life in the context of his mentors and the idea of the “Concept Musical”, his main task is to provide a key tour of each of the eighteen major works. Each essay is eruditely readable and brief: the shortest coming in at only four pages (Assassins and The Frogs), the longest (A Little Night Music) at a mere ten pages. But each chapter is a provocation, a forensic analysis, and an intimate immersion. He aims for a fresh look and he surely succeeds.

Mordden sees Sondheim as the creator of “experimental musicals”, persistently straining to break conventions and transforming musical theatre in striking ways. Thus, being a trained classical composer, Sondheim turned away from the usual disdain for the musical to mischievously embrace it. His music often soars to new heights, his scores becoming unusually complex and moving dramatically with plot and character. Equally, from his earliest works (starting with the biggest early “hits” West Side Story and Gypsy), he becomes a witty and lucid lyricist as well as its analyst (his two volumes of lyrics (1954-2011) have already become the classic for lyric writing). Indeed there are very few in the musical world that can combine lyrics and music together in their work (Noel Coward and Cole Porter being major exceptions). But more than this: Sondheim is also a pioneer of the ‘playwriting’ of musicals, advancing their dramatic elements further than ever before while also tackling stories with unusually serious content. His works range from ‘art’ (Sunday in the Park with George) to cannibalistic murder (Sweeney Todd); from the ghosts of Follies to the desires of Passion; from fairly tales (Into the Woods) to Japanese history (Pacific Overtures), presidential Assassinations, and much more. Sondheim uses diverse sources for his books and radically plays with time, plot, character, ideas and staging.

Ultimately Mordden shows how the craft of doing musicals has changed enormously in the past decades. The experimental “putting it together” of music, lyrics, drama and stage has become a major new art form. And this serves as a lively introduction to it.

Published in The Times Higher Education Supplement



Remembering John Gagnon



On Thursday February 11 2016, my dear friend, mentor and guru John Gagnon died at the age of 84. He had experienced problems with his leg and his eye, but the final period starting in October brought a terminal pancreatic cancer. He has been an inspiration and will be loved and missed by many. An early obituary has been published (on February 25th) in the New York Times. (see

There will be plenty of times ahead to reflect on John’s enormous contribution to sociology and how he, along with the late and also much loved Bill Simon, laid down the foundation for what is now – forty years on – a flourishing and exuberant ‘critical sexualities studies’ in the social sciences and an underbelly of critique of modern sexology. John and Bill – initially working together at the Kinsey Institute- developed the core of a new way of thinking about sexualities, one which put the social and the cultural at its heart. A major critic of sexology, a pioneer of Gay studies, one of the earliest researchers on HIV /AIDS, John was a serious intellectual about sexualities. I have written an obituary for the journal Sexualities where I will discuss his intellectual achievements. See the obituary here. But here I glance back at just a few more personal memories. (John wrote his own autobiographical reflections some years ago, revealing a great deal about his past: his poor background, his late arrival at Chicago, his early work at the Kinsey Institute etc.– see Authors of Our Own Lives, edited by Bennett Berger (1990).)


I first met John, through a mutual friend, Michael Schofield, in the early 1970s when I was a very young graduate student and John was visiting London and staying at Wayland Young’s house at 100 Bayswater Road. It was quite an intimidating experience for a very young starting graduate student.  John was a big man: a striking presence, a massive intellect, an expansive speaker. He also loomed very large in my mind as the author of the most exciting writings on sexuality I had ever read. I recall being very quiet and somewhat overwhelmed.

I did not get to know him much better on my second encounter. John was a visiting fellow at Churchill, Cambridge and was willing to examine my PhD at the LSE. He was very warm and friendly; but John got so engaged in conversation with Paul Rock, my supervisor, that they spent much of the time debating the thesis between themselves (and leaving me way behind!). Made my viva easy!

It was not really till ten years later, when he arrived at Essex University as a visitor from the State University of New York at Stony Brook for a year that we really got to know each other well and became really good friends. It is the time when I also met Cathy Greenblatt (John’s second wife, and a distinguished sociologist and photographer herself, who shared her life with him for nearly forty years, and lovingly looked after him). John stayed in our Wivenhoe house and evenings and breakfasts were full of endless conversation, discussion and intellectual chat. John was a charm, a delightful, easy and warm conversationalist. I learnt so much from him not just about sexualities; his reading was expansive and he talked about art more than sociology; and he could also explain to me the elitisms of academic life in the USA. The following year, we continued our friendship, as I, in turn, became a visiting Prof at Stony Brook! So two years saw a very close bond develop. In these years I learnt so much about the seriousness of John’s intellectual talents – and the generosity of his spirit. I also realised he had a very extensive network of friends, families and admirers.

We kept in touch over the years. On John’s retirement he moved with Cathy to Nice and we visited them there (the photos accompanying this piece were taken there). He was re reading Proust and much of our time was spent in a gourmet world of good food (another love of John’s). John had a passion for France – Cathy even more so. They were good years: but John was tiring- walking was becoming more difficult, and his eyesight was weakening. They moved to the warmer Palm Springs: sadly I never visited him there. Our last meeting was in London a couple of years back. A good lunch: his mind as lively as ever, but his body clearly failing.

John trod the paths of ambivalence – the up and down roads of an intellectual maverick. On a good day, everything he said was brilliant and he was kind, loving and generous. On a bad day he seemed to remove himself from the social. He certainly had little time for fancy ideas or the latest trend. He was no fan of Foucault or Butler! As he said once of Foucault: “What Foucault does is too texty; its too parochially French.. he is not very new except to folks who are not well read in history and the other social sciences’ I might add that I don’t think he had much time for Bordieu and his followers either! They were all trends to come and go with later generations…

John published a lot but I think he found writing difficult. Despite his enormous influence, I think he was disappointed that he never made a bigger mark! Writing was, I think, a bit of a struggle. As one of his heroes Philip Roth says: “Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn’t completely wreck your life.” But beyond this, John was a spectacular discussant. He loved conversation and was a brilliant conversationalist. I recall being at a major conference a few years ago where the discussion was faltering and big problems were being faced: someone said: “Oh where is John Gagnon when we most need him most?”. He was needed for his stunning sharpness, his curious flair for argument, his genuinely original, creative insights. And his loving attentive kindness to others.

He will be much missed

My heart goes out to Cathy and all the family and friends. She has set up a Caringbridge.Com Web Site for memories. If you want to leave one, simply go to the web site Caring Bridge Com, register and search for John’s name.




Some words from John to reflect upon

No play without a script : we see sexual behavior therefore as scripted behavior, not the masked expression of a primordial drive.
Psychosexual Development 1969

All conduct is scripted , and ..scripting theory is not merely to be applied to sexual conduct, but to all social conduct’

Therefore, the authors reject the unproven assumption that “powerful” psychosexual drives are fixed biological attributes. More importantly, we reject the even more dubious assumption that sexual capacities or experiences tend to translate immediately into a kind of universal “knowing” or innate wisdom – that sexuality has a magical ability, possessed by no other capacity, that allows biological drives to be expressed directly in psychosocial and social behaviors. Pyschosexual Development 1969

There are many ways to become, to be, to act, to feel sexual. There is no one human sexuality, but rather a wide variety of sexualities’. John Gagnon, Sexual Conduct 1977, preface).

We have allowed the homosexual’s object choice to dominate and control our imagery of him……..(we will) only begin to understand [ through]… those complex matrices wherein most human behaviour is fashioned’….. Formulation, 1967.

In any given society, at any given moment in its history, people become sexual in the same way as they become everything else. Without much reflection, they pick up direction from their social environment. They acquire and assemble meanings, skills and values from the people around them. Their critical choices are often made by going along and drifting. People learn when they are quite young a few of the things they are expected to be, and continue slowly to accumulate a belief in who they are and ought to be throughout the rest of childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Sexual conduct is learned in the same ways and through the same processes; it is acquired and assembled in human interaction, judged and performed in specific cultural and historical worlds. John Gagnon Human Sexualities 1977: p2)

There was no magic in the world… the world is no longer enchanted, and it cannot be enchanted again. And the search for enchantment in sexuality must end in failure……. Ssp284

The critical posture to maintain is that the future will not be better or worse, only different’. P233 sc2. P233.

It is abnormal to think scientifically. Most thought processes, as you go through the world, are impressions and fragments and pieces. You have to create an environment in which linear and highly coherent thought can go forward; you find a quite room, you close the doors, you turn on your computer, you look at the screen, you type. You pretend there is nothing else going on in your head. But that describes a specialized environment of a very specialized form of thinking…… ssp280

John produced some 15 books and over 100 articles. Here are a few of the key books  ….

2005     Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources Of Sexual Conduct (Second Edition). Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Books, 2005 (With William Simon.)

2004 An Interpretation Of Desire. Chicago: The University Of Chicago Press, 2004.

1994 The Social Organization Of Sexuality. Chicago; The University Of Chicago Press. (Co­author With Edward Laumann, Robert Michael And Stuart Michaels.) (Received The Gordon Laing Award For The Book That Added The Most Distinction To The List Of The University Of Chicago In 1995)

1977 Human Sexualities. Glenview: Scott Foresman, 1977, 432 Pp.

1973 Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources Of Human Sexuality. Chicago: Aldine Books, 1973, 316 Pp. (With William Simon) (This Work Is Still In Print).

1967 Sexual Deviance: A Reader, Edited With An Introduction Written With William Simon. New York: Harper And Row, 1967, 310 Pp. (Reprinted In JJ. Harper Edition,



And so:  a little poem for John. It is dark; but I think he would have liked it.

Dirge Without Music

Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Dirge Without Music” from Collected Poems 1928

Nine Years On: A Transplanted Life

This week marks the ninth anniversary of my liver transplant;  I have had nine more years of life than could have been expected in past times.

I remain in awe at this life saving procedure and in permanent gratitude to my donor.

But still there are many problems. There aren’t enough organs: up to 1,000 people die every year due to a shortage of organs for transplant, that is 3 people every day; and while 96% of people in the UK believe in donating organs only 30% are on the donor register. So if you haven’t thought about it , maybe this is the time?



This year I highlight a small piece of writing from my transplant pages – the fuller version can be found at https://kenplummer.com/transplants/

Illness as altruism: on the kindness of strangers

The ways in which society organises and structures its social institutions.. can encourage or discourage the altruistic in man

Richard Titmuss, The Gift Relationship

There is a wonderful and well-known line towards the end of Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire when Blanche Du Bois, the anti-heroine, is being taken off gently to the mental hospital and she proclaims that she has ‘always depended on the kindness of strangers’. In my mind, this statement always hovers close to another: Sartre’s equally famous statement in his play Huit Clos (No Exit): that ‘hell is other people’. We live with kindness and cruelty: both at the same time. But in my illness I saw much more of the kindness of strangers.

More than anything, the transplant showed me the supreme gift of a stranger, unknown to me, who enabled me to live. She donated her body to a complete stranger. And this stranger was me ( but there were a few of us: her body parts helped to saved a number of lives). Without her I would simply not be here. And nowadays across the world every day people engage in these major acts of altruism, giving their body parts for the love of humankind. Millions are doing it.

Long ago, just as I was graduating, the eminent social scientist Richard Titmuss wrote a book called The Gift Relationship. It was about the different bases for donating blood – some countries like the UK depend entirely upon volunteers, while others like the USA, depend much more on the cash market. I read it when I started teaching and it posed the key question: should our welfare be subject to market forces or should it be directed by the wider and more humane ideas of care, altruism and benevolence? I believed the latter then and I believe it even more now. I hate the idea that the modern world has turned our health and our bodies into a commodity to be bought and sold. This most cherished gift should be kept out of the market; and not least because with this market there comes a continuing gulf between the rich and the poor – with the poor selling- their body parts in many poorer countries so that the rich in other parts of the world may live. (And if you don’t believe me, have a look at the brilliant work of Nancy Scheper-Hughes, the cultural anthropologist, on all this. See ‘The Organ Detective … ).

But my enhanced sense of altruism did not just arise from the supreme life gift of the donor. I was also struck throughout my illness by the ways in which people in general care, support, even loved me. It was rare that I encountered a harsh word, or an unkind comment. I did, of course; but overwhelmingly the experience was one of being engulfed in the kindness of everyone; and the special love of those nearest and dearest – my partner, family friends and significant others.

The idea of altruism is a very complex one with a long philosophical debate behind it: paradoxically, altruism and self-interest seem to move hand in hand – we are selfish altruists. Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments put these tensions forward very vividly.

Tapping into what I sense to be a widespread altruism, I believe that the way ahead for the supply and organisation of donor organs lies in the system known as ‘presumed consent’ in which potential donors have to take specific ‘opt out’ actions to be excluded from organ donation (rather than requiring specific actions to be included). This is a system that brings its own problems, but it is found working well now in several European countries (including Spain, Belgium and Austria). It is a system recommended for the UK (in a report chaired by Elizabeth Buggins, The potential impact of an opt out system for organ donation in the UK: 2008: see http://www.odt.nhs.uk/pdf/the-potential-impact-of-an-opt-out-system-for-organ-donation-in-the-UK.pdf) but so far it has only been implemented in Wales. On 1 December 2015, Wales became the first UK country to introduce a soft opt-out system for organ and tissue donation. I believe there are obvious good practical reasons for this – more organs becoming available and the end of the shortage; but also good human ones too. It flags, symbolically, a culture that is concerned compassionately for others.

Market worlds, caring worlds

During my illness, I came to see more clearly and much more sharply a key divide in the modern world. It is quite simply between those who espouse market values and see the importance of competition, consumption and selling and those who espouse caring values who stress the importance of mutuality, sharing and looking after each other. Of course they are not mutually exclusive and can run in tandem with each other. But in general market values are given an overwhelming priority – in business, in governments, and increasingly in welfare – schools, hospitals, prisons etc are all now opened up to market values. Everything is given a cost, a silly business plan, monitored, and put into completion with everything else. Economics favours such a view with its belief in rational man who is always pursuing self-interest. At its worst, it creates a society of envy, greed, corruption, inequalities. Unfortunately, over the last twenty years of my life this view has been overwhelmingly the ascendant and dominant view- often called Thatcherism or neo-liberalism, and identified strongly with the rule of capitalism. Many books and much research has demonstrated the horrors that such practices have produced.

By contrast, when I was ill I kept finding people who were not ‘in it for self and money’; nurses for example in the main are dedicated to hard work and care for little tangible pay off. Of course they want more – and no wonder when their human worth is matched so poorly when compared to the ever-expanding army of sport and media celebrities paid fortunes for little talent. Doctors too- though they do get paid good compensation – are nevertheless overwhelmingly dedicated to their calling. The endless monitoring of them weakens trust in government interventions. More than this, I found all kinds of casual evidence that people wanted to do good, to help me along, to give support – from closest friends to distant strangers. Of course self-interest is often close by, but altruism is indeed to be found in many places in the modern world. And my point is that this is the unsung underside of the market structures. We give all our attention to money making and consumption, when in families and hospitals, communities and homes, schools and colleges there are millions of people who put human values of care and engagement with others way ahead of the values of the markets. Often living on a pittance and frequently belittled – the ‘shit workers’ of the care world – they are the unsung heroes of the modern world. We need to reconsider who we should be really valuing. Carers need more pay, and more recognition as the truly important people of a society.

Transplant surgery and organ donating is a potent symbol for generosity, caring and altruism. It tells the story of laying down one’s own body to help a stranger. The donor-transplantation world is embedded in the potential for human kindness. To turn it over to the market is a tragedy of colossal proportions.


A book to start the year with……





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.