Larissa MacFarquhar, Brooklyn, 2015

Philip Gourevitch

Larissa MacFarquhar, Brooklyn, 2015

In Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar focuses on extreme behavior of a particular kind, that of what one might call moral outliers. These are people who are motivated to act in extraordinary ways to alleviate the suffering of others with whom they otherwise have no ties.

It’s a normal human response to be disturbed by the very fact of suffering. Our strongest feelings of empathy may be aroused by those closest to us, but we are not entirely unmoved by the stories of misery that greet us everyday in the newspaper: “Winter Poses New Danger for Migrants,” “Migrant Suffocations in Truck Near Hungary Reveal Tactics of Smugglers.”

But for most of us our disturbances are contained; they don’t take over our lives. It is a sorry fact about our world that there is a great deal of suffering, so much of which could be alleviated, and we deplore it. But our attention isn’t fixated on the sorry fact, or we couldn’t live as we do, couldn’t give ourselves to our own goals and projects, some of which might even be worthwhile.

MacFarquhar is interested in people who are different, whose attention is consumed by the sorry fact, or at least some aspect of it, of suffering by people with whom they have no immediate connection. Just as most of us can’t allow the sorry fact to overtake us, these people can’t help but be overtaken. In the face of it, they may slight not only their own well-being but the well-being of those who are closest to them, not allowing the mere contingencies of relationship to detract from the intensity of their attention—much, for example, as outliers in the sciences or the arts may do with respect to their work (and even feeling morally justified in doing so).

The attention of the leading characters in MacFarquhar’s book takes the form of specific moral projects—ministering to the hikikomori of Japan, reclusive adolescents or adults who have entirely withdrawn from social life, in order to prevent suicides; adopting unwanted children; reducing the suffering of factory-farmed animals; working in high-paying jobs for the sole purpose of giving away most of their money. Their sense of themselves is shaped by their moral projects. It is what they live for.

MacFarquhar calls these outliers “do-gooders,” making it clear from the onset that it is only the extremes of behavior that interest her:

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.

The larger part of MacFarquhar’s book offers us profiles of do-gooders, shaped into engrossing narratives that reach from their childhood into the emergence of specific moral preoccupations that then lead to their life- defining projects. Because she is interested in outliers, their individual stories are, even from childhood, different from the stories of most of us in the same way the stories of, say, geniuses are. Her subjects, MacFarquhar writes,

are driven by a sense of duty they felt since they were too small to know what duty was, much less how anybody else thought about it. The people they came from thought they were as weird and extreme as anyone else did. They didn’t come from a community or join a movement in which their sacrifice was normal, part of the order of things.

Although MacFarquhar’s subjects are all alike in being acutely affected by the fact of suffering, there is much variety among them, not only in the kinds of life projects they choose but in their reasons for choosing them, the kinds of intuitions and rationales that move them. Some are religious, some not, and a few are hostile to religion. Some are impulsive and emotional in their moral decisions, others deliberate and reflective. Some have sophisticated moral theories through which they filter their decisions, others have nothing approaching a theory, and their decisions can appear inexplicable, even to themselves.

In fact, the variety among them is such that not every one of them would agree that all the others are truly pursuing “moral goodness for its own sake.” This indicates a degree of vagueness in various central concepts that seem to be wandering at large in the book—like “moral goodness for its own sake” or “the ethical life”—and this vagueness poses a problem. It is not quite clear just what MacFarquhar’s own aims for her book are. Does she mean to simply fascinate us by the extreme forms that human nature can take or accomplish something more by way of her profiles?


Among her subjects are, for example, Sue and Hector Badeau, who, in addition to their own two birth children, adopted twenty children with special needs all but guaranteeing that no other family would want them. These included three children with conditions that doomed them to early deaths, so that the couple voluntarily assumed the greatest grief that most of us can imagine. The Badeaus, who are religious, “prayed on” their decisions to adopt children, and also allowed themselves to be swayed by how personally drawn they felt to the stories and even to the pictures of the children.

These were highly emotional decisions, mysterious even to them. “It’s hard to explain,” said Hector. “It was like instant love.” Sue adds, ”It was as if they already were our kids, but they were somehow not with us and we had to go get them.”

Another of MacFarquhar’s subjects is Murlidhar Amte, known as Baba, who was born into a privileged Brahmin family in India and was something of a bon vivant in his early years, with characteristic intensity, including pursuing a great many adventures and pleasures. He reacted violently against his family’s Hinduism, against conventions of any kind, and he retained his hostility toward organized religion throughout his life.

One rainy evening, Baba encountered a leper in the last stages of disfigurement lying at the side of the road, a person barely human, and his first reaction was revulsion and terror. He was mortified by his cowardice, he who had always thought himself fearless, who had been praised by Gandhi himself for fearlessness. His less than heroic reaction preyed on him, even provoking self-hatred, until he decided to expunge the shame by embracing his fear.

He founded a leper colony in the middle of a jungle in India, eagerly testing the limits of his own endurance. Baba’s moral views emerged in response to his work and revolved around the importance of suffering:

He realized that it was not just the alleviation of suffering that excited him but the suffering itself…. Pain broke a man open and let other people in; suffering was at the core of what it meant to be human.

Then there is a Massachusetts couple, Julia Wise and Jeff Kaufman, who, identifying with the movement known as “effective altruism,” figure out the bare minimum of money they require and donate the rest to charities calculated to deliver the maximum reduction of human misery per dollar spent.

Effective altruism is a movement that has a great deal of moral philosophy behind it, prominently associated with the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer as well as other philosophers.1 Effective altruism rests on utilitarianism, a theory that goes back to such nineteenth-century philosophers as Jeremy Bentham, William Godwin, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick, and according to which an action is morally justified if it results in the greatest utility for the greatest number of people—where utility might be assessed as happiness or pleasure or the satisfaction of preferences. However utility is to be defined, it is to be spread around the maximum number of individuals, and it is this outcome that a person must consider in deciding how to act, according no more weight to how she personally will be affected by her action than to any of the other affected individuals.

Utilitarianism has its more and less severe forms, where the less severe—advocated by Sidgwick himself, often acknowledged as the best of the utilitarian theorists—allows a person some leeway in honoring what Bernard Williams called “such things as the disposition to tell the truth, to be loyal to one’s friends, to feel a particular affection and concern for one’s own children and other such items.”2 The utilitarianism that underlies effective altruism is of the more severe variety.

Julia Wise’s embrace of effective altruism turns the decision to have a child into an agonizing process:

Once Julia opened herself up to the thought that children might not be necessary—once she moved them, as it were, to a different column in her moral spreadsheet, from essential to discretionary—she realized just how enormous a line item a child would be. Children would be the most expensive nonessential thing she could possibly possess, so by having children of her own she would be in effect killing other people’s children.

This moral dilemma is solved for Julia when her husband computed how much a child of theirs would need to give away of her own income over her expected lifetime (around 10 percent) in order for her charitable contributions to offset what her parents didn’t donate because they’d spent the money raising her.


These three examples give a sense of the wide range of moral characters and dispositions exemplified by MacFarquhar’s do-gooders, as well as of their meriting the description of outliers. What joins them are the characteristics that MacFarquhar has built into her notion of the do-gooder, not only their life’s focus on the sorry fact of the world’s suffering, but the refusal to let personal relationships (including their own personal identity) dissipate their focus. Those who set out “to live as ethical a life as possible,” who are drawn “to moral goodness for its own sake,” will not allow the natural feelings they have toward their own loved ones to overly influence them, any more than they allow the natural feelings they have for their own selves to overly influence them. Impartiality—austere, though not necessarily dispassionate—is, for MacFarquhar, a necessary condition for those she categorizes as do-gooders. (Indeed she seems to regard austere impartiality as a necessary condition for the moral life itself.)

This doesn’t mean, of course, that all of her do-gooders are utilitarians. Although utilitarians (of the severe variety) demand austere impartiality, not all those who demand austere impartiality are utilitarians.3

So, for example, consider Baba, who is decidedly a nonutilitarian, whether in practice or theory. Still, he conducted himself with austere impartiality, both toward himself and toward his loved ones. He offered himself as a human guinea pig in the service of finding a cure for leprosy, getting injected with the leprosy bacillus, for which, as it happened, he carried natural immunity (as do most of us, a fact only subsequently discovered). He also married a woman who sympathized with his aspirations and had children who were raised to accommodate themselves to their parents’ unbending standards, exposed not only to the dangers of catching leprosy but to being eaten alive by panthers. One of his sons, left so completely on his own while Baba and his wife ministered to the lepers, amused himself by playing with scorpions in the absence of toys.

Given the extremes of behavior on which MacFarquhar has set her sights, we can expect her profiles to be fascinating, and they are. But does she have aims beyond those of merely fascinating us? It appears that she has two. (I say “appears” because her prose, heavily narrative, tends to obscure her aims.)

The first is to try to show us that people with extreme moral commitments do not form an empty category—that is, there truly are people whose lives are shaped by their ethical aspirations, whatever they may be. She aims to absolve do-gooders of the cynical interpretation that sees them as either masochists or manipulators, as either self-deceivers or even more sinister and pernicious, unfit to even be considered models for others. Her second aim is to consider them as possible models that people might follow. She presents them to us so that we might rethink our own lives.

Obviously her second aim demands that she fulfill her first. If the category of people who live outside the usual assumptions is empty—if it is never really ethical aspirations that are behind such extreme behavior—then there’s no need to consider what implications these outliers might have for our own lives. In three chapters, intermittently spaced, she considers what she calls “the undermining of do-gooders.” She presents the dismissive views of Anna Freud and the French psychoanalyst André Green, “detailing the louche displacements of the ego that delighted in renunciation.” She describes the movement against “codependency,” which analyzes would-be saviors as suffering as much from a species of addiction as those whom they would save, keeping sufferers in thrall to their suffering so that they can feel useful or powerful.

The last of her three chapters chronicling the undermining of do-gooders explores the attitudes of novelists, ranging from Charles Dickens to Hilary Mantel. “If there is one place more than any other where do-gooders are set up as enemies of humanness, it is in fiction, particularly in modern novels,” writes MacFarquhar. A novelist’s loyalty is to human life itself, the gloriously pulsating uncontainable exuberance of it, in comparison to which a do-gooder’s moral extremism, which would sacrifice so much of life to high ideals, seems a kind of vivisection.

The closest MacFarquhar comes to mounting an argument against these deriders is in her response to those who cast do-gooders as codependents, people who are compelled to act in order to save others. So what, she says, if they are compelled? Any person who acts for what she takes to be moral reasons will feel compelled by those reasons:

Anyone who acknowledges the force of morality at all feels bound to do something. A person who understood herself to be freely choosing a moral life as just one option among others, with no obligation involved—who might with the same sense of freedom have chosen to spend her life throwing pebbles into a bucket—would not be more free but more confused. A person who feels herself wholly unfettered, unbound by duties of any kind, is not free, but a sociopath.

Of course, this compressed argument, even if successful in establishing the motivating force of moral considerations, doesn’t, in itself, explain or justify the virtue of giving one’s entire life over to ethical aspirations. But it’s not hard to see how the argument can lead where MacFarquhar wants it to go. If a sense of a moral reason can motivate at least some people (nonsociopaths) to act, then surely there can be people—MacFarquhar’s do-gooders—who are motivated by almost nothing but their sense of moral reasons (never mind, for the moment, whether their moral reasons are sound).

But what of her second aim, applying the example of these outliers to figuring out whether we, too, should strive to live as ethical a life as possible? Does she mean her profiles to serve such a purpose?

You will notice that the word “grappling” is in the subtitle. MacFarquhar doesn’t just present her do-gooders as agonizing over their choices (which some of them do more than others). She means for us to grapple as well, just as she herself does in these pages. And if there is to be agonizing, then there must be a question with which we are invited to grapple. And here it is: “So is it good to try to live as moral a life as possible? Or is there something in the drive to extraordinary goodness that distances a person too much from ordinary humanity?” Immediately after posing the question, MacFarquhar asserts:

I don’t think this question 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.

So yes, these profiles are meant to make us grapple with the question of how moral we should strive to be, understanding “moral” in the sense of being moved to action by the world’s suffering impartially considered. It is a worthy question and has long been the focus of moral philosophers, certainly since the Enlightenment. The twist here is that instead of the dry niceties of moral philosophy, MacFarquhar offers us the richness of her profiles, each with the qualities of a fascinating short story. Who wouldn’t prefer MacFarquhar’s strategy of grappling, enlisting the force of narrative?

The question is: Can her strategy respond to the questions she raises about the choices people make? I think not. In the absence of philosophical analysis, which would firm up the vagueness lurking in such terms as “moral goodness in itself” and “the ethical life,” we can’t even judge the moral value of her do-gooders—a point highlighted by the fact that some of them would morally object to her inclusion of the others.

So, for example, Julia Wise, together with the other “effective altruists” we meet in the chapter devoted to her, might deny that many of the others in the book (with the possible exception of the animal-rights do-gooder) are going about the moral life in the right way. These others, she might say, are overly emotional and haphazard in their actions. Baba devotes himself to lepers just because he happened to trip over one and felt his self-pride offended by his own terror. The Badeaus impulsively adopt children who tugged at their emotions. Their decisions got them into situations that they couldn’t always handle. An effective altruist like Julia Wise is not only committed to doing all the good that she can do—and has utilitarianism to back her up on this—but also to figuring out, with coolheaded rationality, how to do all the good she can do.

Perhaps in reading MacFarquhar’s account of “the beauty and cost” of the Badeaus’ life you will be emotionally moved by them—even moved enough to want to emulate them. But then you are falling prey to the same kind of influence—too subjective and emotional, unable to offer an account of itself—that lured the Badeaus themselves into acting as they did. So, at any rate, an effective altruist would admonish you.

In other words, if MacFarquhar is serious about offering us her profiles as a way of grappling with how moral we ought to be—inviting us to assess the beauty and cost of these lives as a means to rethinking our own—then there is a problem. How can we assess the beauty and the cost of lives of extraordinary moral goodness if we can’t even be certain it is genuinely moral goodness that is, in each case, being lived?

MacFarquhar’s storytelling strategy, as fascinating as it is, can take us only so far, especially if, in order to keep the narrative interesting, such a variety of incommensurate moral characters and rationales are put before us. Like it or not, some analysis based on moral philosophy is required.

Perhaps, then, it’s no wonder that, so far as her second aim is concerned, the conclusions MacFarquhar draws at the end are somewhat muted. She concludes that most of us can’t be do-gooders—which seems a foregone conclusion, given how “weird and extreme” her chosen subjects are and can’t help being—but that the world is better for having them, and not only because they offer some diminution of suffering. “These strange, hopeful, tough, idealistic, demanding, life-threatening, and relentless people, by their extravagant example, help keep those life-sustaining qualities alive.” Perhaps it is so.

A moral passion runs throughout Drowning Strangers—or better, a passion for moral passion. In fact, of all the characters laid out for our inspection by Larissa MacFarquhar, it is her character—profoundly reflective and ardently grappling—that I find the most moving, discerning in it a beauty that MacFarquhar herself sees in her do-gooders.