How Good Can You Be?

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of specific moral projects—ministering to the hikikomori of Japan, reclusive adolescents or adults who have entirely withdrawn from social life, in order to prevent suicides; adopting unwanted children; reducing the suffering of factory-farmed animals; working in high-paying jobs for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…

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