Larissa MacFarquhar, a writer for The New Yorker, came to Santa Barbara on Oct. 5 to address and promote her new book, Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help, an event hosted by UCSB Arts & Lectures.
This famous philosophical question that MacFarquhar alluded to in her book title was first proposed by Bernard Williams, roughly as follows: one finds his or her spouse drowning in water, and just on the opposite end of water, a stranger is drowning as well. The question lies in whether it is morally permissible for one to save his or her spouse instead of the stranger.
It might seem like a no-brainer at first; of course we’d chose to save our loved ones without hesitation, but MacFarquhar would like us to further investigate our psyche. Would it still be morally permissible to save your spouse if you could save ten strangers instead? Or a hundred, or a thousands?
“Then you start having doubts, you have to deal with guilt … we all have our number, our breaking point,” jeered MacFarquhar.
MacFarquhar’s research centers on a specific category of people, which she called “Do-Gooders.” These people referred to, according to MacFarquhar, the type of over-the-top altruistic givers who seek nothing in return for the good that they do. Furthermore, these people would go so far as to hurt their own livelihood to make some strangers’ lives better.
“Why don’t the rest of us give more than we do?” This question inspired MacFarquhar to write this book, as she confessed. “The usual answer is that we are human; we’re selfish; we love our stuff too much to give it up, and all of that’s true, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. I think another reason is that the need of the world seems infinite and overwhelming”.
However, the “Do-Gooders” that MacFarquhar studied took the world’s needs as a challenge. A student that offered himself as a human experiment to find a cure for leprosy, a couple that adopted in total of 20 children, a woman who decided not to have a child so she could focus her monetary gains on charity are all specific examples that MacFarquhar gave.
MacFarquhar also pointed to the strange animosity that our society have against these altruistic, selfless individuals.
“There were a lot of people who didn’t actually admire extreme moral commitment at all,” MacFarquhar reported. “There are various cliches … one is that goodness in good people is kinda boring, and simple, and insipid.” Popular literature seem to fall into this trap. MacFarquhar said that she had writers and playwrights that simply abhor the idea of a story based on an entirely good, selfless individual flourishing.
“There is this cliche that evil is fascinating and complex,” she added.
Perhaps this antagonism lies within the structure of our society, and MacFarquhar has her theory that might explain this phenomenon. She raised two points to illustrate her theory. First, the Wealth of the Nations by Adam Smith, MacFarquhar thought, “implanted very deeply into Western Culture the idea that if the goal were helping others, a selfish man might even do better than a selfless one.” Secondly, she pointed to Darwin’s Origin of the Species which “introduces the idea that the selfish struggle for survival is the basis of life itself.”
In the end, the people who urged themselves to help others excessively can even be denounced heavily, according to MacFarquhar, because they are characterized as “not just ‘not-helpfulness’, but controlling, a power struggle, an attempt to force someone to be what you thought what they should be.”
“It’s not just the matter of selfishness … that makes us suspicious of such [excessive altruists], I think there is this genuine conflict about what it means to live a good life,” MacFarquhar concluded. “Despite the immense force of the moral culture … they do what what they believe is right nonetheless. Yes, they give up some comforts and they’ve chosen very difficult things to do. But […] they believe they are living as they ought to and they’re doing what they should, and they know that they’re changing many lives for the better.”
More on these fascinating inquiries can be found in Strangers Drowning. Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. Previously she worked as a senior editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at The Paris Review.