It’s praiseworthy to be a philanthropist, in the largest sense of being someone who loves and serves his fellow man, right? Or is that so only up to a point—are there those who do so much that it’s a sign not of virtue but some sort of mental or moral derangement?
Larissa MacFarquhar explores these questions in her widely-acclaimed new book Strangers Drowning through a series of portraits of those she calls extreme “do-gooders,” interspersed with essays about the treatment of extreme philanthropists in philosophy and literature.
Don’t be misled by MacFarquhar’s choice of term “do-gooders”—that’s usually a pejorative term, but she wants us to be open to the notion that these individuals are exemplars of virtue. That they might be so is signaled by her title Strangers Drowning, which is a reference to an essay but Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, who has become famous for a distinctive philanthropic vision that aims to reduce suffering as much as possible.
MacFarquahar’s “do-gooders” are a varied lot, and these portraits don’t sum to an answer to her questions about whether extreme philanthropists are exemplars of virtue or not.
One young man, inspired by Singer to calculate how to maximize the reduction of suffering, decides that it simply isn’t enough to focus on his fellow man. He decided to focus on “the most oppressed of all.” And who might that be? Well, by his calculations, it turns out to be factory-raised chickens. We can’t call this man a philanthropist, because that literally means a lover of man, so perhaps we must coin the term “philalectryonist,” a lover of chickens.
You might be forgiven for thinking that MacFarquhar has verged into satire that rivals Charles Dickens’ portrayal of Mrs. Jellyby, but MacFarquhar gives an earnest account of how this man so thoroughly devotes himself to the plight of chickens that he Dumpster-dives to save money, and he insists to his girlfriend that he cannot wash his dishes or get around to doing laundry because that would take away time from his work on behalf of chickens.
Now, many of us might be troubled by the practices of mega-agriculture, but this man seems to have confused understanding about the relative worth of chickens and human beings. His girlfriend seems similarly confused; she is so shamed by her comparative lack of moral seriousness that she feels she can’t insist on his doing the dishes and goes on to marry him.
Many people are called to their best and most generous selves when they become parents, but several of those MacFarquhar profiles think of children as simply a waste of time and effort. MacFarquhar summarizes one woman’s thinking:
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 woman decides to allow herself one child, but only after much soul-searching.
Dumpster-diving philalectryonists and people who think that it is selfish to have children seem not to share the moral intuitions of most people. Other men and women in MacFarquhar’s book have what seem like fairly common moral intuitions, but act on them in an extreme way. For example, one man volunteers to donate a kidney to a stranger. That’s an extreme choice, but it is based on a widely-shared moral sense that we should help others, and reading that his stepmother died of kidney disease puts his choice in a sympathetic context. And, while several of MacFarquhar’s subjects think of children as a distraction from philanthropy, one couple adopts twenty children to raise alongside their two biological children. Few people could imagine having such a large family, but many people do adopt children and most people do have children.
MacFarquhar’s book is elegantly written, and it’s easy to see why it has won such wide praise (as in these reviews in the New York Times and at Slate; a less favorable review appears in the Toronto Globe and Mail). But I found it to be a catalogue of eccentrics rather than a satisfying account of whether we should think of these men and women as saintly, deranged, or even outright immoral. MacFarquahar herself seems most inclined to defend them:
These strange, hopeful, tough, idealistic, demanding, life-threatening, and relentless people, by their extravagant example, help keep those life-sustaining qualities alive.
Whether there is a philanthropy that is too extreme is a genuinely serious moral question, and MacFarquahar has at least raised these interesting questions.