the north face outlet online sale gooders going to extremes
In the introduction to his book “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System” (1983), Paul Fussell noted that he’d had trouble telling others what he was working on. Social class is a touchy subject. At parties, people edged away from him.
“It is not just that I am feared as a class spy,” Fussell wrote. Her superb book is about extreme do gooders, people whose self sacrifice and ethical commitment are far outside what we think of as the normal range.
These humans make the rest of us uneasy. Their sacrifices throw harsh light upon our own flabby moral existences. As a society we tend to dismiss them. They’re masochists or religious crackpots or sandal wearing quinoa heads or moral grandstanders or all of the above, right?
A line from Clive James’ memoir “North Face of Soho” comes to mind. He quotes journalist Katherine Whitehorn: “You can recognize the people who live for others by the haunted look on the faces of the others.”
MacFarquhar’s book both streamlines and complicates the issues surrounding deep ethical scruples. She opens moral trapdoors you didn’t know were there. More interestingly, she opens ones you suspect she didn’t know were there, either. In part, this book is a series of profiles, some of which have appeared in The New Yorker in different form.
We meet a not wealthy couple who adopt 20 children, many with profound disabilities. Another couple founds a leper colony in India. There’s a woman who donates a kidney to a stranger. Others give away nearly everything they earn to the more needy, even if it means eating from Dumpsters themselves.
These profiles work because they’re as taut and evocative as parables. Also, there are not too many of them. They don’t swamp the inquisitive tone of her broader intellectual narrative.
MacFarquhar’s book somewhat resembles Andrew Solomon’s “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” (2012), which contained many stories of enormous parental sacrifice.
As excellent as Solomon’s book was, it was a bit of squid narrative, to borrow a term a friend of mine likes to use. That is, it had a shapely top but was a very long mop of tendrils, profile upon profile, down below.
MacFarquhar shuffles her profiles, like the queens in a deck of cards, among essayistic chapters that interrogate our perceptions of do gooders. She guides us through the ideas of philosophers, scientists and revolutionaries Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, Robespierre, Darwin.
“Strangers Drowning” takes its title from a famous essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” by Australian philosopher Peter Singer. Singer’s ideas play a major role here.
His argument, put very simply, goes like this: If we see a child drowning in a shallow pond, most of us would rescue her without hesitation. Why should it make a moral difference if that child is right in front of us or halfway across the world?
MacFarquhar further relates his thinking: “If we spend two hundred dollars on clothes that could have bought lifesaving food or medicine, we’re still responsible for a death. She appears rarely in her own text. We don’t learn how she spends her own life and money. She keeps a sphinxlike remove.
But her questions are probing, including this one: “Is it possible for a person to hold himself to unforgiving standards without becoming unforgiving?”
Charity begins at home, most of us would agree. Not for many of the people in “Strangers Drowning.” In their moral calculus, the thing is to help the most people, even if that means neglecting those close by, even spouses or children.
One of the interesting threads MacFarquhar picks up is the notion that, for extreme altruists, the best way to help relieve suffering may not be to travel to Africa, let’s say, to open a clinic or help build a dam. It is far more noble and effective though less morally swashbuckling to simply find the highest paying job you can and give away most of your salary. She finds people who live this way. You sense a great deal of sifting below the surface of MacFarquhar’s sentences, a reserve of power and intellect drawn upon at will.