“Is it good to live as ethical a life as possible?” This question is at the heart of a recent book by Larissa MacFarquhar called Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help.
The book focuses on people whom MacFarquhar calls “do-gooders.” Do-gooders, as she explains, are not those who commit to charity work on Saturday afternoons, nor are they people who heroically respond to an extraordinary situation and then return to normal life. Do-gooders are people who devote their lives, energies, and resources full time to serving others, sacrificing their own security, comfort, enjoyment, personal goals, and freedom to such a degree that they make other people uneasy.
Through a series of extended vignettes of real-life do-gooders, interspersed with her own connecting commentary, MacFarquhar prompts readers to consider whether such people are moral exemplars whom they should be emulating, or whether these do-gooders have gone wrong in some way by taking morality too far.
What the book reveals is an entrenched and deeply problematic way of thinking about morality — one that has tragic consequences.
Equating morality with altruism
So, what does it look like for a do-gooder to live “as ethical a life as possible” and to “do as much good as he can”? Consider a few excerpts from the lives of the do-gooders that MacFarquhar highlights.
There is Aaron and his girlfriend Jen:
During graduate school, [he] arranged his classes so he could volunteer at Food Not Bombs on Fridays. That was awful work. He’d get up before dawn on a frigid Boston morning to show up in a tiny alley, with excrement everywhere, to lift box after box out of a van until his knuckles bled, and then he’d toil in a hot basement kitchen, making meals. . . . (45-6)
Laundry would pile up in his room, dishes in the sink. He would make large batches of food to save money . . . and leave crusted pans and bowls all over the kitchen. When she complained, he told her that time spent washing dishes could be time spent working for animal rights, which were more important. She couldn’t think of a good counterargument to that . . . . [A]ll she could say, when she felt herself going crazy, . . . was, “But I need it, I want it, I’m asking you.” . . . (48-9)
They got married in 1999. . . . The marriage lasted two years. One of the hardest parts of the breakup for Jen was that she now had to admit to herself that she wasn’t the ethical person she’d thought she was. She was not just leaving Aaron; she was choosing selfishness. She was choosing her own happiness over the survival of other creatures. (52-3)
Then there is Dorothy and Charles:
Charles was living on sixty-two dollars a month, earning a tiny wage working as a carpenter; Dorothy worked part time in a nursing home, and threw herself into her activism. Charles taught her how to Dumpster-dive for food . . . .
At one point early on, when they were living in one room together in a shared house, Charles told Dorothy he thought they should live on the street. They were using money to pay rent that they could give away to people who needed it more . . . . [Dorothy refused.] [Dorothy:] “We used to fight — he was always adding up every penny, he kept a notebook. Once, he told me that I was thirty-eight cents over budget. I said, ‘Would you repeat what you just said?’ And then I told him what he could do with his World Equity Budget.” (31-2)
MacFarquhar observes that we feel ambivalent about such individuals and the way they live their lives.
Ambivalence toward do-gooders also arises out of a deep uncertainty about how a person ought to live. Is it good to try to live as moral a life as possible — a saintly life? Or does a life like that lack some crucial human quality? Is it right to care for strangers at the expense of your own people? Is it good to bind yourself to a severe morality that restricts spontaneity and freedom? . . . (6)
Suppose you don’t aspire to be a do-gooder; how much can morality demand of you? Is your life your own, to spend as you like, or do you owe some of it to other people? And if you do owe something, then how much? The moral question here is less one of quality — What should I do? — than of quantity: When can I stop? (61)
MacFarquhar’s framing of the problem is revealing. She assumes that the question of the content of morality (What should I do?) is settled: morality is basically a matter of “helping others,” which here means placing the interests of other people above one’s own. In other words, she equates morality with altruism.
This equation of morality and altruism explains why the author sees her book as a book about morality, rather than about an altruistic approach to morality. It is why she frames the book’s central question as: “Is it good to live as ethical a life as possible?” rather than “Is it good to live as altruistic a life as possible?” And it is why she thinks the moral question one needs to grapple with is one of quantity (When can I stop living for others?), rather than one of quality (Should I live for others?).
MacFarquhar is by no means unique in thinking about morality in this way; it is in fact quite conventional. It is also quite dangerous.
Altruism as the source of the dilemma
The equation of morality with altruism is precisely what generates the fundamental conflict between morality and life that MacFarquhar’s book illustrates.
For if morality means “helping others,” then living “as ethical a life as possible” means helping others as much as possible — in fact, devoting one’s life entirely to it, sacrificing to the greatest extent possible one’s own interests in the service of that moral end.
Of course, few people aspire to live a do-gooder’s life. To the extent that they value their own interests, it strikes most as too “extreme” to live like that — it would involve more sacrifice than they are willing to make. But given the prominence of altruism as a respected moral ideal, many find it hard not to concede that the do-gooders are in fact morality’s saints, and thus the questions that MacFarquhar raises understandably surface in people’s minds: How much (sacrifice) can morality demand of me? And is it good to live as ethical (i.e., as sacrificial) a life as possible?
According to this way of thinking about morality, if one pursues one’s interests and sacrifices little or not at all, one must accept immorality as a permanent state, or abandon morality altogether. Yet, if one sacrifices everything in one’s devotion to morality, one gives up everything that makes one’s life worth living. MacFarquhar formulates this conflict quite clearly:
This is the core of it. There is decency, and honor, and ordinary humanness, and family, and children, and life — and then there is saintliness. There is everything you love about the world — everything that, if you found yourself shipwrecked on a distant planet, or close to death, you would most inconsolably remember of your earthly life — and then there is saintliness. (269)
In other words, the consistent practice of the morality of altruism (“saintliness”) requires sacrificing “everything you love about the world.” Even do-gooders must turn a blind eye to what their morality requires of them in order to survive. As MacFarquhar puts it: “any do-gooder who is not dead or irredeemably jaundiced by the age of thirty has learned to acquire a degree of blindness in order to get by.” (299)
But what MacFarquhar fails to realize is that this tragic clash between life and morality is not necessitated by morality as such or by being “extremely” (i.e., consistently) moral; it is generated by a specific conception of what morality is (altruism) and of what it demands (self-sacrifice).
Breaking the equation
The question of quality, as MacFarquhar puts it — the question “What should I do?” — i.e., of the content and goal of morality, is a deeply important question, and not one that should be taken for granted, as if the answer were simple or obvious just because one particular answer — in this case, altruism — has long dominated the cultural mainstream.
It is important to be aware of the fact that there are major moral theories that do not treat service to others as the central (or even a major) aim of morality. The best example of such an approach in the ancient (pre-Christian) world is the moral philosophy developed by Aristotle.
Aristotle held that the goal of ethics is something that we need to identify — it is not obvious, and there are competing views about what that goal is. Aristotle’s own view is that the goal of ethics is the achievement of one’s own happiness and well-being, as an end in itself — and he identified a host of virtues of mind and character that such a goal requires and entails. The moral ideal, according to Aristotle, is the individual who is fully rational in every aspect of his life and, as a result, possesses a tremendous, earned, self-esteem. Such a man does not surrender his interests — he seeks the best and the highest.2
In other words, philosophers like Aristotle and especially Rand treat an individual’s own life and happiness as the goal of ethics, and as a result they project a very different conception of a moral exemplar.
Given how culturally deep-seated altruism is as a moral framework, it can be difficult to take seriously other approaches to morality, or to even recognize them as approaches to morality, rather than as alternatives to morality. This is because the philosophical ideas one accepts, or simply absorbs from the culture, become part of the framework through which one views life, and one can easily forget that there are other frameworks — ones that lead to very different visions of a moral life.
As a colleague of mine wrote recently: “Having a worldview is like having a pair of glasses you forgot you’re wearing. What happens when you take them off for a moment and try on a different pair?”
Seeking a new moral perspective
It is from this perspective that I want to conclude with Stephanie — the final do-gooder featured in MacFarquhar’s book — because this woman’s tortured struggle to set herself free from the grip of altruism illustrates perfectly the deep moral conflict and the damage caused by altruism — as well as the need for a new approach to morality.
Stephanie’s religious upbringing instilled a deep sense of guilt in her, but she was “devout and unquestioning.” (284) Just before college, however, doubts began to surface. She studied philosophy in college and went on to pursue graduate studies in the field. She struggled with her faith until she realized that she was not a believer anymore. She found a job teaching philosophy at a small Catholic college and married a man who was zealously “trying to save the world” — a full-time altruist, a do-gooder — and she became wrapped up in altruistic causes and the “effective altruism” movement.
Over the years, however, she began to question and reconsider her moral outlook. Here is an extended quotation from the book that is worth reading in full because it captures her moral courage, her self-reflection, and her plight:
If she truly committed herself to saving the world as she ought to, she thought, she would never have fun anymore — she wouldn’t be able to travel, she would never go to beautiful places. . . . She would have to cut out of her life the things she loved, one by one, until there were none left. . . . She always felt guilty . . . . (291)
All her life, she had believed that there was something fundamentally bad about her; but now she thought that maybe she had simply been wrong about this. . . .
It took her a long time to get to this point — several years of guilt and self-laceration — but at the end of it, she no longer believed that she was obliged to dedicate every waking moment to saving the world, or to pry ever more waking moments from her hours of sleep. . . . (292-3)
She had rejected Christianity, she had rejected philosophy, she had rejected unlimited altruism. Now she had nothing left — only herself. It made her happy to think about doing things she wanted to do, but it was also frightening. . . . (293)
“Is it somehow legitimate to say what is valuable is what I consider to be valuable?” she wondered. “Is that okay?” It sounded so subjective to her — so flimsy, so groundless. . . . But what was left? Could you base a life on ideals that you invented? . . . She had rejected moral systems built on centuries of the thought and faith and obedience of millions of people, and now her foundation was going to be herself? It sounded ridiculous. But it was all she had. Is it okay to say, These are the things that I value, this is what I’m going to pursue in life? she wondered. . . . She didn’t know. (293-4)
Stephanie’s case is both hopeful and tragic. She is groping, in effect, for a different pair of glasses, a different lens to view a moral life — one that treats her own life and happiness as legitimate moral ends — but she cannot help thinking that such an approach can only be a flimsy matter of subjective preference.
What advice would MacFarquhar offer to this young lady? She does not say. But the next page of the book features a long quotation from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason praising the elevation of moral duty above life itself.
What would Ayn Rand’s advice be? How would she respond to Stephanie’s question: “Is it okay to say, These are the things that I value, this is what I’m going to pursue in life?”
I think she would say at least two things: First: that not only is it “okay” to pursue one’s own values, it is the essence of a moral life. But, second: one’s personal values must be real values, ones that objectively advance one’s life and happiness. Even if one decides to pursue one’s own happiness as one’s highest goal, all kinds of errors and missteps are possible, so the idea that “what is valuable is what I consider to be valuable” is hopeless as a standard. One needs a rationally defined and validated code of values that gives one real guidance on how to live one’s life in a rational, principled, and life-serving way.
In other words, the way to escape the moral dilemma caused by altruism is not to draw an arbitrary limit here or there on the continuum of sacrifice, but to step outside the moral framework that generates it and find a better morality — one that seeks to advance an individual’s life and happiness.
This is what Rand sought to offer in her novels and philosophic writings. One can only hope that the Stephanies of the world — and anyone else seeking this kind of moral perspective — will find it in time.
- Larissa MacFarquhar, Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help (New York: Penguin, 2015), 6. All subsequent parenthetical page numbers in the text refer to this edition of the book.
- See especially Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
- Aaron Smith, “Ayn Rand: A New Concept of Egoism,” De Filosoof, no. 70 (January 2016): 16-19.