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Strangers Drowning Book Review

In Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help, Larissa MacFarquhar delves into the worlds of so-called “Do-Gooders”: people who feel such a strong sense of duty that they shape their lives around being as ethical as possible. Rather than a clinical cataloging of every such person, MacFarquhar chooses just a few people and offers miniature biographies: Baba, a man in India who moved into a dense, dangerous forest to create a leper colony, Julia Wise, who donates a large majority of her salary in accordance with the idea of effective altruism, Dorothy Granada, who started a women’s health clinic in rural Nicaragua and bravely protected women during the Contra War. These and other accounts are compelling and textured narratives that add weight to ethical theories often only discussed orthogonally to the real world consequences of their adoption. Interspersed with the biographies are explanations of motivating philosophical ideals, from Kant’s categorical imperative to Will MacAskill’s effective altruism (MacFarquhar, Ch. 4). The title of the book itself is a direct reference to Peter Singer’s essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” in which he relates the duty to rescue a child from drowning in a shallow pond to the duty to provide medicine to a sick child across the globe (Singer, 1972).

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Strangers Drowning is the consideration of how outsiders view these “Do-Gooders.” MacFarquhar explores the uneasiness and subtle resentment that Do-Gooders often inspire by contrasting it with our response to heroes. Heroes also act in exceptionally ethical ways, but only in response to unique conditions; the person who charges into a burning building to save a child is a hero. As MacFarquhar points out, we extoll heroes often, but have reservations for Do-Gooders. Though she never offers her own opinion, the author sketches out a potential explanation for this disparate response. A Do-Gooder reminds us of our ethical shortcomings – if Paul Wagner can donate his kidney to a complete stranger, then maybe an able-bodied young person like myself is morally inferior for not doing the same (MacFarquhar, Ch. 10). To contrast, a hero’s existence is contingent on rare external circumstances, freeing the rest of us from direct comparison. We can apply this framework to Singer’s shallow pond thought experiment: if a hero is the person who wades into the pond to save the drowning child, then a Do-Gooder is the person who donates all the money they can to save kids across the world.

MacFarquhar also describes some of the arguments against holding oneself to such extreme moral standards. One chapter explores codependent relationships, especially as it relates to spouses of alcoholics before and after they attend Alcoholics Anonymous (MacFarquhar, Ch. 8). Another concern is that there isn’t a sustainable equilibrium for lives like these. When describing Aaron Pitkin, a man who dedicated his life to improving the quality of chickens’ lives, MacFarquhar wrote this:

When he felt this way, he felt that he was doing good work, that he had done good work, and he felt the sense of guilt and ineradicable debt that drove him when he was younger would perceptibly ease. He still needed to accumulate a certain number of utility points each day to feel okay with himself – to feel that he’d done his duty – but since his work was going so well, those points were easier to come by. It had never occurred to him when he was younger that there might be a time in his life when he might feel he was doing enough. Mostly this was a good feeling, but he was also suspicious of it. What if the lesson of his effectiveness was not that he deserved to kick back a little, but that he was obliged to work harder than ever, now that he was getting more done? That would be more logical (MacFarquhar, Ch. 3).

Given how hard the subjects push themselves, it is often striking that they don’t burn out and forsake their perceived duties. In some regards, the only way to make sense of why these people feel so compelled to help is to hear their rationale directly. But even then, understanding doesn’t guarantee agreement, and it is fully possible to view the above excerpt with awe or disdain.

Unsurprisingly, Strangers Drowning doesn’t offer much in the way of straightforward, concrete answers. It isn’t a map to living an ethical life so much as a collage of ideas. As such, the questions it raises are likely to stay with you long after you put the book down. I can’t say for sure if I have become a more moral person for having read it, but I have noticed that I am more aware of the sheer multitude of choices ahead of me, as well as the dizzying array of accompanying outcomes. Personally, I have found this incredibly enriching, and I would recommend this book to anyone looking to explore the moral dimension of our lives in a compelling, nuanced way.


Works Cited

MacFarquhar, Larissa. Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help. Penguin Books, 2015.

Singer, Peter. Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 1972), pp. 229-243 [revised edition]

April 16, 2019
Keegan Barnes