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Highlighted passages from MacFarquhar's Strangers Drowning

Some people try to help one person at a time, and other people try to change the whole world. There's a seductive intimacy in the first kind of work, but it can also be messy and unpredictable. People may resent help that is so intimate, and if it goes badly, the blunder is personal. Even when the help succeeds, the victories are small and don't really change anything. The second kind of work is more ambitious, and also cleaner, more abstract. But success is distant and unlikely, so it’s helpful to have a taste for noble failure, and for the camaraderie of the angry few...

[Dorothy]: "They were people you did not want to be around. They were so sharp. Everything was a matter of life and death: we've got to do this action because the world depends on it."

In 1967, a long-term study of living, unrelated kidney donors was initiated, with the aim of helping transplant centers form policies on these confounding individuals. The study subjected the donors to free-associative interviews, dream analyses, and Rorschach and Thematic Apperception tests. Published in 1971, it found evidence, in the donors, of: primitive masochism, reaction formation against early sadism, homosexual conflict, pregnancy symbolism, and penis envy. But it noted that, in this, the donors were no different from the rest of mankind, and that, after the operation, each donor reported a deep feeling of increased self-esteem — a feeling “that he had done something wholesome and natural with no indication of regret.” There were no reports of post-operative depression or physical ailments.

This study, however, didn’t change anything. Forty years ago, even donors who were family members were regarded warily...

Aaron and Jen moved in together, and then the trouble started. For one thing, Aaron was messy. Not just untidy — dirty. Laundry would pile up in his room, dishes in the sink. He would make huge batches of food to save money — pounds and pounds of lentil soup or hummus — 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 — in fact, she thought he was right, from a moral point of view... she had always thought of herself as an extremely ethical person, and now she felt like the selfish one, the bourgeois one. Dishes? When animals were being tortured and people were starving?

... One of the hardest parts of the breakup for Jen was that she now had to admit she wasn't the ethical person she'd thought she was. She was choosing her own happiness over the survival of other creatures. She could not justify it, she thought it was the wrong thing to do, but she couldn't help herself... She rebelled. She and Aaron had been rigorously vegan for years — and now
Jen ate cheese. She went to Paris and gorged herself on cheese. She went shopping for clothes that were new. She smoked pot and loved it. She revised her views on Israel. She worked as a dominatrix for foot fetishists. She stopped recycling.

Chapter title, from Kant's crowning rant:

I reacted rather passionately to Wolf's... passionate piece of... passion here:
The philosopher Susan Wolf has written that a morally perfect person would be an unappealing, alien creature, driven not by the loves and delights of ordinary people but by an unnatural devotion to duty... “Morality itself,” she writes, “does not seem to be a suitable object of passion.”...

Wolf argues that if the ideal of the saintly do‑gooder is not one we truly aspire to — if we feel that, in their strangeness or self‑suppression, such people are missing some crucial human quality; if we believe, in other words, that the moral ideal is not a human ideal — then we should revise our ideas about the place of morality in life. Morality should not be the highest human court — the one whose ruling overrides all others.

How did one drowning child become thousands of children and the prospect of a lifetime spent frantically racing from one rescue to the next? How did the price of morality rise with such startling speed, and so staggeringly high? It did so by blurring the difference between what to most people appear to be completely different moral situations: charity and rescue. Rescue — helping a person right in front of you, such as a child drowning in a shallow pond — seems to most people to be a duty, as long as it isn't dangerous. Charity — in the sense of helping an unseen person far away — does not.

To most people, the distance between themselves and another person — physical as well as emotional — is a deep moral fact: it makes a profound difference to their sense of duty... Singer knew that to most people these differences were significant, but he set out to show that they shouldn't be. How could a person who would consider it unforgiveable to allow a child to drown in front of him be content to let an equally helpless child die, just because he was farther away? It made no sense.

... Singer's conclusions strike many people as so extreme as to be almost crazy. Nowadays, a moral theory according to which nearly everyone appears immoral to the point of depravity seems ridiculous. In the past, however, it's worth remembering, [this] idea... seemed perfectly normal.

Gandhi believed that the seeker after goodness is obliged to forswear close friendships and exclusive loves, because loyalty may tempt him to wrongdoing, and detracts from an impartial love of all mankind. Reviewing Gandhi’s memoir, George Orwell found this belief repellent. He wrote:
The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals... It is too readily assumed... that the ordinary man only rejects [saintliness] because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.
At the same time, Orwell deeply admired Gandhi. Without him, the world would have been worse; and Gandhi could not have accomplished what he did without being the sort of saintly do‑gooder that Orwell found so difficult to like.

There aren't many do-gooders in fiction, which is odd, because many fiction writers, like do-gooders, are driven by moral rage. But most such writers would rather show the thing that enrages them than show a character trying to fix it. You could say that do-gooders are rare in life, so their rarity in realistic fiction is not surprising -- though they are rarer in novels than in real life... it's as if there is something about do-gooders that is repellent to fiction...

When these elements are brought together — the
[novel's] embracing of messiness and imperfection, the dislike of preaching, the prizing of the complex and distrust of the abstract, the injunction to love real people close to you rather than an ideal of people in general — what novels amount to is an implicit exhortation to accept the human condition. You should love humans as they are, not as they should or could be. You should embrace human nature, with all its suffering and sin, and accept that it will always be thus... To fail to do these things is to become the sort of do-gooder who doesn't love the world as it, or the imperfect humans in it...

Ivan Illich being, as ever, brilliantly quotable and quite irresponsible:
If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don't even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as "good," a "sacrifice" and "help." I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you. I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico. I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the "good" which you intended to do. I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel in Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.

Anyone could do what she did if they wanted to, she thought. Nick Carraway in
The Great Gatsby said, “Reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope,” but the opposite is also true. To judge is to believe that a person is capable of doing better. It's to know that people can change their behavior, even quite radically in response to what is expected of them.