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The Miserable Lives Of The Modern Saints


In 1971, 10 million refugees spilled into India, fleeing the Bangladesh Liberation War. The Indian government erected refugee camps and tried to cope with the onslaught, but the numbers were simply overwhelming. Many thousands starved to death.

Struck by the magnitude of this tragedy, Australian philosopher Peter Singer wrote an essay, Famine, Affluence, and Morality, in which he argued that our duty to help should transcend the prejudices of place and partial attachment. The life of a freezing, emaciated Bengali refugee is just as precious as my own, or my neighbor’s, or my son’s. Accordingly, I should value it equally. Refusing to save a foreigner’s life when I could easily do so (say, by shopping at Goodwill instead of Macy’s and donating the savings to a refugee relief fund) is just as terrible as walking by a pond where a child is drowning and neglecting to rescue him.

This argument has met with a number of strong objections over the years, but it rarely fails to capture the imagination of the civic-minded Westerner. Most of us know that our lifestyle is unnecessarily lavish, and ironically, the same globalizing trends that created this wealth have gifted us the capacity to share it with needy people around the globe. When should we do this? When can we stop? From a certain perspective, every hot fudge sundae or double espresso might be seen as a life-saving vaccination that an African orphan doesn’t get.

New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar is among the many who have found themselves caught in the gravitational pull of Singer’s logic. She explores the implications in her new book, which her publisher calls Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help.

I might have assigned a different title: Peter Singer’s Deranged Acolytes.

A (Brief and Shallow) Dip into Contemporary Moral Theory

Strangers Drowning has two components. On one level, it is a kind of secular Lives of the Saints, presenting extraordinary narratives of modern people whose lives have been radically built around aggressive efforts to help the needy. Interspersed with these, MacFarquhar engages in an extended meditation on the promise and peril of extreme altruism. There are some interesting components to her discussion, but without the stories and anecdotes it would be a thoroughly mediocre book. Though clearly influenced by contemporary moral thought, she doesn’t seem conversant enough to accurately describe what her book is actually doing.

The true saint becomes the person who most effectively converts himself into a cog in a dispassionate pleasure-maximizing scheme.

What she is doing is gauging the capacity of utilitarianism to be a lived philosophy. If you’re wondering what would happen if you tried to live by Singer’s precepts, this is the book to read.

Peter Singer is only the most famous modern proponent of a philosophy normally credited the 18th century thinker, Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarianism strictly equates goodness with happiness maximization (typically understood in terms of pleasure and the absence of pain). The most moral choice is the one that brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people.

This basic precept—known as “the pleasure principle”—has a beguiling simplicity that appeals especially to those who are looking to slough off the weighty coils of tradition or religious dogma. Not everyone believes in souls, karma, or divine lawgivers, but everyone can appreciate that pleasure is nice and pain isn’t. It’s a moral theory with a low buy-in, metaphysically speaking. You needn’t commit yourself to very much up-front to explain why it would be better to have a less painful, more pleasurable world.

Utilitarianism comes with its own nest of problems, however. It turns out that the complexities of tradition and natural law encapsulate truths about human nature that aren’t easily incorporated into the utilitarian’s disinterested calculus. Five minutes’ reflection make clear that utilitarianism is a demanding philosophy, which might ask us to give up any number of frills or comforts for the sake of the less-fortunate. Pressing further, however, we realize that the real sacrifice may not be doing without designer sweaters, but rather humanity itself. Older and richer conceptions of what makes life meaningful must be tossed aside for the sake of the greater good, and the true saint becomes the person who most effectively converts himself into a cog in a dispassionate pleasure-maximizing scheme.

On the philosophical front, MacFarquhar doesn’t do a particularly good job of illuminating these problems. She glazes over Bernard Williams, utilitarianism’s greatest 20th-century critic, in three rather confused paragraphs, and her own utilitarian commitments are obvious but unacknowledged. (For instance, she never seriously considers that the pleasure principle might just be wrong, but she does agonize at length over whether it might be better to be less-than-completely moral. This line of thought could only make sense from the standpoint of a troubled-but-still-committed utilitarian.) On the other hand, she does wrestle with the real-world challenges of utilitarianism in a fairly honest way, and this is the book’s most redeeming feature.

Grasping At Integrity

In depicting the lives of committed utilitarian do-gooders, MacFarquhar doesn’t use a soft focus. Impressive accomplishments notwithstanding, her characters aren’t necessarily appealing. Some violate fairly basic obligations to their own families and children. Dorothy Granada’s son is furious when he realizes that she is planning to starve herself to death in protest of nuclear weapons, without telling him in advance. Some are frankly freakish. Aaron Pitkin arrives late for an important exam because he feels compelled to remove worms from the sidewalk before they get squished.

MacFarquhar is a gifted storyteller, and her tales are arresting. We watch her subjects grasping to attain some semblance of a normal or happy life, despite the extremity of the moral demands to which they feel beholden. Here she is illustrating another feature of utilitarianism, which Williams terms “the problem of integrity.”

Every love, commitment, or ambition must be ready to be sacrificed at any moment to the relentless maximizing calculus.

Human beings are happy only when we have particular projects and goals that can infuse our lives with meaning: raising a family, writing a book, running a charity, and so forth. Nevertheless, the true utilitarian cannot really commit himself to any of these; every love, commitment, or ambition must be set on the altar of utility, ready to be sacrificed at any moment to the relentless maximizing calculus.

Utilitarians must perpetually live with the knowledge that their children’s college fund may need to be emptied tomorrow (or a parent’s retirement accounts pillaged) to finance a disaster relief effort. Their novels may need to be abandoned if energies are more needed for fighting ISIS overseas. Outreach to paraplegics, AIDS patients, premature babies, or the blind could all be summarily discontinued at any moment if the next Bangladesh Liberation War creates a new group of sufferers whose needs can be met in a more cost-effective way.

In accepting the duty to maximize, the utilitarian also accepts that his activities can be determined by any other person’s loves, commitments, or preferences just as much as his own. But this is intolerable—it leaves no room for a cohesive life. Ironically then, a philosophy that aims at maximal happiness would probably be a source of unparalleled misery if people actually came to believe it in a thoroughgoing way. Recognizing this, some utilitarians, such as Peter Railton, recommend coping strategies to enable us to be utilitarians in principle without thinking like utilitarians on a day to day basis. For the sake of sanity, utilitarians must engage in sophisticated forms of deliberate self-deception, hiding their own moral logic even from themselves.

MacFarquhar doesn’t discuss any of this, but we can see her subjects developing exactly these sorts of coping mechanisms. Julia Wise is unable to enjoy something as simple as a candy apple without having nightmares about African families deprived of malarial bed-nets. So she and her husband sit down and generate a dollar amount that they can reasonably donate to charity. Then he assures her that if she gives any more, he will make a matching donation to the Republican Party. (Well, that’s at least one way the Grand Old Party is preserving the sanity of earnest liberals.) Hector and Sue Badeau can’t stop adopting needy children; they end up with 27. They run their household like a well-oiled institution, with Sue distributing an updated “family handbook” on an annual basis detailing schedules, policies, and routines.

Julia Wise is unable to enjoy something as simple as a candy apple without having nightmares.

Pitkin’s first wife gets fed up with his strict veganism, his near-total neglect of home and family, and the mounds unwashed dishes, so she runs away to Paris to gorge herself on cheese. (I was on a plane when I read this, so I restrained my impulse to shout, “You go, girl!”.) Pitkin remarries, this time with the explicit understanding that nightly dinners plus “a long weekend together a couple of times a year” are all he can offer to the relationship. It sticks.

Policies, spreadsheets, and nutty negotiations like this factor heavily in MacFarquhar’s tales. As she herself concludes, “There is decency, and honor, and ordinary humanness, and family, and children and life—and then there is saintliness. There is everything that 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.”

The Limits of Modern Morality

Is this truly the face of modern sainthood? It’s a depressing thought. The traditional Lives of the Saints depicts larger-than-life figures, transcendent and brimming with purpose. Their lives have a cohesion that even a powerful storyteller like MacFarquhar cannot gift to these spreadsheet-obsessed weirdos. Is this really the best we can do nowadays? Do justice or love have any place in this bleak picture?

It’s something to consider, living in a society where few are undernourished, but many despair of finding any meaning or purpose in their lives. Singer’s “effective altruists” often preach the importance of “separating fuzzies from utilons,” meaning that the true utilitarian looks for the activity that does the most real good, rather than the one that gratifies him personally. What if the good is best served by abandoning the dehumanizing logic of Singer? Although this was not MacFarquhar’s intention, Strangers Drowning supplies ample reason to suspect that that is the case.