Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity by Larissa MacFarquhar (Allen Lane, £20)
Close friendships, Mahatma Gandhi wrote, are dangerous. The good man “is the friend of all living things,” not of anyone or anything in particular. Reviewing Gandhi’s autobiography, George Orwell observed that this must be “unquestionably true” if, as the Mahatma did, one professes “faith in humanity.” But for most ordinary people, “love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others.”
Orwell was famously intolerant of cranks and do-gooders, but you don’t have to embrace that animus wholesale to feel some discomfort at what Gandhi said. As Larissa MacFarquhar argues in her new book, which can be read as an elaboration of Orwell’s complaint, “ambivalence towards do-gooders” springs from some profound intuitions about the moral lives of human beings.
The conflict between the duties we owe to our loved ones and those we owe to distant strangers is one that has preoccupied philosophers for centuries. Although she is clearly familiar with the literature on this topic, MacFarquhar prefers not to approach the question “in the abstract.” Instead, she tells stories about the lives of do-gooders—such as that of the churchgoer from Maryland who donated one of her kidneys to a local woman. Reading these stories might not get us any further towards solving the philosophical conundrum, but they certainly help us to see it more clearly.