Thursday, April 6, 2017

Does a life of radical generosity bring moral satisfaction?

The “do-gooders” in Larissa MacFarquhar’s new book, “Strangers Drowning,” make these kinds of calculations every day. Obsessively. They sacrifice little luxuries and add up the lives they’ve saved. Then they wonder if they should give up more things they don’t need: cable television, having children, a new winter coat, that extra kidney they’ve been carrying around forever.

After Julia Wise allowed her boyfriend to buy her a $4 candy apple, she was overwhelmed with tortured thoughts. “With her selfish, ridiculous desire for a candy apple,” MacFarquhar writes, “she might have deprived a family of an ­anti-malarial bed net or deworming medicine that might have saved the life of one of its ­children.”

Wise became a social worker and married Jeff Kaufman, a young professional who was just as focused on giving. Their shared mission is to send money to people in distant countries and thus reduce the world’s suffering. To do so, they labor and scrimp and save — having lived at one point on a self-­imposed weekly allowance of $38 — so that they can give away tens of thousands of dollars to charity. ...

Martyrdom doesn’t seem to be the point, not even for the man who donates his kidney to a complete stranger. Without exception, MacFarquhar’s do-gooders are as messed up and conflicted as the rest of us, if not more so. They long for connectedness and a sense of purpose. ...

The stories in “Strangers Drowning” all have open-ended conclusions. After decades of giving, many of MacFarquhar’s do-gooders feel strangely unsettled. They’ve discovered that sacrificing for others doesn’t make them feel as if they’ve earned a spot in heaven. All it does is see them through one more day.
--Hector Tobar, NYT, on rediscovering Martin Luther's rediscovery that salvation is not by works. HT: CG