Why do some people scare us in what they are prepared to do for others?
If we saw a child sinking in a shallow pond, we would rescue her without hesitation. Why then does it make any difference if that child is drowning half-way across the world? This argument is the essence of Australian Peter Singer’s philosophy. Any need, anywhere, is sufficient to compel a response from us.
This belief, which takes no prisoners, has been adopted by a number of people who might be described as extreme do-gooders and in Strangers Drowning (Penguin 2015), Larissa Macfarquhar has written about some. It is easy to be daunted by a book which tries to answer the question of where our moral duties find their limits, but the author wisely focuses on individual case studies of people rather than abstract philosophy. In the process she has unpicked the lives of a number of people in this world who sacrifice themselves in order to save others.
Stories are told of people who place themselves at the mercy of Latin American rebels that torture and rape, in order to teach skills to disempowered women; of those who carve leper colonies out of the jungle in India, risking the lives of their children to wild animals, so leprosy can be treated; who adopt twenty-two children in addition to their own biological kids (that’s right, twenty-two) because each child in care has a need to be met; who eat from the neighbourhood trash so the money they earn can be given to charity.
In each case, these people are restless to find a better way of living, being driven by a strange kind of madness which does not allow them to put their feet up and let someone else do the lifting. In Macfarquhar’s words, they ‘open themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility’. Significantly, they often attract vitriolic opposition from those who hear of their exploits. Why is this? And why is the term ‘do-gooder’ a pejorative one when people are just trying to help others?
Among those who do so much good in this world, those of us who don’t tend to feel a little threatened by their example. We feel the need to cast aspersions on their motives, as if these are less noble than the motives which keep us glued to trashy TV instead of the volunteering we could do at the local food bank. There is an odd standard in play. We laud athletes who devote all their time and energy – often at the expense of family - on winning prizes which only they can own, but when someone offers similar dedication in the service of others, question their motivation.
Many of us may baulk at the unlimited moral commitments of extreme do-gooders and there may be a hint of obsessive compulsive behaviour in their desire. Life may indeed comprise of more than saving other lives, but are we sacrificing ourselves sufficiently on behalf of others? This question should lie at the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. For one thing, Jesus himself offered an unsparing challenge to those who follow him to deny themselves and take up their cross.
Today’s world is so complex in its demands that it is hard to know where to begin and end in what we offer it in service and we struggle even more when we are scared to bring Jesus’ words to the table. There really ought to be a more open discussion about how far we should push the boundaries of our discipleship; instead we are complicit in pulling these boundaries closer to us. In a comfortable, self-absorbed culture, there is little to challenge the narrowing of our moral horizons.
Larissa Mafarquhar is not sure what to make of her strange and wonderful subjects, though she is convinced such people personify the moral absolutes we need to share. We speak a lot of boundaries now, as if we need to keep other people at bay. Those who seek to follow Christ might think more readily of rhythms – ebbs and flows of energy - which enable and constrain the sacrifices we make. In the end, only one person can save this world.
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