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Extreme Morality: The New Yorker's Larissa MacFarquhar recounts the lives of people of extreme morality

By Salil Dudani on January 30, 2013

Sarah donates 100 percent of her salary to meticulously-researched social causes. She is a social worker, but feels selfish for not choosing a more lucrative profession to provide her more money to give away. When her grandmother left her $10,000, she donated it all to Oxfam despite protests from her family. She used to want to be a mother, but she’s backtracked on that aspiration because the resources a U.S. child consumes could be spent to save the lives of many others overseas.

Is Sarah saintly, or is she sick? Should we admire her extreme morality, or should we pity her pathological obsession? Is there something wrong with her—or could there be something wrong with the rest of us?

Speaking to a packed Cemex Auditorium early this month, in a lecture sponsored by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar previewed her forthcoming book on “extreme morality” by profiling Sarah and her husband Ethan. MacFarquhar has written profiles on the lives and ideas of several famous intellectuals, but according to MacFarquhar, this young couple is quite ordinary, aside from their unusually ethical lifestyle.

Though Sarah has been giving money to charities since her early teen years, she and Ethan began donating as a couple in 2008. Racked with guilt one day after buying a candied apple for $4—money that could have instead been spent on a life-saving mosquito net—Sarah resolved to waste no money on nonessentials for herself beyond a strictly self-regulated $38 per week, a rule Ethan follows as well. He is a programmer, and the 70 percent of his salary they don’t donate is either saved or used on essential expenses like food; all of Sarah’s earnings go to NGOs such as the Against Malaria Foundation.

“If all were well with the world, [Sarah] would love to live on a farm somewhere, and keep chickens, and grow pumpkins and runner beans and sunflowers in the garden, and have lots of children to cook for. She would sew curtains and clothes, and bake pies. But all is not well with the world,” MacFarquhar said. For Sarah, donating is no grand act of munificence—it’s a duty on par with not stealing.

Perhaps this is why Sarah finds others’ behavior stranger than her own. “I feel like I'm pulling at something heavy that I can't possibly lift by myself, maybe pulling a car out of a mudpit,” MacFarquhar recounted Sarah telling her. “And everyone is standing around saying, ‘Boy, it's too bad that car is in that mud pit,’ or ‘That looks like hard work you're doing,’ or, more often, ‘Did you hear the Italian team just lost out to Slovakia?’” Why would everyone stand around when, with a little pulling from everyone, so many lives could be improved?

Should we admire her extreme morality, or should we pity her pathological obsession? Is there something wrong with her—or could there be something wrong with the rest of us?

The philosopher Peter Singer has a more poignant analogy. For decades he has argued that leading a life of luxury is the moral equivalent of seeing a child drown in a shallow stream and doing nothing for fear of ruining your clothes. The money you spend beyond what you need for basic comforts could go toward saving children’s lives from famine or disease, and the fact that you cannot see those children is irrelevant from an ethical point of view.

With Singer’s famous argument as a springboard, in her lecture MacFarquhar discussed utilitarianism: essentially, the view that morality reduces to creating the greatest good for the greatest number. MacFarquhar described Sarah and Ethan as a utilitarian couple, but Sarah reached her ethical conclusions before being exposed to the kind of arguments Singer makes. In fact, some of their views are opposed to those of traditional utilitarian thinkers: Their morality does not extend to animals, for example, and Ethan does not ascribe to the idea that he must treat strangers and loved ones with equal moral concern.

That Sarah and Ethan are not zealous advocates of any particular creed helps contribute to their image as fundamentally normal people. MacFarquhar went out of her way to characterize Sarah and Ethan as ordinary individuals who have ordinary tastes but an extraordinary sense of duty. She stressed that she picked them (as well as others for her upcoming book) as subjects in part because they are not freakishly extreme. Given their beliefs, they are “pragmatic and practical, not perfect and pure.”

MacFarquhar perceives a seemingly universal tendency to dismiss saintliness as either self-serving or unnatural, a tendency manifested everywhere from fiction to behavioral science to everyday life. This is why she implicitly implored the audience to avoid that trap and instead allow Sarah and Ethan to “force us to think harder than we usually do about what we owe to others” early in her talk, even if we do not reach their conclusions after doing so.

In one of the central ironies of the night, however, some audience members pathologized Sarah and Ethan in the discussion session following the lecture. One person suggested that Sarah might suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, but MacFarquhar said that, on the contrary, Sarah is “extremely controlled” in her actions. Another audience member wondered how Ethan could love Sarah despite the fact that, because of her commitment to moral impartiality, Sarah “can’t love him back in the way we usually define love.”

MacFarquhar dissented, saying she found it generous. “Were Ethan to be sick, she would recognize other people love their husbands as much as she loves hers and that their suffering is equal,” MacFarquhar said. “So why should she care much much more about her own?”



"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's student-driven news portal. We review events and speakers and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. Undergraduate Stanford students write the articles and the Center for Ethics in Society edits and produces the content so that the student writers learn to translate academic subject matter into accessible terms and strengthen the clarity and precision of their writing.