At the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, President Barack Obama told the story of a group of Americans who were captured by the Nazis during World War II.
The head of the German prison camp gave an order that the Jewish soldiers step forward. An American master sergeant, Roddie Edmonds, ordered all of his men to step forward. The Nazi held a gun to the sergeant’s head and said, “These can’t all be Jewish.” The sergeant replied, “We are all Jews.” Rather than execute all of the men, the Nazi backed down.
That kind of moral heroism took place in extraordinary circumstances. But even today there are moral heroes making similar if less celebrated sacrifices than those soldiers were ready to make.
Larissa MacFarquhar’s recent book, “Strangers Drowning,” is about such people. She writes about radical do-gooders. One of her subjects started a leper colony in India. One couple had two biological children and then adopted 20 more kids who needed a home. A women risked rape to serve as a nurse in war-torn Nicaragua. One couple lived on $12,000 a year so they could donate the additional money they earned annually, about $50,000, to charity.
These people were often driven by moral rage and a need to be of pure service to the world. They tend to despise comfort and require a life that is difficult, ascetic and self-sacrificial. They yearn for the feeling that they are doing their utmost to relieve suffering. One abandoned a marriage to serve the poor.
For these extreme do-gooders, MacFarquhar writes, it is always wartime. There are always sufferers somewhere in the world as urgently in need of rescue as victims of a battle. The do-gooders feel themselves conscripted to duty.
Some radical do-gooders are what philosopher Susan Wolf calls rational saints. It is their duty to reduce the sum total of suffering in the world, and the suffering of people halfway around the world is no different than the suffering of someone next door.
There’s a philosophy question: If you were confronted with the choice between rescuing your mother from drowning or two strangers, who should you rescue? With utilitarian logic, the rational saint would rescue the two strangers because saving two lives is better than saving one. Their altruism is impartial, universal and self-denying. “The evil in this world is the creation of those who make a distinction between the self and other,” one man MacFarquhar writes about says.
Others Wolf calls loving saints. They are good with others’ goodness, suffering in others’ pain. They are the ones holding the leper, talking to the potential suicide hour upon hour. Their service is radically personal, direct and not always pleasant.
This sort of radical selflessness forces us to confront our own lives. Should we all be living lives with as much moral heroism as these people? Given the suffering in the world, are we called to drop everything and give it our all? Did you really need that $4 Frappuccino when that money could have gone to the poor?
The argument against this sort of pure moral heroism is that fanaticism in the relief of suffering is still a form of fanaticism. It makes reciprocal relationships difficult, because one is always giving, never receiving. It can lead to a draconian asceticism that almost seems to invite unnecessary suffering.
Love, by its nature, should be strongest when it is personal and intimate. To make love universal, to give no priority to the near over the far, is to denude love of its texture and warmth. It is really a way of avoiding love because you make yourself invulnerable.
In an essay on Gandhi, George Orwell argued that the essence of being human is in the imperfect flux of life, not in the single-minded purity of sainthood. It is the shared beer, the lazy afternoon, the life of accepted imperfection. Full humanness is in having multiple messy commitments and pleasures, not one monistic duty that eclipses all else.
In a 1982 essay called “Moral Saints,” Wolf argued that the desire to be supremely good can never be just one desire among many; it demotes and subsumes all the other desires. She wrote that a world in which everybody strove to achieve moral sainthood “would probably contain less happiness than a world in which people realized a diversity of ideals involving a variety of personal and perfectionist values.”
As Andrew Kuper of LeapFrog Investments put it, sometimes you can do more good by buying that beautiful piece of furniture, putting somebody in Ghana to work.
Yet I don’t want to let us off the hook. There’s a continuum of moral radicalism. Most of us are too far on the comfortable end and too far from the altruistic one. It could be that you or I will only really feel fulfilled after a daring and concrete leap in the direction of moral radicalism.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.