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Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity
SUNDAY TIMES and GUARDIAN BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2015
What does it mean to devote yourself wholly to helping others? In Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar seeks out people living lives of extreme ethical commitment, and tells their intimate stories: their stubborn integrity and their compromises; their bravery and their recklessness; their wrenching dilemmas.
A couple adopts two children in distress. But then they think: if they can change two lives, why not four? Or ten? They adopt twenty. But how do they weigh the needs of unknown children in distress against the needs of the children they already have?
Another couple founds a leprosy colony in the wilderness in India, living in huts with no walls, knowing that their two small children may contract leprosy or be eaten by panthers. The children survive. But what if they hadn't? How would their parents' risk have been judged?
We honour such generosity and high ideals; but when we call people 'do-gooders' there is scepticism in it, even hostility. Why do moral people make us uneasy? Between her stories, MacFarquhar threads a lively history of the novels, philosophy, social science, and self-help that have contributed to a deep suspicion of do-gooders in Western culture.
Through its sympathetic and beautifully vivid storytelling, Strangers Drowning confronts us with fundamental questions about what it means to be human. In a world of strangers drowning in need, how much should we help, and how much can we help? Is it right to care for strangers even at the expense of those we are closest to? Moving and provocative, Strangers Drowning challenges us to think about what we value most, and why.
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What Reviewers Are Saying
A brilliant and rigorous thinker... As a book on altruism, this is also a book that invites us to think about selfishness - she's good on Adam Smith and Darwin, among many others * Evening Standard * Strangers Drowning is a book written in a deceptively simple and clear voice about people, about how morality lodges itself in a person not as an abstract idea, or even a value, but as a direction for life... Impressive * Financial Times * Chilling and utterly absorbing... Combining critical analysis with compassion, the book's treatment is reminiscent of Oliver Sacks, who explored the more extraordinary aspects of ordinary lives -- Frances Wilson * Daily Telegraph * Daringly conceived, brilliantly executed - may change not just how you see the world, but how you live in it -- Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers