on ‘Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity’ By Larissa MacFarquhar

Strangers-drowning-jacket-booksRowan Williams at Literary Review:

What if morality had more to do with habit and character, with the grace of receiving as well as of giving, rather than being just the sum total of right actions? Singer and many (but not all) of the figures whose stories feature inStrangers Drowning are committed Kantians in their ethics: they believe that morality is about the quest for the unequivocally good action. But, as the dilemmas flagged in the title should tell us, there are choices in which there is no unequivocally good outcome. Talking as though there were one can imperceptibly encourage us to ignore certain kinds of suffering or pain in the way touched on earlier. As many moral philosophers have insisted over the last few decades, focusing on how to make infallibly right choices (and also on hard cases where this looks practically impossible) isn’t a very useful way of thinking about a good life as opposed to an ensemble of right answers. Part of the discomfort generated by some of MacFarquhar’s case studies is to do with a sense that some people are looking almost obsessively for a scheme of ideas that will assure them beyond doubt that they are doing what is right. The more sympathetic figures in this book are those who ruefully acknowledge that their moral maximalism cannot ever quite deliver this and that the human cost along the way may be disturbingly high; or those whose generosity has about it some dimension of warmth or joy as well as effectiveness.

more here.