David Johnson: How did you become interested in extreme cases of moral virtue?
Larissa MacFarquhar: I’ve been interested in them for a long time, but one of the things I read that got me thinking in a more systematic way was the philosopher Susan Wolf’s essay “Moral Saints.” [PDF] She argues that our conceptions of perfect moral virtue (what she calls saintliness) and of a well-lived life are irreconcileable, so one of them has to go. She is basically anti-saint—she concludes that it’s our view of morality that has to go. I tend towards the other conclusion, but her essay was very useful in framing the question. It seemed to me, though, that you couldn’t think about the problem only in the abstract. If you want to consider the cost of making certain ethical decisions, you have to see how they play out in actual lives. So that’s why I decided to write about people who have a very demanding sense of moral duty and live their lives accordingly.
DJ: So are you writing a defense of moral saints?
LM: More or less, yes. And part of the book will be a history of a kind of counter-morality that opposes what I’m calling saintliness. (Obviously that term has religious connotations, but I don’t intend those; I mean extreme morality.) I find the people I’m writing about extremely admirable, and I’m puzzled by the suspicion they attract. When I started working on this project I was simply interested in what a life lived according to certain kinds of moral strictures looked like. But when I wrote about people who had donated one of their kidneys to a stranger, I was astonished and fascinated to hear about how much hostility they had encountered, and I wanted to think about what was behind that.
DJ: Outsiders were suspicious.
LM: They were. But in all sorts of different ways. Some thought people who appeared to be extremely ethical must be somehow cheating—that they couldn’t actually be doing all those good things. Others believed they were doing those things, but they found that so weird that they thought they must have some kind of mental illness—that they must lack the ordinary component of desires or feelings, or that there was something robotic about them.
DJ: Susan Wolf is certainly right that we find moral saints problematic. But what are we getting wrong when we view them skeptically?
LM: If the suspicion is hypocrisy, I think we underestimate the sort of people I’m writing about—it’s entirely possible to live an extremely ethical life without being hypocritical. But besides that, I think people overvalue certain kinds of sins. For instance, many people have said to me, when they hear who I’m writing about, ‘Well, don’t they just act morally to make themselves feel better? Don’t they get all self-righteous and overly proud of themselves?’ I think that pride and self-righteousness are far less important than most people seem to think they are. I think that if you’re doing something that’s hard to do and good to do, and that makes you feel proud, I just don’t see why that’s so terrible. One kidney donor told me that his donation made him feel better about himself—that it was one really good thing he’d done in his life, which he had otherwise made a pretty complete mess of. Some psychologists think you shouldn’t donate in order to feel better about yourself, but it strikes me as an excellent reason!
What’s more, I think what is criticized as self-righteousness or preachiness is often the result of a desire to further whatever cause the person is engaged in. If a person held back from talking about his cause out of a desire to appear less self righteous, that would be its own problem—and a much more serious one. The people I’m going to talk about tonight encounter this problem all the time and they wrestle with it.
DJ: One thing I find is that for people not brought up in religious households, religion seems bizarre. They can’t understand how anybody could even care about the problems that religious people focus on. How have you approached religious figures that you’ve written about? How have you grappled with the fact that you haven’t had the same internal tensions or experiences that they’ve had?
LM: The people I’m writing about are very unlike me in a whole range of ways, so that’s just one of them. I deal with it the same way I would deal with anything else, which is to listen to what they say and try to ask the right questions. I do ask what difference God makes to their ethical beliefs, but it’s as hard for them to imagine a world without faith as it is for me to imagine a world with it.
Kimberley Brown-Whale, a Methodist minister whom I wrote about in my kidney donor piece, described a difference between religious people such as herself and secular people that was very enlightening. She said that if you believe in God, you believe in grace, and so you don’t think it’s up to you to fix the world—that’s God’s business. Your job is to do your duty as best you can, but there’s never this sense that if I don’t do it, there will be disaster. God is in control, and God’s love will see the world through. Whereas for secular people, it’s all up to us. We’re alone here. That’s why I think that, for secular people, there can be an additional layer of urgency and despair.
I also think that, within many religious traditions, there is a much more of an acceptance of suffering as a part of life and not necessarily always a terrible thing, because it can help you become a fuller person. Whereas, at least in my limited experience, secular utilitarians hate suffering. They see nothing good in it, they want to eliminate it, and they see themselves as responsible for doing so.