The Activism of William Marsden – Piety and Partiality

In many ways William Marsden was an average 25 year old man living in Vancouver. He had a girlfriend, a small circle of close friends and worked as an administrator for a non-profit organization that supported the homeless within Vancouver, but while William was charming he had the distinct ability to irritate those who he was close with, while being adored by those who barely knew him.

On March 12th 2014 it was William’s birthday and his friends took him out to a pub on West Broadway. His two closest friends, Zoe and Linus were there, along with his girlfriend Alex. While Linus knew that William became exasperated when he received gifts he had found a classic Rage Against the Machine t-shirt which brought him back to his early teenage years; he and William had bonded while listening to Rage’s Evil Empire.

About an hour after William arrived, Linus cornered William while he was getting a drink and handed him the shirt. William looked down at Linus’ hands in disgust and said “I don’t need more shirts. This money could have been better spent by providing funds to my charity or another good cause.”

Linus explained “I recognize that, but you are an important friend in my life, and I wanted to show that by giving something to you.”

William reluctantly took the shirt and said “I will take the shirt this time, because it means so much to you, but you should really consider how money can best be used when you are spending it.”

Linus had no reply as there was no point in arguing with William on this subject. He was just happy that William had eventually decided to take the shirt.

A little later in that year William was at his weekly Yoga class when he realized that he had to do something drastic in his life in order to meet his image of himself as a person who was devoted to the betterment of mankind.

That night he sat down with Alex and said “I am moving the Democratic Republic of the Congo, because my expertise as an administrator would be of far more value there than it is here in Vancouver. While the homeless in Vancouver are suffering my work would do far more good in the Congo. I want you to come with me so that we can share this enriching experience together.”

Alex knew that activism was important to William`s life but she was dumbstruck that the man she had spent nearly two years with could so nonchalantly ask her to give up her budding career as a lawyer, and leave all her friends to pursue activism in the Congo. She did not know what to say. All that she could manage to get out was “I don`t know what to make of this. I deeply care for you, but you are asking me to sacrifice all of my ties to support your commitment to a very specific cause.`

William responded `I was hoping you would understand, but I am afraid my suspicions were right and you just don`t get how important my going to the Congo is. Clearly you are no wiser than those fools who do not buy their shoes from TOMS. I will go without you if you are not willing to come.“

Alex replied “If you value your purity as an activist more than our relationship than this should have ended long ago.` Alex then stormed out of William`s apartment before he could say anything.

Without a second thought William began packing up his things for the Congo. He wondered where he would live in the Congo, but that was a challenge that he could figure out later. He had avoided the temptation of being distracted from his true quest by a romantic relationship, and for that he was proud.


After reading this story most people would come to have mixed feelings about William. He is clearly very pious and cares about making the world a better place, but these commitments prevent him from being a good friend or romantic partner. What are we to make of this? It seems to me there are a few things that we can take away from this.

One thing that we can take from this is the Berlinian point that the good of general benevolence towards the human race is at odds with the particular goods of romantic love and friendship, as William is unable to secure both goods in life, but ultimately must choose to place priority over one set over the other.

In addition one other point we might take away from this story is that there is something deeply problematic about failing to recognize that there exists numerous goods in the world that place commands on us. William’s action shows that he does not think that romantic relationships or friendships place a command on him, and the only God or good that he must serve is that of doing whatever he can to best help mankind.  This is made clear as William does not see his choice as one between competing and incompatible goods, but as a rather obvious choice. Consequently, William’s vice is that he does not recognize the wide range of goods that exist in the world and that call him. Instead he is so mesmerized by the good of efficient activism that he does not recognize that he is sacrificing all sorts of valuable goods for this one particular good.  One offshoot of this point is that we not only can we bewitched by evil, but we can also be so bewitched by the appeal of particular goods such that we fail to recognize the validity of the claims of other goods.

One further point we might take away from this story is that people who are moral saints like William may not be desirable as friends or lovers, even if in some overall sense they have a positive influence on humanity.  This is similar to the point that Susan Wolf makes in her essay “Moral Saints,” but I do not have a copy of that work on hand and it has been so long since I have read it that I cannot speak to the exact similarities and differences.

Please feel free to answer any or all of the following questions:

Do you agree with my assessment of William?

Do you find William admirable or contemptible?

Is there anything else we can take away from this story?

7 thoughts on “The Activism of William Marsden – Piety and Partiality

  1. Very interesting, I’ve always enjoyed your merging of fiction writing and philosophy and here is a great example of your talents.

    I, of course, agree with your observations on William. But I couldn’t help but think of the important difference between persons such as Will and anonymous do-gooders. We do seem to have some contempt for Will due to his self-righteousness, or at least have some skepticism about his true intentions. By contrast, we don’t have these same feelings about superheroes who suffer personal setbacks because of their duties and don’t take credit for their good actions — I’m thinking of someone like spiderman who strains relationships by his frequent absences and doesn’t use his good actions as an excuse.

    There seem to be many explanations for these differences in judgment, but an interesting one might be that we are made uncomfortable by individuals transcending their individuality to be impartial, as we have expectations of human nature that cause us to doubt such a possibility. We are more comfortable with entities lacking individuality, broadly construed to include institutions of justice as well as anonymous do-gooders like spiderman, being impartial, than individuals being non-individualistic, to understand partiality another way.

    • I second this. I wonder about William’s true intentions.

      I find a certain contempt for him because he seems to be doing this out of pride, not out of genuine concern for people. If he had a good heart and his activism came from this place he would not want to hurt anyone, least of all the woman he supposedly loves! It seems like he cares more for people in the abstract rather than real people. There’s something crazy about this.

      Even if his intentions were good, he fails to recognize the virtue of living a balanced life. Think of anyone who achieves greatness—I think there must be imbalance there, an overpowering ego driving such a person to do spectacular things which the rest of society undoubtedly admires. But what is it like to have such an ego? Can that really be so good? Perhaps it is for society, but how do we judge such a person?

      • rung2diotimasladder: I think you are onto something with your comment about pride. In part William was supposed to be someone who made a very extreme form of utilitarianism as a part of his identity, and this is where pride comes in. William’s motivation seems to be that he has an image of himself as a do-gooder and he acts on the basis of meeting that image as opposed to helping the vulnerable. And to be perfectly candid our culturally Christian sensibilities are offended by this sort of thinking is not based in pity and compassion.

        But I would argue that meeting the image that one has of oneself as a moral agent is an (a) an inherent part of ethical agency and (b) something that ought to be valued. For example, if I say to myself I am not the kind of person who would steal and that is why I do not pirate media I do not see why this is a problem. It is not an other-centred form of ethical thinking, but it seems to have a place, as there are many things that we value about ourselves not in relation to the needs of others, but because of their inherent worth.

        The problem occurs when this image of what kind of person we want to be begins to override and overpower our concern for concrete others in the world. It is a struggle for everyone to develop an image of the kind of person they want to be which is not merely aesthetically attractive, but responds to both our specific needs and the needs of others that we come into contact with in the world. To develop a self-image as William has that seems to be not consider friendship and romantic love seems to be a problematic thing to do.

        I also agree about those who strive to be great. As I mentioned in my comment to Austin there can be people who contribute greatly to society, but do not seem to have admirable characteristics as a whole.

        Furthermore, it seems to me that there is no single sense in which we can speak of goodness. For example, goodness of character is in deep tension with the goodness of states of affairs. William might be good for the world as a whole and thus is good in the sense that he promotes better states of affairs, but we also have contempt for many of his traits, and therefore he does not exemplify goodness of character.

        But if there is no single sense of goodness, what unites all these conceptions as conceptions of goodness? Is it mere historical accident? Or is there some deeper relationship or property that unites them?

        Thanks for posing this interesting comment. It certainly helped me to think a little bit deeper about this subject.

    • AusomeAwestin: Thanks for the compliment and the perceptive comment.

      I agree that we don’t have the same contempt for Spiderman as we do for William, and I think that is in part linked with Spiderman being an anonymous do gooder rather than a prospective friend or lover.

      We can see this contrast as I admire Spiderman as a character, but like William, I would not want to be friends or in a romantic relationship with him because his commitment to being the agent of abstract justice leaves his ability to sustain friendships and relationships diminished.

      A similar point may be made about the extremely committed artist as a figure (the person whose fundamental purpose is to create something beautiful and sacrifices everything for this end). We value them because of the beauty that they create, but such figures tend to be distant and unable to form serious bonds with concrete others, because of their commitment to the creation of art.

      For example if we consider a person like Miles Davis we see someone who was fundamental in the development of jazz and provided a serious contribution to art. But there is no question that the dude was an arrogant, irritable asshole.

      • I’m inclined to think we have a greater responsibility for our moral character rather than saving the world and making a big impact in some way. Of course we admire people who sacrifice their own happiness to achieve greater ends, but our admiration often wrongly presupposes that such sacrifice comes from the former, from greatness of character, when it often just comes down to ego.

        Miles Davis is another great example. Artists are cherished for their dedication, but what would we think if we saw their lives up close? Does this new information diminish their character? I think it would. But so many of us are caught up in wanting to achieve similar greatness that we dismiss such failures as collateral damage. This single-mindedness is destructive.

        I think it is possible to be both successful or famous and have moral character, but it’s a pretty rare thing for obvious reasons. I also think the good in both cases is the same, only different prioritization and balance. Of course if I have the opportunity to make a huge impact in saving the world without sacrificing those dearest and closest to me, I will. But there’s something perverse about choosing the former over the latter in an either/or situation. (Besides, I doubt the situation is either/or. There are ways we can contribute to the greater cause without being the Savior, and these quieter ways are more reasonable.)

      • I tend to also think that we have greater responsibility for our character than to save the world or make some sort of significant contribution. But I would have a hard time explaining why to someone who denied this, as my only response would be to appeal to the intuition that you rightly point to that there is something perverse about sacrificing particular attachments for another good.

        Although, as I think about this more I think one way to explain the greater importance of character over doing something significant is related to practical reason. From a first person perspective, as an agent in the world with particular attachments, it seems perverse and wrongheaded to sacrifice all of these attachments for some grand goal like saving the world. But from a third person perspective the particular attachments don’t matter as much as saving children from death by dehydration.This is the grain of truth in utilitarianism; if we abstract from our historically situated situation and say what actions would lead to the overall best state of affairs it seems plausible to say that leaving your friends or lover to volunteer for a charity halfway across the world may lead to more good than staying with those friends or that lover.

        Unfortunately such a third person centred conception of practical reason seems to be inherently problematic for a couple of reasons. Firstly and most obviously humans are notoriously bad at judging what will lead to the most good from an objective standpoint. This is why some consequentialists like, Sidgwick and Parfit, recognize that maximizing utility is not best served by people trying to maximize utility.

        Furthermore, and more importantly any conception of practical reason has to be compatible with our everyday agency in the world, and simply put no one could consistently follow this conception of practical reason that says maximize utility, or the good, as we tend to act more according to habit than cognition. The utilitarian conception of practical reasoning, and maximizing conceptions like it, only make sense for calculating machines, not for creatures who must act from habit.

        Also another issue that arises in this context is whether the proper unit of moral evaluation is a life, or an act. William might fare better if we evaluate each of his acts independently as they create a lot of good, but his life seems clearly perverse and misguided. I for one tend to think that a life is the primary object of moral evaluation.

      • Well put indeed!

        Yes, we also lack control over vague “third person” objectives, at least to a degree, whereas we have more control over what’s closest to home. It seems more pragmatic to focus on bettering ourselves first, our friends and family next, and so on.

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