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?