This will likely turn out to be one of the ten books that have most shaped my worldview. I’ve struggled my whole life to find the right balance between duty, altruism and hedonism — the responsibilities we have toward others, both near and far, and to our own pursuits of pleasure. Like so many others, I suffer from the nagging guilt that I should be more altruistic, but where does that guilt come from and why do I seem feel it more than most? Strangers Drowning by New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar helped me place that guilt into a much larger picture of what it means to be human and what motivates our moral behavior. Where do we draw the lines between what is expected of us and what goes beyond the call of duty? What do we owe ourselves as imperfect humans inspired by art, vanity, ambition and fellowship?

The book’s title comes from two moral thought experiments. The first is from ethicist Peter Singer: if you’re walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning, do you muddy your clothes to save the child’s life? Of course you do. Yet, we regularly spend our money on frivolous, unnecessary things when that same money could save the lives of children in far-off places. Singer’s argument is compelling; just try reading The Most Good You Can Do without feeling more obligated to help others. MacFarquhar overhears the second thought experiment during a conversation between Jeff McMahan, a moral philosopher at Oxford, and one of his students: should you save the person you love the most from drowning or two strangers? What about three strangers? Three thousand? Three million? Where do we draw the line between whom we love and our responsibility to those we don’t know?

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MacFarquhar observes that the difference between the drowning child and the distant child is one of duty versus altruism:

To most people, the distance between themselves and another person—physical as well as emotional—is a deep moral fact: it makes a profound difference to their sense of duty. A person who is far away, whom you cannot see or hear, and with whom you have no memories or loyalties in common, cannot compel your help in the same way as a person who is right in front of you, or who is in some sense one of your own. Ignoring the cries of a drowning child is a violation of the most basic kind of compassion; anyone who did that would seem less than human. Cultivating sympathy for unseen and unknown people, on the other hand, seems an abstract, second-order, extra-credit sort of moral emotion—admirable enough, but more than can be required of an ordinary person.

The book is a series of episodic profiles of extremely altruistic individuals whose sense of moral duty inspires both admiration and unease. Why are they so hell-bent on sacrificing all pleasure and tranquility in their own lives out of a sense of moral duty to help others despite their frequent inability to actually do so?

The writing style is unique. Unlike her New Yorker profiles, which pull readers into every detail of the physical features of her subjects, in Strangers Drowning, we’re not given even hints of the physical appearances of any of the altruists. Like a movie director, MacFarquhar does everything she can to remove herself from the connection between her subjects’ inner mind and her readers’ judgement. The effect is an alluring sense of intimacy, and also an unfair impression of objectivity — as if the portraits of these do-gooders weren’t filtered through MacFarquhar’s own biases and interpretations.

After profiling three or four altruists, she offers readers a change of pace with a chapter that reflects on the philosophy, psychology, and literary history of altruism. She refuses to criticize or endorse any of her subjects directly. But, whether intentional or not, each reflective chapter is easily interpreted as a condemnation or defense of the individuals profiled before it. (You can read two of the profiles from the book — about Ittetsu Nemoto, a Buddhist monk and online counselor for suicidal Japanese, and Sue and Hector Badeau, who adopted 20 foster kids in need of a home and help — on the New Yorker website.)

On the philosophy of altruism

MacFarquhar dives deep into the philosophy of altruism with a focus on the critiques of utilitarianism. She writes:

The philosopher Susan Wolf has written that a morally perfect person would be an unappealing, alien creature, driven not by the loves and delights of ordinary people but by an unnatural devotion to duty. In a life devoted only to duty, there’s no room for art and little for enjoyment. “Morality itself,” she writes, “does not seem to be a suitable object of passion.”

In a world where we’re all motivated to help as many others as much as we can, there would be no art, no gourmet food. Arguably, in a world where humans do so much damage to other species, there would be no more humanity.

However, MacFarquhar fails to address an appeal of utilitarianism for many non-religious, cerebral do-gooders. Utilitarianism, the idea that that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about moral right and wrong, offers us a clear moral code that isn’t based on natural law or a higher power. She is right that it’s a moral code — like most moral codes — that is impossible to adhere to. But without it, non-believers are left without any code at all.

On the psychology of altruism

This is the chapter that most disturbed and challenged me. It hit too close to home, and it continues to pester me. Here’s MacFarquhar speaking with Lindsay Beyerstein about the role of suffering in altruists and some of the psychological research about altruists she came across in the course of writing the book:

It’s the idea that a child who grows up with at least one parent who is non-functional either because he or she is an alcoholic or severely mentally ill, or for some other reason just does not function as a parent. And the idea is that this child may take on the burden of fixing his family. He wants desperately to make everything OK, and he feels it’s up to him, and so he may try to become the perfect student, he may do the housework, try to cook the dinner, try to take care of his siblings, even his parents. And the idea is that this child may, when he grows up, feel an outsized sense of moral duty to fix the world in the way that he tried to fix his family when he was a child.

At first I resisted this idea as I had resisted many psychological ideas about altruists because it seems designed to suggest that extreme altruists were mentally unhealthy, that there was something wrong with them, that it was simply a matter of trauma. But then I thought about the people I wrote about in my book, and it certainly is striking that almost every single one of them falls into this category. Almost every single one has a parent who is alcoholic or is severely mentally ill. And, in that sense, I think that particular kind of suffering demonstrably can lead to a true moral commitment.

Most of the chapter surveys decades of psychological theory and research suspecting that the true motivations of altruists is a need to control others.

Selflessness was, in Freud’s view, usually suspect. The devoted, self-sacrificing mother, for instance, he found to be part masochist, part tyrant, enslaving her child with chains of guilt … Excessive altruism tended to preclude real intimacy with another person, because intimacy was a business of giving and receiving, but the overly moral person could not receive, only give … The moral narcissist’s extreme humility masked a dreadful pride. Ordinary people could accept that they had faults; the moral narcissist could not.

Others, like science fiction writer David Brin, have suggested that altruists suffer from a “relentless addiction to indignation” — and, indeed, that seems true of a couple of the subjects of Strangers Drowning. These are the kinds of altruists that we can all agree are the most annoying — each act of do-gooding is intended as a slap-in-the-face to everyone else. But MacFarquhar concludes the chapter citing more recent studies that have discovered “people for whom helping others was a source of genuine and unconflicted pleasure.”

Intentions do matter, we realize. We’re left trying to guess the intentions of each of the book’s subjects. And our own.

On the literature of altruism

For me, the most interesting and unexpected chapter of the book surveys the treatment of altruists in English literature. “In novels,” MacFarquhar writes, “moral extremity and a devotion to abstract ideals are nearly always regarded with suspicion … it’s as if there is something about do-gooders that is repellent to fiction.”

There aren’t many do-gooders in fiction, which is odd, because many fiction writers, like do-gooders, are driven by moral rage. But most such writers would rather show the thing that enrages them than show a character trying to fix it. You could say that do-gooders are rare in life, so their rarity in realistic fiction is not surprising — though they are rarer in novels than in real life.

Novelists love to dig into the irrational idiosyncrasies of human behavior driven by lust, desire, fear and ambition. If they were to include highly rational do-gooders, it would only be to deride them for their lack of humanity. Ironically, MacFarquhar’s character portraits show that extreme do-gooders, in fact, make for complex characters with compelling stories.

The ego of individualism

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After presenting readers with all the critiques and suspicions of do-gooders from the fields of philosophy, psychology and literature, MacFarquhar finally puts her cards on the table and expresses enthusiastic admiration for do-gooders:

What do-gooders lack is not happiness but innocence. They lack that happy blindness that allows most people, most of the time, to shut their minds to what is unbearable. Do-gooders have forced themselves to know, and keep on knowing, that everything they do affects other people, and that sometimes (though not always) their joy is purchased with other people’s joy. And, remembering that, they open themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility.

MacFarquhar’s writing is so understated, so subtle, that its nuance and complexity are easily glossed over. I know it’s a book that will offer more the second time that I read it. In an interview, MacFarquhar said: “I hoped that someone reading the book would have experienced enough uncertainty and bewilderment in the course of reading these lives that they would reflect on something of what they were feeling.”

That it certainly does. Mission accomplished.

I only have one critique of the book. MacFarquhar’s treatment of altruism and the individuals she chose to profile present a very individualized notion of what it means to do good. This is a critique that has been leveled against a certain breed of altruists by Amia Srinivasan, Lisa Herzog, Martha Nussbaum, and others. Sure, I could sacrifice 80% of my annual salary, live on peanut butter, and send all my money to purchase malaria bed nets, as GiveWell instructs me to. I could then quantify the estimated number of lives that I personally saved based on research by GiveWell and others. But sending over bed nets (or food or medicine or money) is not necessarily the most effective way to “help others.” We live in a world of complex problems — tax justice, climate change, aging populations, automation of employment — that can only be addressed through institutions, collective action and good old fashioned politics.

We know this to be true, and yet as our economies and societies evolve we retreat from social movements into highly individualized forms of participation, where we seek attribution and recognition for each of our actions. There is a more humble, and arguably more effective, form of altruism, which is to be one of many organizing and advocating for social justice.

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