Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning is one part modern-day Lives of the Saints, one part confirmation that this is no age for saints. It consists of profiles—many adapted from pieces MacFarquhar wrote for the New Yorker, where she is a staff writer—alternating with chapters describing our increasing ambivalence toward the sort of people she’s profiled. She calls such a person a “do-gooder,” by which she means not just someone who tithes a moderate portion of time or money to charity but rather “someone who pushes himself to moral extremity, who commits himself wholly, beyond what seems reasonable.” Do-gooders are people who give over their entire lives to helping others, even if that means sacrificing some portion of what they give to their own families. And they are people the rest of us tend to find deeply discomfiting. Why?
MacFarquhar opens the book with a parablelike conversation between a philosophy professor and student, arguing about morality over a Thai lunch. They discuss a thought experiment in which someone is offered the choice between rescuing either their mother or two strangers from drowning. “If you care about the strangers and your mother equally, it’s just a numbers game at that point,” the student remarks. The professor, being a father, thinks that only someone who doesn’t have kids could believe that such decisions would ever be a matter of numbers.
In the real world, almost nobody gets presented with the mutually exclusive choice between saving the life of a loved one and saving some larger quantity of strangers. Even so, we’re fascinated by such dilemmas: How often, in action movies, do we see the hero, with the supervillain finally at bay, forced to surrender his advantage after the bad guy reveals that he has the hero’s girlfriend or kid at his mercy? It makes no sense for the hero to drop his gun and put up his hands to prevent the villain from killing his wife on the spot, especially when the villain clearly intends to wipe out everyone who opposes him, or even the entire human race, once he’s regained the upper hand. But part of what makes a hero a hero is that he cannot bear to see someone he loves murdered as a result of his own actions. On the brink of saving the world, his personal feelings trump his nobility.
The do-gooders MacFarquhar profiles have no time for such frivolities as action movies. While they haven’t allowed their mothers to drown, some of them have placed their own children in stressful and even dangerous circumstances in the course of pursuing their causes. A Methodist missionary brought her sickly son to Anguilla. A couple adopted 20 children (in addition to their two biological offspring) because they knew that otherwise the kids would be separated from their siblings or institutionalized.
Others merely give everything they can to the suffering, subjecting their own daily lives to a nearly unbearable moral scrutiny. One of the women MacFarquhar interviewed burst into tears when her boyfriend told her that, inspired by her example, he now planned to give as much of his income as possible to charity. He’d just bought her a candy apple at a street fair, and she realized that her extravagance might have deprived an impoverished family overseas of “an antimalarial bed net or deworming medicine that might have saved the life of one of its children.”
The fact that she was technically right about this doesn’t dispel the sense that her reaction seems a bit unhinged; the candy apple was right there, apparently harmless, while the malarial child seems far away and hypothetical. Human morality has a peculiar spatial dimension, which is what the philosopher Peter Singer attempted to dismantle in his 1972 essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Singer observed that if you happened to walk past a shallow pond in which a child was drowning, you’d consider yourself barbaric if you refused to come to the child’s rescue for fear of muddying your clothes. Yet you blithely spend $100 (or more) for a pair of new shoes that you don’t really need when the same money, donated to the proper charity, could easily save the lives of several children in a developing nation.
Singer’s argument, which sparked the practical revival of a branch of moral philosophy known as utilitarianism, is the heartbeat of Strangers Drowning. Not all of the people MacFarquhar writes about cite it; in particular, a clan of Indian humanitarians, who founded both a leper colony and a clinic compound for a beleaguered jungle tribe, seems largely unconcerned with Western theories about philanthropy. But many of the Americans the author interviewed have been involved with or touched by a movement called “effective altruism,” which has used Singer’s thought experiment as a springboard for rationalizing charity.
Effective altruists believe in measuring exactly how much suffering can be relieved by exactly how much effort and then maximizing the results. At one meeting MacFarquhar describes, a French guest who had founded a children’s health clinic in Kenya was “startled and bewildered to discover that this effort was not much valued by the effective altruists.” If he had instead devoted himself to maximizing his First World salary, the money he would have been able to donate would have paid for enough local workers to accomplish much more.
Like the woman who wept over her candy apple, the effective altruists, despite seeming extreme, technically have a point. A recent joint ProPublica/NPR investigation into the Red Cross’ inadequate relief work following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and 2012’s Hurricane Sandy revealed that feel-good outpourings of public generosity need to be backed up with demands for rigorous accountability from the charities that receive it. Yet the movement seems to attract people whose obsession with quantifying morality justifies a lack of quotidian compassion. One animal rights activist, who chose to defend chickens because with them he believed he could maximize the quantity of suffering he could eliminate, refused to wash his own dishes. He told his wife that it was more important to spend that time working for animals.
Several of the stories MacFarquhar tells in Strangers Drowning involve earnest young women involved with such men. One has a boyfriend who feels sure that, with enough work, he could profoundly change the world, so he limits himself to sleeping only three hours a night. When she tries to temper his zeal, “she would write a long series of numbered arguments, and he would send back replies such as: ‘I disagree with premise 4 of your argument, please clarify how you are using the word “difficult,” here are five possible definitions of the word, which one do you mean?’ ” Another notices that the effective altruism meetings she attends with her boyfriend are overwhelmingly populated with “well-educated young white men of technological background and rational disposition.” For many, that description will conjure up memories of long, wearisome conversations with libertarians, say, or atheists, whose utter confidence that they have figured everything out seems a stark contrast with their clumsiness in managing ordinary human interactions.
Still, it’s not just this new breed of do-gooder who strikes the average observer as a bit off. MacFarquhar provides a capsule history of the mistrust the breed has inspired, culminating in a consideration of what she regards as the do-gooder’s most implacable and persuasive critic: the modern novel. Freudians deemed altruism a covert form of masochistic power trip. Anthropologists insisted that one-way giving undermines the social bonding achieved by reciprocal exchanges and makes the recipient feel humiliated. Pop psychologists labeled the self-sacrificing behavior of the spouses of alcoholics “codependency” and called all such behavior a disease. Novelists, who consider themselves the bards of humanity at its most complex and flawed, have exhibited a pronounced distrust of saints. From Charles Dickens’ Mrs. Jellyby, in Bleak House—who neglects her own children and husband to campaign for the unfortunate in far-off Africa—to Ralph Eldred in Hilary Mantel’s A Change of Climate—who takes in disturbed children, even though they abuse his family —fictional characters who place principle over those closest to them are almost always depicted as misguided and destructive.
Oddly enough, the one contemporary viewpoint the otherwise brilliant Strangers Drowning skimps on a bit is that of moral philosophy. Singer may be accounted for, but not so the proliferation in recent years of “trolley problems”—or, in the sprightly coinage of philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, “trolleyology.” You’ve probably heard a version of it: You stand on a bridge over a forking trolley track, beside a switch that can direct an oncoming trolley over one branch of the fork or the other. An out-of-control trolley comes hurtling down the track, which is currently aligned so that the car will run over five people tied to that branch. One person is tied to the other branch. Do you flip the switch, thereby saving the lives of five people but causing the death of one?
As Singer himself has written, most people, when presented with this scenario, think it is acceptable or right to pull the switch. However, if there’s no switch, and the only way to stop the trolley from running over five people is to push one (very large) man off the bridge and onto the tracks, most people regard this choice as beyond the pale. Why? Some philosophers think it’s because pushing the fat man onto the tracks constitutes a deliberate murder while throwing the switch is more like manslaughter, a killing that occurs, regrettably, in the course of saving other lives. Still others think the switch introduces an element of impersonality that actually pushing the man’s body off the bridge denies.
At the very least, though, trolley problems suggest the degree to which morality is largely not rational, contrary to all the efforts of the effective altruists to make it so. Why should it be, when it is entirely the creation of flawed human beings living in weak and mortal bodies? Morality springs from emotion, and emotion fuels it. Most of us care more about people who are close to our bodies than those who are far away, and above all we usually care more about people who inhabit bodies related to the ones we inhabit. But if we didn’t have bodies, we wouldn’t care about anyone at all. It’s the prospect of contact with that poor man’s body, the sensation of our own hands sinking into and thrusting his human flesh to its death, that makes the “fat man problem” so sickening to contemplate. Let’s not even talk about the fact that we’d need to look him in the eyes while doing it. This stuff was never a numbers game.
Self-sacrifice is also human, as MacFarquhar points out. We’re stirred by tales of heroic deeds, like the firefighters who rushed into the World Trade Center on 9/11, or the capacity of generous fellow feeling to reach across the globe, like the $170 the Choctaw Nation sent to Ireland when they learned of the Potato Famine in 1847. (That one never fails to make me tear up.) So why are we so unsettled by people who push the impulse toward charity and selflessness even further? Why do we insinuate that they are deluded, manipulative, destructive, and even mentally ill?
Do-gooders take something we all want to believe is quintessentially human—the willingness to extend ourselves to strangers—and place it in direct conflict with something that is even more fundamentally human: caring for our own. The result is a bit like a reverse version of the famed Uncanny Valley effect, in which a representation of a human being becomes more disturbing as its resemblance to an actual human being increases. Do-gooders are already human, of course, but as they ratchet up their selflessness, they begin, ever so slightly, to depart from the fold. They look like us and talk like us, but they abide by rules that we understand we could only adopt were we to abandon something that feels essential to ourselves.
Strangers Drowning: Grappling With Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help by Larissa MacFarquhar. Penguin Press.