review of Larissa MacFarquhar’s book Strangers Drowning

This book is full of astonishing, inspiring, and heartwarming biographical sketches.

He responded to everyone. He wrote back to all e-mails, and often, when he wrote, a reply would arrive within minutes, and he would reply to the reply. He answered all phone calls, day or night; many came in the night.

Things didn’t always go well. Nemoto’s efforts gave him extreme anxiety and he landed in the hospital with heart problems. Many of the people he’d been trying to help showed no reciprocal empathy for him, and instead scolded him for not continuing to be always available for them. (Nemoto then came up with a way to keep helping people while protecting himself from burnout: “he would not communicate with people until he had met them. If they wanted his counsel, they first had to come to his temple.”)

Wagner, the kidney donor, was also punished for his generosity:

The surgery itself left him feeling battered and exhausted. Afterward, when he was sitting in his hospital bed, the phone rang. A woman on the other end, who had heard about him on the local news, told him that she hoped his remaining kidney would fail quickly and kill him, because her husband had been next in line to receive a kidney and he, Paul, had given his to someone else.

Such deranged outbursts are, though disheartening, at least understandable, as the coping mechanism of a traumatized person who is watching powerlessly as her world falls apart. But Wagner was also criticized in a newspaper article “wondering whether it was fair for him to pick his recipient, choosing who lived and who died.” Unless the journalist in question has donated their own kidney to a random recipient, I’d like to politely suggest they keep their hand-wringing to themselves.

MacFarquhar calls individuals who go to extreme lengths to be altruistic during ordinary times “do-gooders”. People are often inclined to see such behavior as misguided or deranged. MacFarquhar notes that some of “the most fundamental, vital, and honorable urges of human life” are in conflict with the do-gooder lifestyle. This comes across most clearly in the lives of people who are obsessed with minimization—of their own consumption, or of the time and resources they invest in their romantic relationships—in order to maximize the impact they can have on the world. But most of the book’s subjects are not like this. For most of the subjects, you get the impression that the hardships they've undertaken have not left them empty or deprived, but rather have brought meaning and connection to their lives.

…some do-gooders are happy, some are not. The happy ones are happy for the same reasons anyone is happy—love, work, purpose. It’s do-gooders’ unhappiness that is different—a reaction not only to humiliation and lack of love and the other usual stuff, but also to knowing that the world is filled with misery, and that most people don’t really notice or care, and that, try as they might, they cannot do much about either of those things.

The book does not reach firm conclusions, though MacFarquhar seems more sympathetic to her subjects than to their critics. As am I. Of the various reasons she outlines that people are uneasy with do-gooders, “defensiveness” rings most true to me. Her distinction between heroes and do-gooders helps show where this comes from:

A hero … comes upon a problem and decides to help. … When he’s not helping, he returns to his ordinary life. Because of this, his noble act isn’t felt as a reproach: You couldn’t have done what he did because you weren’t there—you aren’t part of his world. You can always imagine that you would have done what he did if you had been there…

The do-gooder, on the other hand, knows that there are crises everywhere, all the time, and he seeks them out. … He has no ordinary life: his good deeds are his life. …do-gooders are a reproach: you know, as the do-gooder knows, that there is always, somewhere, a need for help.

Even if you theoretically believe in a distinction between obligatory and supererogatory actions, I think it’s really difficult to simultaneously

a) believe that some benevolent action would be a really good, praiseworthy thing to do, and

b) be totally comfortable with yourself choosing to do something self-centered instead.

And it’s perhaps more difficult for those of us with utilitarian leanings, who in principle believe that what you ought to do is just whatever is the absolute best thing to do.

So when confronted with evidence that there’s almost always something really morally good that we could be doing instead of indulging our own desires, we tend to look for reasons to believe it’s not actually true. Very few people—certainly not me—are actually willing to be maximally altruistic for a prolonged period of time, and we don’t like the cognitive dissonance of believing that we’re less good than we could be.

Personally, I try to accept that dissonance to some extent. There are certain things that I’m convinced are morally right (like giving substantially more to charity than I do, or becoming vegan) that I simply do not have the willpower for. If I were determined to defend the belief that I’m a good person who has no drastic moral shortcomings, I’d have a strong incentive to subconsciously deceive myself into accepting whatever weak or spurious arguments would justify my current behavior. I think it’s better to simply admit that I fall short. Doing so offers a middle ground between being complacent and being overwhelmed, and leaves open the possibility of change. I’m not going to live up to my ideals immediately (or probably ever), but I can gradually and continually try to move towards them.