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You’re taking a walk and you pass a shallow pond, where you find a drowning child. You would not harm yourself if you saved him, though you would muddy your clothes. Do you do it? To not do it would seem abhorrent to most of us. You would be a monster. Of course, you think. Muddy clothes are nothing compared to a dead child.

And yet some people, like the philosopher Peter Singer, will say to you that, in a way, you are walking by this drowning child right now. To ignore a stranger suffering on the other side of the world, when you have the means to immediately send help, is the same as ignoring a drowning child at your feet: It’s immoral, it’s monstrous.

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“There is always a starving child next to a soda machine.”

In Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help, Larissa MacFarquhar, a New Yorker staff writer, delves into the lives of people who act as Singer says we should. They’re extreme altruists, or do-gooders as she calls them, people who commit their lives to the welfare of others. “This kind of person,” she says, “puts the rest of us in a worse position, makes us feel guilty and irritated for the implicit criticism of the way we’re living our lives.”

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When an immigrant child washed up on the shore of a Greek Island last summer, the photo of the body briefly inspired many people to pay closer attention to the immigrant crisis, and for some, to even take action. But the kind of person MacFarquhar writes about in her book—the do-gooder—“doesn’t need that photograph,” she says. Nautilus recently spoke with MacFarquhar to better understand who do-gooders are, how they’re different from the rest of us, and whether the world would be a better place if there were more of them around.

What is a do-gooder?

First, the word “do-gooder” is obviously often demeaning and I use it to point to that and make a stink: Why is it that we call people do-gooder in a demeaning way? What is wrong with doing good? A do-gooder isn’t like a hero, somebody who rises to the occasion and does the right thing, like the nurses who showed up to work during the Ebola epidemic. A do-gooder is someone who knows that there is need for help everywhere, all the time, and sits down and in cold blood and tries to think, How can I do something about this? If you are going to devote your life to giving and caring for others, at some point it’s going to conflict with your friends or your family. At the very least, it will prevent you from doing what most people want to do, which is give their family everything they possibly can, and not worry about strangers very much.

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How do people feel about the way do-gooders live?

One of the first places that I discovered a profound suspicion of do-gooders was among the transplant programs that would conduct these surgeries. Something like half the transplant programs in this country won’t even talk to an altruistic kidney donor, that is, someone who will give a kidney to a stranger. They were thinking there must be something wrong with this person. Certainly there ought to be safeguards to prevent potential donors from doing it for the wrong reasons, but what interests me are what some of the wrong reasons are held to be. In some cases, wanting to feel better about yourself is counted as a disqualifying reason to want to give a kidney to a stranger.

This struck me as odd, because to me it seems like an excellent reason. If you interview people who have done that, they feel great about themselves. One person I spoke to had really made a mess of his life. He had been in jail, had a terrible relationship with his wife, but he donated his kidney to a stranger and said whatever else I do, this is something I can be proud of.

What makes a do-gooder different?

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I came to feel that one of the qualities separating them from us was an ability to imagine more vividly then the rest of us suffering which we only really know about in the abstract. So, they don’t need the documentary, the TV program, or the photograph. One of the people I wrote about at great length, Aaron Pitkin, once said, “You know, no one would buy a soda if there were a starving child next to a soda machine, but for me, there is always a starving child next to a soda machine.”  

What are the pros and cons of being a do-gooder?

There are many. The biggest upside is these are people who are living exactly as they believe that they ought to. What an incredible feeling. Who amongst us can say that? I certainly can’t. And giving makes people happy, and this is not just a hypothesis of mine. This is something that social scientists have backed up.

On the downside, one of the people I write about in my book, Julia Wise, had always wanted to have children; but when thinking about it, it was a profound struggle for her, because she felt, Well, if I did not have children of my own, I would have resources to give to charities who had a chance to save lives. By having my own children, I would in effect be killing other people’s children. This is how it appeared to her. When she explained this to her parents, it sounded totally crazy to them. Many people would find that thinking unnatural.

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She struggled with this for a long time. She did decide to have children. This is something that all do-gooders have to figure out: If you are a person who finds it difficult to shut your mind to the world, it’s going to be hard for you to find a way to live without losing your mind. Each do-gooder has to solve this difficult problem. Julia decided this was the point at which she would break. If she didn’t have children, she would be in danger of losing her commitment to doing good in the long term.

Should everyone strive to be a do-gooder?

Certainly I can say that most of us can easily do more than we do, and if we did, that would be a good thing. The harder question is, Should everyone be so committed to helping others that helping others becomes the only life there is? If you try to imagine a world where no one did anything but help others, and everyone cared for strangers—if not emotionally then at least practically the way they care for their friends and family—this world would be so completely different from our world. I’m not sure there would be any writing or art, because how can you justify becoming an artist and devoting yourself to making paintings when people are starving?

I think it would be a more beautiful world in some ways and less beautiful in others.

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What inspired you to write a book about do-gooders?

I wanted to know how much could be required of us to lead a decent life, and one of the jumping off points is philosopher Susan Wolf’s essay called “Moral Saints,” in which she argued that a morally perfect person would be a deeply unattractive human being, if you could call him or her a human being at all. It is somebody who has none of the usual human pleasures—such as cooking a lovely meal, playing oboe, going to the opera, or spending time with friends and family for no other purpose than joy—because that person would be at all times focused on helping others. Wolf says this is the problem for moral philosophy, because if the moral ideal is not a human ideal, then we have to rethink how we think about morality.

I wanted to push back against Wolf’s essay, because it seems a question that can’t be answered in the abstract. No one is actually perfect, but there are people out there who are pushing themselves almost to the moral limit, and I wanted to know what those lives are like. Real people would be harder to dismiss than an ideal of perfection.

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Regan Penaluna is an assistant editor at Nautilus. @ReganJPenaluna.

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