Can Altruism Go Too Far?

New Yorker writer Larrisa MacFarquhar explores the extreme need to help.

Posted Nov 16, 2015

Why do some people become “extreme do-gooders,” willing to sacrifice their comfort, time and money to help others? "It's not just about sacrifice," says Larissa MacFarquhar who interviewed dozens of these unsung heroes in her new book, Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help. "They gain a profound sense of purpose, a sense that they are living life the way they ought to, that they are doing the right thing, and that is a marvelous feeling." Here's more from MacFarquhar:

Jennifer Haupt: What sets apart extreme do-gooders, those who are always striving to do more for others?

Source: Phillip Gourevitch

Larissa MacFarquhar: One thing that sets them apart is their willingness to ignore convention. These are people who are morally passionate, relentless, and incredibly stubborn—they invent lives that don’t make much sense to those around them. For instance, one couple in “Strangers Drowning,” Sue and Hector Badeau, adopted twenty special-needs kids. Some people thought they were saints, but others thought they were presumptuous to imagine they could be good parents to so many, and others still thought they must be crazy to choose that kind of life. They ignored all that. What’s more, for much of their lives, Sue went out to work and earned the money, while Hector stayed home and changed the diapers and packed the lunches. These roles suited them, and they didn’t care whether they looked odd to outsiders.

Do-gooders have such a sense of duty and purpose that they care little about social norms, but for most of us, convention and expectations play an enormous role in how we live. Part of the reason we don’t give more is that we’re not expected to. But these expectations can change enormously, and very fast, in certain circumstances, and then behavior changes, too. In a crisis, such as a hurricane or a war, suddenly people perceive that much more is required of them, and most rise to the occasion. Whereas in ordinary times, it might be thought outrageous to be asked to sacrifice your life for the sake of a larger cause, in wartime it is commonplace, and many do. This is another difference between do-gooders and the rest of us: for do-gooders it is always wartime. They know that there are always people in need, and they feel the urgency and weight of that need, even when it is far away, and the people suffering are people they have nothing in common with, and whose names they will never know.

JH: What did you learn that surprised you—maybe was even a bit unsettling—when interviewing these “extreme” givers?

LM: One thing that was unsettling to me about do-gooders was the extent to which they were prepared to put not only their own happiness but also that of their family on the line in order to help strangers. Baba Amte, for instance, founded a community for leprosy patients in the wilderness in the center of India in the late 1950s. He and his wife brought with them their two toddler sons and several dogs, for protection against wild animals. Every one of the dogs was carried away and eaten by tigers; the two human babies survived, but what if they hadn’t? The two boys did not catch leprosy, but they might have done. This is the level of risk that a committed do-gooder is prepared to take, and it can be frightening.

Most of us want to give to our families as much as we possibly can. Not only do we want to do that, we believe it’s the right thing to do. Do-gooders love their families as much as anyone else, but they don’t believe it’s right to give them everything they have—all their time, their money, their care and attention—to the exclusion of strangers whose need is greater. This, I think, is the most profound difference between do-gooders and the rest of us. Of course there are petty reasons why most people don’t give more—we’re selfish, we’re lazy, we’re conventional, and all the rest of it. But there is also this deeply human urge to give everything to your family, to your own people, and that is much harder to overcome—even if we wanted to.

JH: Is there such as thing as giving too much?

LM: I was on the subway the other day and saw that Con Edison had launched a poster campaign to persuade people to use less electricity; the slogan on the posters was “Everything Matters.” And I thought that was just a terrible slogan—a formula for madness!

Being a successful do-gooder—one who maintains his commitment over the long haul rather than burning out or driving himself completely insane—does requires setting limits. One woman I wrote about, Julia Wise, used to feel quite overwhelmed by the need of the world. She felt it so acutely that spending even tiny amounts of money on herself—four dollars on a candy apple, for instance—felt to her like appalling selfishness.

For years Wise couldn’t justify having children, even though she wanted them because they would mean she would give less money to life-saving medical charities. Her own children would be, in effect, killing other people’s children. But she also knew that she had to figure out a system of moral parameters that would both satisfy her sense of duty and prevent her from losing her mind, and eventually she did. (Now she has two kids and is very happy about that.) Doing this was incredibly important, because the sense of overwhelming panic at the need of the world can be paralyzing, and can lead to a person doing less rather than more.

JH: What’s the one true thing about altruism that you learned writing this book?

LM: Many people seem to think that do-gooders are simple and boring; others think the opposite, that do-gooders are somehow twisted and freakish, to embrace such extreme principles. When I was working on this book, many people said to me of do-gooders, “They’re all mentally ill, right?” It made me sad when I heard that, because I think there is an extraordinary beauty to these strenuously moral lives—a beauty that has been obscured and forgotten because of all the mistaken notions and prejudices about do-gooders.

If there is one thing I hope Strangers Drowning conveys, it is that a life devoted to caring for strangers can be as humanly complex, as astonishingly difficult, and as thrillingly all-consuming as a life devoted to art, or athletics, or any other sort of human striving towards a difficult and worthy goal.

Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. Her subjects have included John Ashbery, Barack Obama, and Noam Chomsky, among many others. Previously she was a senior editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at The Paris Review. Strangers Drowning is her first book. She lives in New York.