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The People Who Are So Good They Terrify the Rest of Us

The new book "Strangers Drowning" explores the intense lives of "do-gooders" willing to sacrifice themselves to save people they've never met.

by Harry Cheadle
21 October 2015, 9:00am

Detail from a 1781 painting by Jacques-Louis David depicting the former Roman general Belisarius begging for alms.

This article originally appeared on VICE US

Thinking of yourself as a good person is one of the basic luxuries of modern life. If someone has the chutzpah to ask you what makes you "good," you can tell them about how you sometimes give to charity, or how you would give to charity if you could, or how you rarely lie or steal, or how you have good reasons for lying or stealing, or how you never hurt anyone on purpose, or how the people you hurt are bad people. If you sometimes don't help someone when you could have, or decide to spend $50 on drinks in a single night rather than donating it to a worthy cause, well, you deserve it—after all, you're a good person.

The tradeoff for assuming yourself to be fundamentally good is that you have to insulate yourself from the horrible things going on in the world. That is, when you hear about war or sick children or homeless people dying because they don't have blankets, you have to think to yourself, Not my problem. It sounds callous when put so baldly, but the alternative is to turn yourself into an open empathetic wound, perpetually contemplating the sum total of suffering on the planet and asking yourself what you are doing—or not doing—to alleviate it. Living that way would require reorienting your entire existence. It would mean that every unnecessary purchase you make would be taking food from starving people you could have donated to instead. Simple pleasures would become stained with guilt. In all likelihood, you would have to ignore your own happiness and comfort. Being a good person would mean not just avoiding evil, but working every day to do as much as you possibly could to take away other peoples' pain, some of them strangers you will never even meet.

Related: No God? No Problem

The people who live this way are the subject of the fascinating new book from New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar, Strangers Drowning. She refers to them as "do-gooders," and the forms of charity they practice are so extreme that they seem alien to us merely good people. A Japanese Buddhist monk spends his days counseling isolated people who are thinking of committing suicide. A couple adopts more than 20 children, many of them from impoverished backgrounds or suffering from terminal medical conditions, because they believe that's what God wants. Then there are the people who donate the vast bulk of their income to charities judged to be the most effective at saving lives, the nurse who moved to Nicaragua in the midst of a civil war to provide women with medical care, the man who donated a kidney to a stranger, and an animal rights activist who figured the best way to alleviate the most suffering in the world would be to focus his efforts on mistreated chickens.

A collection of stories about extraordinarily good people could have been saccharine or worshipful, but Drowning Strangers is neither. MacFarquhar focuses on her subjects' struggles and doubts as well as the discomfort they can arouse in people, resulting in portraits that are both harrowing and humbling. It's a lyrically written, far-reaching book that touches on philosophy, fiction, the arguments against do-gooderism, and the extreme anguish that arises when you make other people's pain your own.

Recently, I called MacFarquhar up to talk to her about all that.

VICE: What inspired you to write about these people?
Larissa MacFarquhar: I feel that in nonfiction—and even more so in fiction—there is this sense that good people are boring, that goodness is simple, that there is nothing interesting about striving morally. People have this notion that goodness is butterflies and bunnies. Good people are just as complex and strange and driven and relentless as bad people. I wanted to write a book that explored people who I wholeheartedly admired and who engaged with that complexity. And also, I sort of viewed it in some sense as an advertisement to novelists to say, "These people are interesting. You should write about them!" I wish there were more fictional characters through which novelists explored this kind of life.

So you never found the people you wrote about alien or strange?
I understand why people feel that way. I'm sure there are some people out there who are altruistic in a way we would find alien. But I wanted to find people who were humans just like the rest of us, except they'd pushed themselves harder and drove themselves to live as moral a life as they could in a way that most of us don't do. I wanted to find people who were a challenge to the rest of us; I wanted to investigate a number of clichés about such people. One of them is that people who care a great deal about strangers far away will care less about their family and people close to them. I wanted to investigate that and found that lo and behold, these people are human just as we are and they care just as deeply about their family as anyone else. The difference is they don't think that their families are the only people that matter and that other people care about their families just as much.

Why do some people respond negatively to do-gooders or the idea of do-gooderism? Is it that we resent the idea that we should be doing the same things they are?
Certainly I think that's part of it. No one wants to be shown up and made to feel selfish, even implicitly. All the people I've written about are far too smart to be going around wagging their index fingers at people and telling them they ought to be less selfish. The problem is that just by seeing their lives or hearing about their lives, you feel implicitly rebuked.

That's the first layer of our reaction to do-gooders. I think there's a much deeper difficulty people have, though, which is that they aren't sure that it's actually the right thing to care about strangers so much. Most of us care deeply about our families and want to give everything we possibly can to them—we believe that's the right thing to do. Giving to the point where you exact sacrifices not only from yourself but from people you love makes us uncomfortable. And there's nothing petty about that discomfort—it's one of the deepest instincts of human life.

"Children around the age of ten or 12 are often quite overwhelmed when they discover facts about suffering and poverty in the world. They want to help and they want to do something—and then they forget."

Do you think that do-gooders choose to be that way, or is it hard-wired into them in some way?
That's a hard question to answer. On the one hand, yes, I do think that a sense of duty and an awareness of suffering are things they've all always felt since they were children. But I think a lot of children feel that way. Not very tiny children, but children around the age of ten or twelve are often quite overwhelmed when they discover facts about suffering and poverty in the world. They want to help and they want to do something—and then they forget. They get carried away by the rest of life, and that urge just sort of fades away. But with these people, it doesn't. They don't let it.

It's really impossible to say to what extent this is a choice. For most of the people I'm writing about, they don't think of themselves as doing something extraordinary, they think of themselves as just doing their duty, in the way that you would think about not stealing. I think it's probably both chosen and innate.

There's this theory I came across while reading about altruistic individuals: the theory of the "parentified child." The idea is that a child who has at least one profoundly dysfunctional parent—they're an alcoholic, or have a serious mental illness, for instance—that child may grow up thinking that what's wrong with their family is their fault. But even if they don't, they want to fix it. They feel obliged to rescue their family. They try to take care of their siblings and parents, maybe take care of the house, try to be as good a student as they can be. And the idea is that this sort of child will grow up to feel an outsized sense of responsibility, that they will feel obliged to fix the world. When I first encountered this theory I thought, Bah! Here is another theory designed to make us think there's something wrong with very morally-driven people . But actually, when I think about the people in my book, it's striking how many of them have grown up with a parent like that.

There's this theory that throughout history humans' "moral circle" keeps expanding, and we've continuously become more empathetic to people who aren't part of our clan or tribe or nation or ethnicity. Do you think this trend will make the sacrifices of do-gooderism seem less strange with time?
I hope so. It's certainly true that now we care about animals in a way that would have been inconceivable to most people 300 years ago. We now consider slavery unimaginable and repellent and yet until recently it was a deep part of American life. So there's no question that we can change our moral minds quite profoundly and quite fast. There's a tendency to think that some things are just part of human nature and are never going to change but if you look at the history of our public morality that's just not the case.

"For do-gooders it's always wartime. They don't think that we're living in normal times."

That's an uplifting way of looking at the world.
I think part of it is expectations. That's why I talk a bit about wartime in the book. Some of the reasons people don't give more are the usual answers—we're selfish, we're lazy, etc. And that's of course true. But we also don't give more because we think it's natural for humans not to give more. And when that changes, as it does in times of crisis—like a war or a tsunami or a hurricane—people's ideas about what they ought to and can do change immediately. If your country's at war and you think it's a good war, it will suddenly seem perfectly natural and right to leave your family behind and risk your life for the sake of a cause. Or giving your life for the sake of a stranger—that's something that seems zealous and extreme in normal times, but in wartime it seems perfectly normal. And I think the difference is that for do-gooders it's always wartime. They don't think that we're living in normal times now. They know we're always in a situation where there are many many many many people in need.

It's a kind of moral genius that enables them to imagine suffering vividly in a way that most of us don't unless it's right in front of us. Most of us, for instance, knew that there was a refugee crisis in Europe but it didn't become vivid to most people until we saw that photo that everyone in the world saw of that toddler with his face in the water. Then, all of a sudden, we felt that suffering that we knew intellectually had existed before. But to the kind of person I'm writing about, that suffering is vivid without the help of photographs, without the help of moving articles, without the help of movies. They know it's there, and they imagine it so vividly that they are as moved to help as the rest of us would be if someone was drowning right in front of us.

Strangers Drowning is out now from Penguin.

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