When Julia Wise was about 22, she went to an orchard with her fiancé, Jeff Kaufman. She wanted to eat a candy apple. For years, she had been saving money, donating anything she didn’t spend on necessities to charity. Treats like a $3 apple had become extravagances; in her mind, the cost was inseparable from the benefit the money might provide for someone else.
That night, Larissa MacFarquhar describes in her engaging “Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help,’’ Wise began to cry. Her purchase of the apple, she thought, might deprive “a family of an anti-malarial bed net or deworming medicine that might have saved the life of one of its children.” Kaufman began to cry too. How could he marry a woman whose sense of duty was so strong that she couldn’t even enjoy a candy apple? The couple, who now live in Greater Boston, devised a system to donate most of what they earn, which includes a small allowance to make sure they don’t drive themselves crazy.
MacFarquhar seeks to understand how people like Wise, “do-gooders” as she calls them, commit themselves “wholly, beyond what seems reasonable” to their cause. For the saints of the past, the choices were simple: Live by God’s laws or suffer his wrath. But how to grasp the moral extremism of today, which is often secular and systematic, and takes place in a world so small that the money spent at a Massachusetts country fair might instead save lives on another continent?
“Strangers Drowning’’ offers portraits of a number of “do-gooders”: a family running a leper colony in India, an 83-year-old nurse in Nicaragua, a Buddhist priest in Japan who prevents suicides. MacFarquhar is on staff at The New Yorker and writes full and nuanced profiles, often by letting her subjects speak for themselves. She doesn’t cast judgment on their ideals or their struggles to live up to them. In one chapter, she describes a Vermont couple whose urge to adopt was so strong that their family ballooned to 22 children. Caring for so many was difficult. Some of the children, adopted because they had incurable illnesses, lived far beyond the expectations of doctors. Others repeated the mistakes of their birth parents; several ended up in jail, one for molesting his younger sister.
Besides her sketches of good Samaritans, MacFarquhar also instructs on the history of the selfless. She explains that altruism was once viewed with suspicion. Extreme devotion to another, it was thought, must have an aberrant cause. (Anna Freud, for example, “coined the term ‘altruistic surrender’ to describe the perverse mental state of a person unable to gratify his wishes except through a proxy.”)
Psychologists have now ceased to consider all altruists masochistic martyrs. Twenty-five years ago, a mother who donated a kidney to save her son was noteworthy enough to elicit a newspaper articles. Today, many donate organs for strangers they may not ever meet.
Some of MacFarquhar’s subjects do come across as sanctimonious, like the animal-rights activist who refused to clean his apartment because any time spent on domestic tasks meant time away from his work. He and his wife eventually split. How could one trust such a man’s vision for the world when he cannot seem to see the pain he causes to those directly before him?
Others talk about their successes in calculated and frightful terms — philanthropists associated with the GiveWell organization Wise and Kaufman donate to, for example, often gauge their success in the “Disability-Adjusted Life-Years” their money has earned. But for the most part, it is hard not to admire these activists’ sense of urgency, even if it takes unusual forms.
“[I]f do-gooders are always thinking of how the world is unjust and needs to be changed — if they want to replace our world with another, better one — then do they love the world that we know, which is the world as it is?” MacFarquhar asks at the beginning of her book. But maybe it is because they love this world so much that many of the do-gooders she describes are willing to devote their lives to it.
By Larissa MacFarquhar
Penguin Press, 320 pp., $27.95
Madeleine Schwartz is a writer in New York. Her work has appeared in Dissent and The Believer, among other publications.