STARRED REVIEW
October 2015

The psychology of the selfless

By Larissa MacFarquhar
There’s a famous ethical dilemma that philosophy professors often pose to their students. If three people are drowning, and one is your mother and two are strangers, whom do you save? Clearly some people would be compelled to save the person dearest to them, in this case, their mother. Others would feel compelled to do as much good as they could in the world and are not moved by a sense of belonging; these people would save the strangers.
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There’s a famous ethical dilemma that philosophy professors often pose to their students. If three people are drowning, and one is your mother and two are strangers, whom do you save? Clearly some people would be compelled to save the person dearest to them, in this case, their mother. Others would feel compelled to do as much good as they could in the world and are not moved by a sense of belonging; these people would save the strangers.

New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar quite brilliantly focuses on this second group of individuals she calls “do-gooders” in her thoughtful and wide-ranging Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help. These altruistic people, she observes, “know there are crises everywhere, and seek them out; they may be compassionate, but compassion is not why they do what they do; they have no ordinary life; their good deeds are their lives.” 

While do-gooders might be congratulated for helping others at their and their family’s expense, they also are less free because they believe they have a duty to act in certain ways, and they always have to do their duty. As MacFarquhar points out, do-gooders can be drudges.

She lucidly illustrates both the benefits and shortcomings of this ethical position by focusing on the lives of several do-gooders. Aaron Pitkin, for example, searches for a cause to which he can devote himself and discovers it in chickens. He dedicates every waking hour to reliving the suffering of chickens, sacrificing his health, his family and his relationships in an effort to ensure that chickens suffer less. As MacFarquhar observes, Pitkin is not emotionally attached to his position—when he sees horrifying footage of abuse, he thinks “fantastic, I can use it in my speeches to organizations”—but serves it almost blindly out of the obligation he feels toward chickens.

Although she neither condemns nor heaps praise on her subjects, MacFarquhar offers readers plenty of food for thought in understanding the motivations and compulsions of those who sacrifice everything in pursuit of a noble cause.

 

This article was originally published in the October 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Strangers Drowning

Strangers Drowning

By Larissa MacFarquhar
Penguin Press
ISBN 9781594204333

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