Extreme Altruism

Larissa MacFarquhar writes about do-gooders who “open themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility.”


The title of this thought-provoking book—Strangers Drowningapplies to the zealous do-gooders who are its protagonists, not just to the moral challenge that inspires their zealous do-gooding. The duty-driven saviors of others whom Larissa MacFarquhar examines are a deeply alien lot. Fierce currents of commitment pull them beyond the reach of ordinary family loyalties and messy feelings. None of her moral extremists sinks under the burden. Yet they all, as MacFarquhar puts it, “open themselves to a sense of unlimited, crushing responsibility.”

In dispassionately recounting the lives of some dozen people devoted to righting wrongs in a world full of pain and injustice, MacFarquhar wisely doesn’t try to rescue them from weirdness. Baba, who has founded a leper colony in India, tests his son’s courage by sending him to fetch water at a well where a tiger has been heard roaring. When the words she’s ours enter his head, Hector and his wife, Sue, adopt yet another child in need. They end up with 22.

Such ethical urgency, with its aura of perfectionist virtue and saintly sanctimony, stirs ambivalence in most of us. If MacFarquhar thought she might overcome it, she’s too honest to pretend she did. These do-gooders aren’t moral models. But her discomfiting portraits deliver a humanizing surprise: Few of these altruistic souls nurse any illusion that they are exemplars.