Can’t Help Helping: Larissa MacFarquhar on Attitudes Toward Altruism

February 23, 2016

Most of us have no problem operating under the notion that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us. But what do we make of people who do go well beyond that, while asking for nothing in return? Why are often perplexed by those who are willing to put their health and well being on the line for complete strangers? Today’s guest is Larissa MacFarquhar, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the new book Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help.

MacFarquhar argues that we have a history of labeling people who help excessively as having some sort of physiological disconnect, a mental health condition that causes them to give more than what seems reasonable to the rest of society. She finds this resistance to do-gooders troubling, and that our defensive need to justify their behavior may say more about our own philosophical shortcomings than it does about the altruists among us.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, February 22nd, 2016. 

Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is Larissa MacFarquhar, staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. She’s the author of the new book Strangers Drowning, Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices and the Overpowering Urge to Help. And listening has been spilled trying to understand the monsters among us, the people who lack conscience and give their lives over to malice. But what about the opposite extreme? What are we to make of people who devote their lives to helping strangers, those whose passion for the greater good exceeds their commitment to friends and family? How do we understand a woman who gives a kidney to a stranger, a man who quits a life of luxury to run a leper colony? A couple who live hand to mouth so they can adopt over 20 desperately needy children? And how do we account for our own paradoxical reaction to these moral saints? Why does their example evoke both awe and unease in US strangers? Drowning explores these questions. Join us for a deep dove into the history and philosophy of altruism. Marissa, welcome to the program. 

Thank you so much for having me on. 

Can you start by telling us about the title of the book and the philosophical argument that it references? 

Well, there are actually several thought experiments that it references. Most people think of the Peter Singer shallow pond argument, which is he asks you to imagine that you’re walking by. You see a child drowning in a shallow pond. And the question is, should you rescue the child, even though doing so might risk ruining your clothes? And everyone says, well, of course you would. You’d be a monster not to. And then he says, Ha. But we know perfectly well that there are thousands, millions of children dying of equally easily preventable deaths all over the place all the time. And yet you don’t give an amount of money equivalent to your ruined clothes that would save perhaps a life. Why not? What excuse have you? What relevance does moral for morality does dist. have? So that’s one of them. And that’s that’s the core of one of the most demanding versions of morality that’s commonly talked about today, which is a modern version of utilitarianism. And it effectively asks you to spend almost all your money, almost all your time rescuing others, because if you concede that you ought to save one child. Well, then why not two children, not three? What excuse do you have ever to stop? So that’s what are the arguments to which I allude. The other one is the one that comes up in the conversation that appears right at the beginning of my book, which is this asks you not so much to ask how much you ought to do, but for whom you ought to do it. It asks you to imagine that on the one hand, someone you love is drowning over here. Your mother, your child, your husband and a certain number of strangers is drowning over there. And you can save either your loved one or the strangers. What are you to do? And if it’s just two strangers, most people don’t have a problem with saving your mother, your child, etc.. But then what if you increase the number of strangers at a certain point, you’re going to start to feel guilty. And different versions of morality have different answers to that question. A strict utilitarian would feel obliged to save even just two strangers versus his mother or his child. But most people, it takes a far greater number. And the question is how many? I started the book with that question because the choice between caring for strangers and caring for your family is one of the most difficult choices that are truly committed do gooder has to face. And it’s in various forms faced by everyone. 

I read about in this book the Peter Singer argument was really influential in many of the people that you’re talking about. Can you talk about how his philosophy affected their lives and their choices? 

It actually only informed one because there was one person I wrote about named Aaron Pipkin, well, that’s a pseudonym who is an animal rights activist, and he read Peter Singer’s several essay, Famine, Affluence and Morality, in which he poses this argument that we just talked about. He read this essay in college and it changed his life. He’d always been a very driven moral person, but previously he had not fought like a utilitarian. He had thought being a moral person is about hearing two principles. Never lie. Never, never murder. Never do this. Never do that. After he read this essay, not only did he start thinking, well, actually, being a moral person is not about adhering to principles, it’s about alleviating suffering. But he also started to think, well, my duties are far greater than I had ever imagined. I needed you far more. And he began to cut down on his expenses very drastically so he could give more and more and more money away to charities. And he also came to feel that his time was extraordinarily important. And he thought very carefully about how not to waste any of it for the same reason. This is money, that the more he could work, the more good he could do in the world. And he was obliged to do as much as he possibly could. There was a second couple. Julia wasn’t just Helfman, whom I write about my book, who whose principles are very similar to Peter Singers, but they came up with them independently. They encountered Peter Singer’s work in their mid to late 20s when they were already very set in their moral points of view, which others are very, very similar to Peter Singer is. But when they discovered his work, it wasn’t so much a transformational experience for them as a feeling of, oh, there is somebody else who believes what we believe. We are not completely isolated. We are not quite as strange as we had worried we were. 

It seems like a lot of the people in the books were either unconventionally religious or skeptical or downright atheistic. Yes. Do you think that’s true of sort of moral saints in general, or do you think you were drawn to those particular outliers when you were choosing to profile? 

That’s true. I mean, I think I hadn’t counted that. I would say there probably. It’s probably 50/50 in my book. Religious people are not religious people. And I have no idea if that’s representative of very morally driven people in general. These are the people that I found. 

And I do think there’s a difference between them. One of the questions I did go into this project with was what difference does religion make and what difference do different religions make? And in terms of the first question I asked one of the religious people, a Methodist pastor who lives in Baltimore, and she said that she thought from her impression, talking to both secular and religious people, that if you’re a religious person, you believe that ultimately fixing the world is God’s business. It’s ultimately up to him how things are going to turn out. And that doesn’t relieve you of any moral responsibility. You still have to work as hard as you can in whatever way seems to you the most productive. But it’s not ultimately up to you what’s going to happen in the world in the future. Whereas she thought for an atheist, an atheist believes we humans were really alone here. If we don’t do something, nobody’s going to. 

There’s no higher authority that will fix things if we don’t. And to her, being a person of faith, she felt that that added an extra layer of despair. And it may be true, but it also adds a sense of urgency and a sense of purpose. The more secular people I wrote about had a sense that the world was theirs to mold, and that was perhaps reason for despair. But it was also a reason for excitement and urgency. 

It’s also like a lot of the people had trajectories where they started off as being highly moral within a religious faith and then evolved to some other more secular way of looking at things. 

One did. One did. The woman I wrote about who began life as a nurse then became a an anti-nuclear activist in the 1980s and then rejected that way of protest in order to return to nursing. She moved to Nicaragua in the late 1980s and became a nurse in a war zone in the middle of the countryside, Nicaragua. And she’d stayed there for the rest of her life. Well, she’s still there. And she started out as a very religious Catholic. And this was her. Her faith was the origin of her transformation from a basically conventional middle class nurse into something very different. She was in church one day in the late 70s and she suddenly realized, ah, what Jesus is telling me is to resist violence and stand with the poor. And, of course, you know, anyone with the most marginal acquaintance with Christianity could have told you that. And she knew that perfectly well. But somehow she heard it as if for the first time. And this was her motive for giving up almost everything she owned in order to stand with the poor, which she took to mean being one of them and resisting violence, which launched her on her career as an anti-nuclear activist. But in the later part of her life, she lost her faith. You know, she basically confronted the problem of evil. She couldn’t understand why an omnipotent and benevolent God could tolerate such a dreadful world. She saw so much violence, so much ugliness, so much suffering. And they grew up in the 80s and 90s when she was there, that she just lost her faith in God. But everyone else I wrote about pretty much stuck to their guns, whether atheist or religious. 

What about Bobba, who founded the leper colony? He went through a really religious phase until becoming basically a nonbeliever. 

No, you know, he’s funny. He was not ever religious. He was always nonbeliever. And he went through and he he adopted the lifestyle of a monk, not really a monk, but an ascetic, a sadhu in order to avoid marriage. He really didn’t like the idea. He wanted to live an extraordinary life. He embraced the idea of suffering. He embraced the idea of pain. And he wanted to be free from the aristocratic constrictions of his family life. And he wanted to break away from the lives that his parents had lived. And so he became a sadhu. But it was not out of religious conviction. You know, unfortunately, he was the one person I wrote about who was not alive. I couldn’t interview him. I interviewed his children and his grandchildren and I read many books about him, but I couldn’t ask him if I would have done what it meant to him. But my sense is that it was a matter of freedom. It was a matter of a sense of adventure. It was a quest for finding something deeper in life than he had been exposed to thus far. But it wasn’t theistic in any way. 

Why did they put so much emphasis on pain as as a moral principle? 

He felt and this is this is very interesting to me. He and another person I met, a Buddhist monk in Japan named Tetsuya Nomoto. They both felt that suffering and pain, whether mental or physical, was an essential part of a moral life, that if you had not suffered, there was a kind of human depths and moral commitment that you had no access to, because they both believed that suffering broke you open and let other people in. You couldn’t really empathize with another person, bond with another person, feel true deep love for another person if you had not suffered yourself. And this is very, very interesting because it was such a contrast to the secular utilitarians that I met in this country, in America, who believes that suffering is simply bad, it is simply bad. And if it could be eliminated, that would be better. 

I mean, to them, suffering is sort of analogous to sin. I mean, it’s the lack of pleasure of sentient beings. And it is the thing that, you know, you want to oppose. Exactly. 

Exactly. And, you know, it’s interesting because I was raised in a secular Western tradition. And so if you’d asked me at the beginning of this project, Will is suffering useful? I would have had my doubts. But, you know, I was reading various psychological theories about Alturas. And one that I came across really struck me. It’s the idea of a parenticide child. The idea that a child who grows up with at least one parent who is nonfunctional as a parent, either because he or she is an alcoholic or severely mentally ill or for some other reason just does not function as a parent. And the idea is that this. Child may take on the burden of fixing his family. He wants desperately to make everything okay. And he feels it’s up to him. And so he may try to become the perfect student tonight, do the housework, try to cook the dinner, try to take care of his siblings, even his parents. And the idea is that this child may, when he grows up, feel an outsized sense of moral duty to fix the world in a way that he tried to fix his family when he was a child. And at first, I sort of resisted this idea, like I had resisted many psychological ideas. But altruists, because it seems designed to suggest that extreme altruists were mentally unhealthy, that there was something wrong with them, that it was simply a matter of trauma. But then I thought about the people I’d written about in my book and I thought, hmm, it’s certainly striking that almost every single one of them falls into this category. Not everyone, but almost everyone has a parent who is either alcoholic or severely mentally ill. And in that sense, I think that particular kind of suffering demonstrably can lead to true moral commitment. Obviously, many, many kids who grow up in those kinds of families do not do not have a system of commitment. Quite the opposite. They may be a total mess as a consequence. So it’s very hard to say what kind of suffering and how much suffering can lead to moral profundity. But I think there is a connection there. 

It’s a really interesting part in the book where you talk about how suspicion of do gooders got mainstreamed into pop psychology through AA and its descent in on. Can you tell us about that? 

Yeah. I was trying to figure out what is the root of this sense we had in our culture? That feeling guilty or feeling like you have to help other people is a sign of bad mental health. Where where does this come from? And I sort of worked backwards. I had heard about codependency, which is this therapeutic idea that arose in the 1970s, that somebody who feels obliged to help other people is tries to change other people, is a kind of addict in need of care. And where did this idea come from? And I traced it back to Alan on. So Alcoholics Anonymous, as everyone knows, was one of the groups that promoted the idea that alcoholism was not a sin, as it had been considered in the 19th century, but actually a disease. And we now, of course, call that addiction. We’re very familiar with that disease model for alcoholism. But Alan on which was the group that was founded a couple of decades later by the spouses of alcoholics, introduced a far more radical idea which had a big moral effect, which is the idea that the spouses of alcoholics, in trying to help their spouses to stop drinking, trying, trying to change him or her, were actually enmeshed in the same disease as the alcoholic himself that they were addicted to helping in the same way as an alcoholic is addicted to drink and they needed a cure just as much. And so this was an extraordinary innovation because the long suffering wife, usually wife or husband of an alcoholic, had been a classic virtuous figure in the 19th century. Somebody who suffers, you know, puts upwith the outrageous behavior of the alcoholic, tries to change and tries to fix everything about the family life. Suddenly this person looks ill and not only ill, but like someone who is actually harming the person he or she was trying to help. And that was a really a big change, I think. And one of the origins of our sense that somebody who is continually trying to help, who is continually trying to change other people, is addicted to something, whether it’s a feeling of being a savior or a feeling of of righteousness or something, something like that. 

Has research upheld that idea that there is such a thing as helping addiction or codependency or something along those lines that that actually exists? 

Well, it’s hard to say what you what what what would you would mean by actually exist? It all depends on how you look at it. You know, I mean, I’m sure that some of the people in my book would be analyzed by psychologists as codependent as as having some kind of you know, you can label moral behavior any number of things. You could label it as codependency and label it as having a savior complex or as masochism and extreme wall behavior has been labeled all those things. But I want to push against that. I don’t think there’s a lot of these psychological and psychiatric labels are not even attempting to denote something, some actual condition of the brain. They describe a syndrome. They describe the way of behaving. They describe a set of behaviors that often go together. And so you can say these behaviors exist. But whether you choose to denote them by a psychological diagnosis is a decision rather than a discovery. 

And I would have interesting contrast, though, because, you know, with addiction, the AA model of addiction is a disease. Biomedical science has gone all in on that view and believe that addiction is as literally a disease is cardiovascular disease, and they’re looking for the underlying physical basis. Is there anything comparable that’s going on with constructs like codependency? 

Not that I’m aware of, but there may be, I don’t know. 

But most striking group of people in the book to me, I think, were the people who were the stranger kidney donors that they simply signed up to give their kidneys to another person, sometimes a specific person, and sometimes sue someone that they never even meet or know anything about. What are they like? 

They’re so different. They’re very, very different from one another. One of them whom I is not who is not in the book, but who I interviewed for an article I wrote on that subject was kind of a mess. He was a man and his I think his forties or perhaps his thirties who had really made a mess of his life. He had been in jail. He had been an addict. He was behind on his child support payments. He was divorced. He felt that he’d really made a mess of his life. And one of the motives he had for giving away one of his kidneys to a stranger was he thought, here’s something I can do that isn’t unquenched. Nora Hurley, good and noble thing to do and normal. Ever be able to take that away from me? And his sense was that this was a redemptive act that would redeem some of the things that he’d gotten wrong in his life thus far. On the other hand, the person whom I one of the people I mentioned in my book, Paul, he had been a moral person all along. He was in a small way. You know, he was. He worked in a company that manufactured air conditioning equipment. It wasn’t as though he was a do gooder in the normal sense of the word. But he was an upright person. He was a righteous person. He looked for small things to do that would help people out. And he was very principled. Then a third person I spoke to who I discuss at length in this book, Kimberly Brown Whale is a United Methodist pastor. And what was striking about her was that, unlike, I believe everyone else I spoke to who had donated a kidney to a stranger. She felt it was no big deal. Everyone else thought, well, you know, this is really not for everybody. It’s not for the squeamish, certainly. And it’s more than you can ask of the average person. She didn’t feel that way. She thought, you know, what’s the big deal? I’ve I’ve had flus that made me feel worse. If you have a spare kidney that you’re not using, why not give it to somebody else and save their life? And she thought it was quite an ordinary thing. And she felt this way that everything she did, she thought there’s nothing special about me. I’m just trying a little bit harder from her point of view. She was trying for God, but she didn’t see why other people wouldn’t do the same sorts of things that she was doing. And she was she was an extraordinary person. And she gave up her house to make it into a homeless shelter. She worked at very tough assignments as a missionary. She did things that almost anyone would consider difficult and involving sacrifice, but they just didn’t seem that way to her. 

It was amazing to learn that there was a time in the history of medicine where even a mother wanting to give a kidney to her own son back in the early days of transplants was sometimes regarded as intrinsically unhealthy and inexplicable. 

Isn’t that amazing? I thought that was so extraordinary. And it’s really a mark of, I think, the diminishing influence of psychoanalysis that that’s no longer the case because of all the social sciences that I looked into, psychoanalysis was really the most hostile to altruism, the most suspicious of people’s motives for giving to others, the most inclined to suspect that there must be something twisted and perverse and aggressive about them. And, you know, it’s funny. There is a there is a little moral datum that I thought was interesting, which was, as you know, Peter Singer is an extraordinarily demanding moral philosopher. 

He he his philosophy requires more morally of a person than almost any other. And even Peter Singer, I saw this as a paragraph in an essay he wrote, I think, in the 80s about a mother who gave a kidney to I think it was her son to save his life. And Peter Singer, this most demanding of moral philosophers said now, isn’t this truly extraordinary act? This is really amazing. And it really sounded like he thought this was above and beyond the call of duty. And I thought that’s so striking because nowadays I would think most people would consider it remarkable if a mother did not give up her kidney to save the life of her son. And moreover, we’re getting more and more used to the idea of people giving a kidney to a stranger. Now, part of that is technological. So back 30 years ago, having a kidney extracted was far more dangerous and disfiguring than it is now. And receiving a kidney was much less of a face that you could donate a kidney and have much less of a sense that you were certainly saving the person’s life. But even so, I think that might be a little inkling of a change in our moral culture, a change away from psychoanalytic suspicions and towards a sense that if someone wants to do something extraordinarily good for a stranger and feel great about themselves for doing it, what’s wrong with that? 

Why do we have this sort of pervasive suspicion that keeps recurring in all these guises of people that want to live exemplary moral lives? 

I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s a lot of different things. I mean, part of it is this legacy of psychoanalysis and out and on these various strains of thought that are very suspicious of someone who tries to change another person’s life. And some of these strains of thought, I mean, I regret the suspicion of the motives. On the other hand. You know, we’ve also learned a lot about how difficult it is to change someone, and that has been very helpful. I think behind the less complicated respect for altruism of times, past was an ignorance of just how difficult it is to change individuals and certainly to change culture, as you know, when the modern aid industry really got going in around 1968. 

With the Biafran war in Nigeria, I don’t think most people understood how complicated aid was and how easily it can be wasted and even harm the people it’s intended to help. And so I think some of the suspicion has been helpful and added to the sophistication of the way people think about giving to others. But I think some of the suspicion is defensive, because even if the sort of do gooder in question doesn’t say anything to you, you’re liable to feel rebuked implicitly. Nonetheless, you feel as though this very good person is showing you up, is making you feel as though you don’t do enough in your own life. And that’s not a pleasant feeling. But also, I think there’s a deeper reason to be ambivalent about do gooders. And this is not about motives. This is about what is involved in being committed to helping strangers. The deeper reason is that if you are truly committed do gooder, your work will at some point conflict with caring for your family. And this is a very deep conflict. This is where the moral drive to help strangers conflicts with perhaps the deepest human urge there is, which is to give to one’s family. 

You know, most people not only want to give everything they possibly can to their families, but they feel that’s the right thing to do. And so if they encounter someone who thinks, you know, if I am confronted with a choice of saving my one child or let’s say five strangers, I would feel obliged to save the five strangers. You know, many people would find that not just difficult and strange, but actually inhuman and that it’s very destabilizing to be around someone who has no order of priority in terms of other humans. 

It’s not just that they see themselves as being equivalent to anybody else. They see all other humans as not really having a priority. And how can you be friends with someone who doesn’t believe that friendship entitles a friend to preferential treatment in some sense? Exactly. 

No, that’s and that’s that’s a very deep thing. And it should be. There’s a wonderful George Orwell essay where Orwell reviews Gandhi’s autobiography, and Gandhi believed that you should not have close friendships if you want to be a good person, because they will tempt you to favor your friend over others. They will tempt you to abandon your principles for the sake of loyalty. And Orwell found this repulsive, he said. That’s the core of humanness. I should hope that that one values loyalty over principle and friendship over the aspiration to saintliness. He admired Gandhi, and he admitted that without principles as harsh as that, Gandhi probably would not have been. Gandhi would not have gotten done what he did and live the life that he did which or well admired. On the other hand, he did find this rejection of intimacy and loyalty repulsive. And I think that’s a very common feeling that somebody who does not put loves and close friendships above morality is inhuman. 

And it also seems like it threatens sort of the balance that makes life worth living. If your morality demands you give absolutely everything, then there’s nothing left over for sort of particular interests and passions and affections that define people and communities and ways of life. 

Absolutely. I mean, you know, I’ve been talking about the sacrifice of family and love. But of course, there are also many other things that you’re going to give up. Is your morality is sufficiently demanding. So, for instance, you will in your life do the work that seems to you the most beneficial for others rather than the work that you love. And for some people, those two things are the same thing. So right now, I’m working on an article about a hospice nurse. She does extraordinary good for other people. And she loves her work. She absolutely loves it. So for her, there’s no conflict. But for many people, artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, you know, any number of people with particular passions, they would not be able to follow those passions if they were true to a set of very demanding moral principles such as Peter Singer’s. And that’s another very, very fundamental conflict. To imagine a world in which everyone were moral in the singer or fashion would be to imagine a world without arts, to imagine a world without a certain kind of passion for different kinds of work. There will be a world in which helping where the only work there was, and that’s a world that many of us wouldn’t want. So these are very deep conflicts. I mean, it’s not just about feeling rebuked or feeling selfish and feeling as though you don’t want to give up your stuff. There’s much deeper sacrifices that are required if the real do gooder. 

That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for coming on the program. 

Thank you very much for having me on. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.