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This writer spent years studying the most selfless people on Earth. Here’s what she found.

A visual metaphor for the concept of helping people.
A visual metaphor for the concept of helping people.
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All people like to think they're good people, that they're doing what they can to help others. But few people are willing to adopt 20 children with special needs in order to spare them from foster care. Few people are willing to give half their income — even more than half, some years — to charities like the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes bed nets in sub-Saharan Africa. Few people are willing to donate a kidney to a stranger.

But some people are willing to go to those lengths to help others, and New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar profiles a diverse cast of such extreme do-gooders in her new book, Strangers Drowning: Grappling With Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help. There's Sue and Hector Badeau, the couple who adopted 20 children, many with serious challenges. There's Jeff Kaufman and Julia Wise, the computer programmer and social worker, respectively, who give away about half their income to highly effective charities.

MacFarquhar and I talked Wednesday about why do-gooders like the Badeaus and Kaufman/Wises are often met with suspicion, how religion motivates extreme altruists, and the challenge of helping strangers while still taking care of your own family.

Dylan Matthews

You write that the book is about "do-gooders" but not "heroes." What's the difference?

Larissa MacFarquhar

Heroes are people that almost nobody has a problem with.

Imagine you're a nurse who's working in a hospital and suddenly there's a plague in your community. Suddenly you have to help out and work very hard, longer hours than you're used to. Or imagine you're a priest who gives refugees shelter in wartime. The way I've chosen to define it, in this book, a hero is somebody who has an opportunity to do good thrust upon them. You help people who are immediately in front of you. They're part of your community, their need is apparent, and you're reacting to that need.

A do-gooder, on the other hand, is not reacting spontaneously to something that's thrust on them. They go looking for ways to help. They're not acting spontaneously. They're planning their good deeds in cold blood. In many cases, this means helping people who aren't right in front of them, who aren't necessarily in their community, who in some cases they may never see at all.

That's a kind of helping that people find stranger and harder to understand. Many people think of it as pathological. Why would you seek out trouble when it's not thrust upon you? Why would you help people who are not in your community, who are not your people? Many people find that strange.

Dylan Matthews

Some of the people in the book don't even have direct contact with the people they're helping. But you find that they're just as deeply empathetic.

Larissa MacFarquhar

The assumption with Julia and Jeff [the couple who donate half their income], and effective altruists and utilitarians in general, is that because they do good in such a mathematical, abstract way, they must be cold and unfeeling, that there's no empathy involved in their calculations.

But I think this is deeply wrong. I know this from talking to Julia. Hers is not an abstract, cold way of looking at things, but quite the opposite. She has such an extreme moral imagination that things are vivid to her that are not to ordinary people. Most of us, we need the sight of someone suffering, or the photograph of that toddler refugee in Europe, to make us address people's needs. Someone like Julia doesn't need those photographs to know that people are suffering — not only that, but to feel the weight of that.

I had a conversation with a philosophy graduate student about the philosophical concept of suffering and what it entails for behavior. He's an effective altruist, and during our conversation, he started to cry. He had read the Steven Pinker book The Better Angels of Our Nature, and was remembering a passage about the suffering of nameless people hundreds of years ago. This suffering was so vivid to him that he was moved to tears. So it's not a question of cold altruists as opposed to warm and fuzzy and empathetic altruists. I think there's a deep emotional feeling in both cases.

Book cover with portrait of Badeau family

The Badeaus' book, Are We There Yet?

Carpenters Son Publishing

Dylan Matthews

But there's still a difference between them and the people in the book who do help people directly, person to person, no?

Larissa MacFarquhar

There is a difference between choosing to help people you never see and you don't even know and people like Sue and Hector Badeau [the couple who adopted 20 kids]. They do, in some sense, the opposite of what Julia and Jeff have done. They not only help people whom they're close to, they take people into their family and make them their children. They adopted 20 special needs kids. But again, there is this same ability to imagine the need of someone you can't yet see and don't yet know. Before they adopted these kids, they were strangers. They didn't know them, they just knew of their situation. In some cases they saw a photograph, but in some cases they didn't even see that. Again, it was a fairly abstract sense of need that they were moved to address rather than the plight of someone right in front of them.

Sue and Hector said that with some of their children, they felt love for a child before they even met him or her. I asked, "What do you mean? What can that possibly mean? What do you mean love?" And I admit, I was thinking this was some weird altruist thing, that what they mean by love is something very different, it's some kind of Christian notion of love that is not what I mean by "love" when I talk about a family member. But then Sue said, "When you're pregnant at the very beginning, you've never met the child. You don't know him or her. And indeed the child barely exists, it's just a few cells, and yet you feel love for that child." I thought, "Oh, that's really true." That's a way ordinary people can project themselves imaginatively to the way Sue and Hector managed to love people they've never met.

Dylan Matthews

A number of people in the book are deeply religious, while others are atheists. Were there noticeable differences in how they went about doing good, based on religious background?

Larissa MacFarquhar

I think there was a deep difference. Mind you, this is not any kind of survey of do-gooders. I'm not making any claims about the differences between secular people and religious people in general.

But something the Methodist minister in Baltimore, Kimberly Brown-Whale, said about this really stuck with me. I asked her at one point what she thought was the difference between people of faith trying to bring about changes in the world and secular people trying to do the same thing. She said that she, as a religious Christian, did not feel like it was up to her to change the world. The world was God's business. This doesn't mean she was relieved of any responsibility or duty. She still had to work as hard as she could to help people, but ultimately the world was in God's hands. She believed that grace would see humanity through.

She thought that secular people were more likely to feel, "There's no God, so we're alone here, it's just us human beings, and if we don't do something about suffering, nobody else is going to. There isn't going to be any final reckoning that will make it all okay. There's just us and suffering and what we can do about it." To her, that seemed like a very bleak situation, but to secular people that's just how it is.

Couple fighting, child in foreground

Do dysfunctional families breed extreme altruism?

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Dylan Matthews

There's a fascinating section going into psychological theories of why people are moved to altruism, some of which conclude it's a manifestation of narcissism or otherwise indicates something deeply wrong with a person. You've met some extreme altruists. Does that characterization hold up?

Larissa MacFarquhar

I went into this, I have to say, somewhat biased. I wanted to defend do-gooders against charges of pathology and narcissism. I felt that these ideas — that there must be something wrong with people who devote themselves to helping others — were not only untrue but also were excuses for the rest of us who don't help others nearly as much. How easy to just write them all off as lunatics!

But there was one theory I read, of the "parentified child." That's a child who grows up with a parent who is not functioning as a parent, either because they're an alcoholic or they're mentally ill or for some other reason they are not serving the needs of their child. So that child may grow up thinking that everything that's wrong with the family is his fault, and try to fix it by becoming perfect, doing perfectly at school, or by helping out around the house, by helping raise his younger siblings perhaps, or by taking care of the other parent, and generally assuming responsibility for the troubles of his family.

The idea is that that child has become in effect a parent too young, and he grows up with an outsize sense of parental responsibility. So he feels obliged to fix the world just as he fixed his family as a young one. When I first saw this, I thought it was just another pathologization. But when I looked again at my book, it's quite striking the number of people who fit that profile. Mind you, these people were not selected in any kind of scientific way, so I'm not making claims for the truth of this theory, but it was striking that many but not all of the people in my book did fit that profile: They either had an alcoholic parent or a severely mentally ill parent. That was interesting.

While I do reject the idea that there's something wrong with devoting oneself to helping others, it's interesting to speculate as to why they got that way. And on the theory of the parentified child, it sounds like a bad thing, because if someone had a difficult upbringing with a bad parent and wind up with a sense of moral duty as a result, that seems like it must be forced by circumstance. It's somehow unfree. But I want to think about another kind of hypothetical child, who was raised by two good parents to feel a sense of moral obligation to other people, and that child grows up to feel that same sense of moral duty. You have one child who grows up with a sense of moral duty due to his bad parents and another child who grows up with a sense of moral duty due to his good parents. Is one more free than the other? It seems hard to say that just because a parent is bad, one is less free to choose one's moral path than if a parent is good.

Life raft, ocean

A surprising amount of philosophy is about people drowning.

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Dylan Matthews

You quote this great quip from Bernard Williams, that someone who has to stop and think whether it's morally better to save a drowning stranger or to save his drowning wife is having "one thought too many" — obviously he should help his wife; it's ludicrous to give up a loved one to help a stranger.

Meeting these people, did it seem like they were sacrificing their loved ones to help strangers? Or was that concern overblown?

Larissa MacFarquhar

I think it was overblown. I love reading moral philosophy, and a lot of this project was driven by questions raised by philosophers like Bernard Williams, like Peter Singer, like Susan Wolf in her essay "Moral Saints." But part of why I wanted to address their concerns as a journalist was that I felt some of their claims needed to be checked against actual lives.

Wolf posits that the moral ideal is not a human ideal, that if there were a morally perfect person, that person would be deeply unappealing, humorless, alien, narrow, rigid, and we wouldn't want to know that person and wouldn't want to be that person ourselves. She's a philosopher, so she's talking about an abstract idea of a perfect person, and she's right about an abstraction of perfection. But when we're questioning how we should live our lives, that abstraction is not the relevant thing to think about. It's actual people. I wanted to think about the problem she raised — which I think is a very good one — in terms of actual lives.

Similarly with Williams, he poses the abstract idea of confronting a drowning stranger versus a drowning wife, and the person pausing to think about whom they should save. Of course he would not decide like this. This is an avowedly abstract situation that would not arise in real life. So I thought, let me look at actual people who are concerned with drowning strangers — or if not "drowning," then starving or suffering in some way.

I did not find that the concern for strangers rendered them cold to the people near them. Sue and Hector Badeau did adopt some children over the protests of the children they already had, but that wasn't because they didn't love their children. They deeply loved their children, and it cut them to the quick that their children didn't want more kids in the family. But that was not the only thing in their minds. They didn't think it would destroy their children, just that the children preferred that the family stay as it was. To them, that was not an overriding concern.

Similarly, Jeff and Julia — when you think about a cliché of a utilitarian, you think it's someone who's just about numbers, and their spouse or their child is just another person to them. That's not at all true. Jeff and Julia love each other and love their child as much as anyone loves their spouse and their child. But they have other thoughts besides love. They also have a love of justice. It's difficult to figure out in the real world how to weigh those two things, and the reason it is difficult is because the people I'm writing about do deeply love their families. So it's difficult for them. But they don't think it's okay to just give everything to their families and ignore everyone outside. They know that the people outside love their own families just as much.