Extraordinary study of the motives and lives of "do-gooders"

Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help - Larissa MacFarquhar

This non-fiction book takes an in-depth look at what motivates “do-gooders”, those who are extremely committed to helping others, often at the expense of their own loved ones.  It’s an ambitious work and is broken down into chapters telling true stories of do-gooders, like the woman in her 80’s, who after a lifelong commitment to nursing others, begins to teach midwives and the man who donates his kidney to a stranger, along with the history of completely unselfish people and society’s perception of them through the years.


The books starts off with the thought experiment of whether you should save your mother drowning or two strangers. What number of strangers that you could save would it take to leave your mother to drown? Would two be enough or would it take twenty or twenty thousand? Or would you save your mother no matter how many other lives could be saved instead?


While everyone knows there are thousands of people in the world who are starving or dying, life would be intolerable if we cared about each of those people the way we care for our family members. How would we face each day? Should you feel guilty if you spend money to go to a movie when that money might have helped a starving child? When a person is a truly committed do-gooder, their survival and needs are secondary to those of others. Their own needs feel like selfishness and there is no room for wants or desires.


While each of the stories have their own merits, I also enjoyed reading about the history of do-gooders and society’s perception of them. At times do-gooders were looked upon as hypocrites and as doing good deeds just to appear virtuous, to get into heaven when they died or to make themselves feel better. So their acts weren’t selfish at all, but actually supreme selfishness as they were actually doing charitable works for themselves. During other times in history, they were deemed to be saints. The many cases of people helping hide Jews during the Holocaust were explored. Were these cases a matter of circumstance (war) or of character?


To me, the most fascinating story was about Baba Amte, who set up a leper’s colony in India. He came to believe that suffering was at the core of what it meant to be human. He brought his family into contact with lepers and neglected them when they were sick in order to care for the lepers. He even offered to be a human experiment where he was injected with the leprosy bacillus only to learn that he was immune to the disease. He and his family lived in horrendous conditions. His children barely had enough to eat. But it’s truly amazing what Amte was able to accomplish in his lifetime on behalf of lepers.


This is a fascinating look at the motives behind courageous people who commit their lives to others in an attempt to make the world a better place.


This book was given to me by the publisher through First to Read in return for an honest review.