Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar

Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help BY Larissa MacFarquhar. Penguin Press. Hardcover, 336 pages. $27.
The cover of Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help

Few living philosophers’ names elicit quite as much public recognition and scorn as that of the utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer, who has argued in support of animal liberation, euthanasia, and even, in some extreme cases, infanticide. In the 1990s, when Singer’s mother, Cora, fell victim to Alzheimer’s, it was with almost vituperative glee that critics seized on the fact that Singer and his siblings spent huge amounts of money on her care, insinuating that he’d betrayed his own morality-by-the-numbers arguments.

One of the foremost proponents of effective altruism, Singer has long pointed out that we ought to save the life of a far-away child with as much zeal as we would save a child drowning in a nearby pond. His classic “shallow-pond” thought experiment inspires the titular premise of Larissa MacFarquhar’s book Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help, which profiles over a dozen uncommonly virtuous individuals who pursue committedly ethical lives—often at great personal cost. (One woman in the book weeps after her boyfriend buys her a four-dollar candy apple, because the money could have gone toward anti-malarial bed nets.) MacFarquhar’s subjects include a Vermont couple who adopted twenty-two children, a Maryland minister who donated her kidney to a stranger, and an Indian man who spurned his family’s lavish world of pet panthers and sports cars to become a rag-wearing sadhu and the founder of leper colonies and rehabilitation centers.

Over nearly two decades as a New Yorker staff writer, MacFarquhar has profiled, most memorably, subjects whose uncommon circumstances are largely the result of their own preternatural willpower—their own sets of priorities, their own mindboggling resolve. (Barack Obama, chef David Chang, and Internet activist Aaron Swartz have all been the focus of MacFarquhar’s pieces over the years.) The altruists profiled in Strangers Drowning are no exception. MacFarquhar describes their motivations in elegant, empathetic terms, whether they’re standing in the street in a lobster costume (with a sign that reads “Being Boiled Hurts”) or adopting a set of four siblings from New Mexico. The stories resound with the universality of fables, events unfold at their own pace, and the overall tone of Strangers Drowning, with its panoramic view of actions and their consequences, seems to draw from the texts of psychology, philosophy, and religion in equal measure, evoking the case study, the thought experiment, and the parable. (The converts and visionaries in William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience come to mind, as do the suffering protagonists in the Book of Job and Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree.)

Strangers Drowning offers a portrait of a dozen-odd saints, but it also paints the picture of an individual hidden in the wings: the average reader, to whom all this extreme altruism might seem like a load of hooey. At the book’s outset, MacFarquhar notes that her focus is specifically on the “do-gooder” (emphasizing the phrase’s distasteful connotations), whom she calls “perverse”—“a foul-weather friend, a kind of virtuous ambulance chaser.” Her subjects are chosen accordingly. Absent are philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates, or spur-of-the-moment heroes like Wesley Autrey (who in 2007 jumped in front of an oncoming subway train to save the life of a young film student who’d fallen onto the rails during a seizure). MacFarquhar also intentionally omits the do-gooders of wartime: the world’s Oskar Schindlers. All these people are venerated by society, but MacFarquhar would rather focus on the sort who embodies virtue but inspires scorn—or at least ambivalence. (Given that the book specifically seeks to profile the do-gooder who, as she writes, “plans his good deeds in cold blood,” it’s no surprise that several protagonists said they were galvanized by Singer’s polarizing version of greatest-good-to-greatest-number ethics.)

Here is the crux of what’s both knotty and intriguing about the book. It assumes that these saints seem odious to the rest of us sinners—an assumption about the readership that excludes those of us who read the book and felt nothing but admiration for everyone portrayed. And it raises an urgent question: Why do they seem slightly odious to so many of us? Surely, these relentless altruists ought to serve as models, not sources of annoyance.

Strangers Drowning offers both implicit and explicit answers. Nietzsche’s arguments are invoked (such as that Christian conceptions of altruism are, in MacFarquhar’s words, “a morality for the insignificant”), as is Anna Freud’s theory that do-gooders are neurotically fulfilling their own desires through others. And each chapter includes enough about its subjects’ childhoods that armchair psychologists will hardly be able to resist trying to connect the dots between the altruists’ present-day convictions and their histories of early suffering. (We’re told that the man who adopts twenty-two children had a “harsh father” who sometimes “beat the kids with a horsewhip or an electrical cord.”)

But maybe it’s these saints’ sense of certainty that irks so many of the rest of us—this, at least, is the suggestion of the penultimate chapter, “From the Point of View of the Universe.” (Its title is a play on that of a book coauthored by Singer, drawn in turn from a phrase used by the philosopher Henry Sidgwick.) This section profiles Stephanie Wykstra, a woman who wants to live morally but also views her own actions with skepticism. She parts ways with the teachings of her Calvinist upbringing, then gives up a career as an academic philosopher to work at a nonprofit, and ultimately leaves a marriage to a “do-gooder” who only sleeps for about four hours a day so that he has more time to save the world. All the while, she seeks to figure out what it means to live a moral, or at least meaningful, life.

To say that Wykstra seems among the most sympathetic of the book’s protagonists may merely reveal my own biases; as it happens, she’s one of my closest friends from college. But at the very least, as the chapters title suggests, she represents the “rest” of us. What sets her apart from the other do-gooders—what makes her a foil—is that she can’t take refuge in the certitude that undergirds their lives. Describing one of her inner monologues, MacFarquhar asks: “Was it possible to live without a foundation at all, knowing that she no longer knew what was right, and maybe never would? She didn’t know.” The implication, it would seem, is that we’re human partly because we live poignantly adrift, unable to access objective moral truths—and that anyone who acts otherwise just doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Dawn Chan is associate editor at and has written for the New York Times and New York magazine.