The kindness of strangers: the extreme end of altruism

When Larissa MacFarquhar told people she was working on a book about extreme altruists, she was asked the same, telling question again and again: “But aren’t they mentally ill?”

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When Larissa MacFarquhar told people she was working on a book about extreme altruists, she was asked the same, telling question again and again: “But aren’t they mentally ill?”

In Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity, MacFarquhar, a staff writer for the New Yorker, never dismisses her subjects’ actions as pathological – even though that would be far easier than probing the complex blend of duty, guilt and compassion that seems to drive about a dozen men and women to devote their lives to helping others.

We meet a couple from Vermont who adopt 20 children, including a girl with severe cerebral palsy, a boy with foetal alcohol syndrome and a teenager with a history of sexual abuse. We meet Baba Amte, an Indian activist who founded a leper colony on a desolate patch of scrub in the 1940s – when lepers were routinely shunned and even burned alive – and spent the rest of his life building it into a thriving and self-sufficient community. We meet a pastor and an air-conditioning salesman who donate their kidneys to total strangers.

Some are motivated by religious faith. For others, a desire to save the world develops over time. Some achieve international fame, while others labour for their ideals in obscurity. What they hold in common is a commitment to specific moral principles and a belief that their obligations do not end with the suffering of those close by. They feel directly responsible, too, for the hardships of
far-off strangers. “They lack that happy blindness that allows most people, most of the time, to shut their minds to what is unbearable,” MacFarquhar writes.

She refrains from taking a stance on whether the people in her book are moral heroes or lunatics with saviour complexes. Their stories nonetheless raise questions about the philosophies that influence them – in particular the trendy “effective altruism” movement, in which beliefs are selected in order to optimise the quantum of good that an individual can do.

Although their motives are various, MacFarquhar’s secular subjects frequently cite the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer as an inspiration. Singer, a professor at Princeton, is probably the best-known proponent of effective altruism. Effective altruists donate to the most efficient charities, rather than the ones to which they feel a personal connection, and – at least, in theory – they place the same value on the lives and well-being of strangers on the other side of the globe as on their families and communities. They are encouraged to forgo feel-good careers with charities or NGOs in favour of high-earning jobs that will allow them to make bigger donations later in life.

As a university student, one of MacFarquhar’s subjects – identified under the pseudonym Aaron Pitkin – came across Singer’s essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, which argues that it is indefensible to spend money on non-essential goods when that money could be put towards saving the life of a child in the developing world. Aaron, searching for meaning and purpose, had already decided to dedicate his life to lessening the suffering of chickens, but after reading Singer’s essay he became obsessed with optimising his use of his time and resources.

“Everything Aaron bought, even the smallest, cheapest thing, felt to him like food or medicine snatched from someone dying,” MacFarquhar writes. He began skip-diving for food and meticulously tracking all of his expenses. He found a job at an animal rights organisation and “set up his computer in his bedroom so that he could roll out of bed and push the on button with one movement”. He refused to help his formerly homeless girlfriend pay off her credit-card debt, telling her “that there were other people who needed that money more”.

Discovering Singer’s work at the local library was also an important moment for Julia Wise, who lives as frugally as possible to maximise the amount she can give to charity. At one point, she found herself racked with guilt after buying a $4 candy apple, tortured by visions of the anti-malaria bed net she could have bought instead. Singer’s book The Life You Can Save strengthened her conviction that she was on the right path.

Singer does not live in perfect accordance with his principles. Some of his followers have criticised him for spending money on expensive nursing care for his dying mother. He does not recommend Aaron Pitkin’s lifestyle, though he doesn’t condemn it, either.

“Everyone is different and different ways of responding to my argument will suit different people,” he told me recently. “Aaron’s is one way and it may work for him, but it’s definitely not a model for everyone, because for most people that would be counterproductive.” Note that: it’s not for everyone because it would be “counterproductive”, rather than because it would be a miserable way to live.

Philosophical theories are usually presented as abstractions or hypotheses. As far as we know, no one has ever had to choose between rescuing his wife or two strangers from drowning in a pond, as the classic utilitarian thought experiment goes. It is impossible to say whether Aaron would have discovered his way of life on his own.
But in showing us what it means to live in accordance with the principles of effective altruism, MacFarquhar shows us their cost.

“Strangers Drowning” is published by Allen Lane (£20)

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide