Why are we suspicious of do-gooders?

'Strangers Drowning' by Larissa MacFarquhar
'Strangers Drowning' by Larissa MacFarquhar
Courtesy of Penguin

Imagine a do-gooder who gives away half of her income to charity, who adopts 20 special needs children, who donates his kidney to a stranger.

Most people's immediate reaction? "You're crazy."

Larissa MacFarquhar, a staff writer for The New Yorker, unpacks that reaction in her new book "Strangers Drowning." She asks: Why do we respond to charity with skepticism and suspicion?

To answer that question, she went looking for do-gooders. The people she found are the definition of generous. There's the husband and wife with 20 adopted children, the kidney donor, and even a couple who founded a leprosy colony in rural India in the 1940s and brought their two young children to live there.

She profiles these and other individuals in "Strangers Drowning," trying to find what it is that drives their altruism. She joined MPR News' Kerri Miller to discuss what she found — and why extreme do-gooders can make others feel uncomfortable.

"I wanted to convey to regular people — like myself, like the rest of us — what it feels like to be someone who is totally committed to helping others," McFarquhar said.

It is a difficult thing to understand. When it comes to the kidney donation, for instance, many donation programs around the country won't work with altruistic donors who want to give their organ to a stranger. "Partly because they're suspicious of them," McFarquhar said. "They think they must be crazy."

To the do-gooders, however, it's perfectly normal. McFarquhar uses the analogy of war to explain their constantly selfless behavior.

When your home becomes a warfront, self-sacrifice doesn't seem outrageous, she said. And for extreme altruists, "It's always wartime. They know that even if their country is not at war, even if there isn't an earthquake where they live, they know that elsewhere there is always extreme need. They feel as called to fix that or try to fix that as the rest of us do when it's right in front of us."

Sometimes, this altruism can control a do-gooders' life. McFarquhar writes about a woman who felt that if she didn't donate money to life-saving medicines, she was responsible for the deaths of those the medicines could have saved. Another woman agonized over whether she should have children, because the cost of raising a child would keep her from helping to support other children around the world financially.

Effective altruists, McFarquhar said, have to set limits that allow them to still live a full life while helping others — otherwise they can self-destruct.

Still, many question their motives. "I found this a very deep strain in Western culture: the suspicion of do-gooders." McFarquhar thinks that can change, in part through more in-depth portraits of generous people.

"I talked to a novelist I knew and I said: 'Why don't novelists write about very, very good people?' He gave me this look like I'd said: 'Why don't you write a nice story about bunnies and butterflies?" McFarquhar said. "Part of this book's motivation is a cry to novelists: Good people are complex and tough and interesting."

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.