The man across the aisle on the flight home spent thousands of dollars on a European vacation with his family. While killing time in the airport, he unloaded almost all of what was left of his euros—the big notes—on duty-free souvenirs for friends. Now, as the plane begins its descent, he tosses his pocket change into a fund for African children.
The airline launched the charity collection a few years ago, as part of the widespread drive for so-called corporate social responsibility. You have a bout of nausea as you watch the flight attendants collect the donations. What’s revolting is not so much the program itself; as the announcement on the PA earnestly insists, “Change adds up”—which, though a vile piece of marketing, is true enough. Rather, it’s the ritual you have witnessed, with artificial gratitude on one side of the transaction and a passing moment of self-satisfaction on the other.
But then, you are on the same flight. You have also donated your loose change to the cause and perhaps a bill, even a large one, and have shed with it a bit of the complacency that comes with enjoying a world of wealth and privilege. The plane taxis to the gate, and, after clearing customs, you get on with your life. The limo to Manhattan from JFK comes to $100, tip included.
That such a life—a uniquely fortunate one in the annals of history—is essentially unearned in a world of horrors is a truth that our culture keeps at bay most of the time. But disquiet about it erupts all the same, in some people more than others. What if you were so often troubled by the incongruity between your sense of material comfort and the destitution of others, or unable to find routine defenses against it, that you felt you had to change your life entirely?
“It was never a new idea that people are selfish,” Larissa MacFarquhar observes in one of the lapidary aphorisms scattered throughout Strangers Drowning, her masterpiece of a book about those among us who decide to drop everything and become extreme altruists. Is their “impossible idealism” a genuine alternative to our self-involvement and smug advantage, abetted by a showy generosity that is all the more grating for being deeply inadequate? More important, who are these saintly few who, refusing to tolerate worries about complacency and complicity, set out to change or even save a life a hundred or a thousand miles away? Their “inhumanly lofty” benevolence sharpens our inevitable but passing doubts about our unprecedented entitlement. It pushes our fleeting outrage or rational condemnation of things as they are into an extreme and perhaps extremist ethic, transforming what might be supererogatory duties—things that might be done for extra credit—into necessary, if not militant, demands.
What is most arresting, and troubling, to MacFarquhar about extreme altruists is that, unlike most people, they rank the needs of perfect strangers with those of their own families and friends. An African child can suffer as much as my mother—or me; no one is more or less human than anyone else; foreigners in pain around the world outnumber even the widest group of one individual’s acquaintances, especially for anyone living in a rich nation. MacFarquhar’s do-gooders, by turning the ephemeral fancy of being ethically upright into a whole way of life, substitute a kind of impersonality for the overwhelmingly personal moral relationships that even the most generous people favor.