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

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  1,467 Ratings  ·  235 Reviews
How far do you really go to “do unto others”? New Yorker journalist Larissa MacFarquhar reveals the individuals who devote themselves fully to bettering the lives of strangers, even when it comes at great personal cost

There are those of us who help and those who live to help. Larissa MacFarquhar digs deep into the psychological roots and existential dilemmas motivating th
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published September 22nd 2015 by Penguin Press
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Last year, I physically stopped a passerby from walking into a moving car. I don't think this is an exceptionally good thing because it isn't. Many other people would do the same under the same circumstances. It is an instinct, and no thought went into it. Peter Singer asked the question - if saving someone nearby is so obvious, then why not save someone else who is far away if you are capable?

This book (really a collection of shorter pieces) is about 'do-gooders'. For lack of a better word, th
David Sasaki
Apr 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This will likely turn out to be one of the ten books that have most shaped my worldview. I've struggled my whole life to find the right balance between duty, altruism and hedonism -- the responsibilities we have toward others, both near and far, and to our own pursuits of pleasure. Like so many others, I suffer from the nagging guilt that I should be more altruistic, but where does that guilt come from and why do I seem feel it more than most? Strangers Drowning by New Yorker staff writer Lariss ...more
Nov 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What's the difference between a starving child standing right in front of you and a starving child millions of miles away? What is your duty to other people, to alleviate the world's suffering? How much is fair to ask of yourself and the people who love you when it comes to doing good?

These are some of the big questions that Larissa MacFarquhar's book contemplates, though there are no easy answers. The "do-gooders" in her book are all wildly different in how they approach the question of allevia
Nov 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing
What an deeply interesting, oddly gripping book, Larissa MacFarquhar's portraits of extreme do-gooders, and ruminations on the meaning, ethical and moral limits, and our response to extreme altruism in many guises. The book's title come from a thought experiment: if you saw a boy drowning in front of you, you'd save him of course, even if he were a stranger to you, it would be morally repugnant if you just walked on by and let him die. But what if you could save a boy in a distant country from d ...more
Susan (aka Just My Op)
This nonfiction look at do-gooders in society is certainly filled with food for thought, and is especially poignant now when so many Syrian refugees are trying desperately to gain basic human rights while fleeing their violent country. And at a time when I, after reading the book and on a trivial level, am feeling guilty about buying a better refrigerator than I needed when my old one died.

The author discusses philosophy and the way society has looked at altruism, and especially at extreme “do-g
Caidyn (BW Reviews; he/him/his)
I'm a do-gooder. Let's just be honest about that. From a young age, I would give counsel to my friends. By the time I was in middle school, I had helped a friend not commit suicide, keep herself from cutting a few times, helped with getting multiple friends out of bad houses for sleepovers. Today, I still do that stuff. I have a friend who has a diagnosis that they can only talk to me about because I actually have training on it and how to handle it. I have random people vent to me because I jus ...more
Nov 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
Fascinating accounts of extreme do-gooders. We go about our lives knowing fully well that we can save strangers from death and agony if we give up some of our indulgences. It doesn't matter if we already give money to charity or volunteer for charity work. We go on vacations. We buy expensive coffee and meals. We buy that dress or pair of shoes that we don't really need. Why not spend the money instead to save a starving or sick child from pain and death? The extreme do-gooders of this book can' ...more
Jan 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This book completely changed the way I think about myself and my life--I highly recommend it!
Jul 27, 2015 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
May 29, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
So. This was a terrible book, you guys. Everything about it was irritating.

- Bad writing.
- Bad outline.
- Honestly, a bad idea.

I had a professor in college who studied altruism, and she herself thought it was absurd to look at things on the individual level - that the whole idea of where altruism gets interesting is when it comes to group cooperation. Even then, at a Darwinian level the genes of the immediate relatives are not sacrificed for the genes of the larger whole.

In every one of thes
Alisi ☆ wants to read too many books ☆
I'm not sure what to make of this book. I was really hoping that there would be more to this book. That there'd be analysis and all that. Like, present the good and the bad. Present how this helps and/or give another view point.

That really wasn't this book. Perhaps the subtitle didn't convey what the book really is. It is, basically, just story after story of people who have 'extreme ethical commitment'. There's very little discussion on these people. It's just dry narratives.

It honestly didn't
Sep 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
I doubt there are few human beings that have not contemplated their personal morality, the decay of the world around them, and the suffering of others. Such things are plastered wherever there is the written word, a pulpit, or a media outlet selling time slots. Even without such things, people have likely asked themselves Am I enough? Did I do enough? Am I doing enough? Larissa MacFarquhar takes the troublesome problem of do-gooders and dives into such personal questions by presenting stories fr ...more
Jan 26, 2016 rated it liked it
On the one hand, I read through this very quickly, so in that sense it was not something in which I was struggling to keep my interest.

On the other hand, it felt so disjoint. The first few chapters were a bunch of sort of random anecdotes with all the subjects seemingly influenced by the same group of thinkers (Singer's _Famine, Affluence, and Morality_, Gray's "World Equity Budget", etc.)

The remaining examples seemed to have a slightly different tack but ultimately it still seemed a loose jum
missy jean
Jan 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is the best non-fiction book I've read in a long time! It grapples with all the questions I'm most interested in: How do people try to live ethical lives in a profoundly unjust world? What do their lives look like, and what are the tradeofffs for this kind of life? Why does unyielding commitment to morality look so extreme to the majority, and why are "do-gooders" so often dismissed and derided? What does it mean to believe or not believe in altruism? And even: What role can do-gooders play ...more
Aug 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-in-2017
This was a really eye-opening book for me to read. I've always known do-gooders exist but the lengths in which they go to wasn't something that I was aware of.

The book is mainly made up of stories from real life do-gooders with chapters in between explaining the logic of the do-gooders and how they are undermined, whether in fiction or in history. These chapters for me were a little difficult to understand though they did help to provide some explanation of why these do-gooders do what they do.

Robert Wechsler
Dec 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An exemplary form of a type of book that is very popular today, but not with me: a nonfiction book that takes the form of potted biographies. What makes this book so good? MacFarquhar’s writing style is excellent; her bios appear to flow naturally, but are very controlled and structurally interesting; she balances the intellectual, the emotional, and the merely curious; she rarely provides too much information (selection is all); and one trusts her completely, while so many of these books seem t ...more
May 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
I read this a while ago, reviewing now: This book had quite an effect on me. It helped organize my thoughts about what volunteer work and selfless service means. Great stories, broad lessons. Some of the people profiled may strike you as unwell or blind to anything but helping random strangers. An interesting exercise in finding your own barometer for volunteer work, perhaps.
Nov 15, 2017 rated it it was ok
Some of the stories of the various individuals featured in this book were quite interesting; others - not so much. They tended to make me want to ask them, "What's the matter with you?" Seriously! The whole chapter devoted to psychoanalysing extreme altruists just left me cold - just a bunch of shrinks trying to figure out what makes people tick. The most interesting chapter (for me) was the critique of Shakespeare by George Bernard Shaw and Leo Tolstoy, both of whom took him to task because not ...more
Jul 08, 2017 rated it liked it
Altruism is one of those things that by definition sounds purely positive but is actually much more complicated that that. Kind of like honesty. The author does a good job of not oversimplifying but it is also a book of extremes. None of the people in these stories seemed particularly happy. It wasn’t a very good advertisement for altruism (not that it was necessarily meant to be), at least not altruism to this extreme, but it did force me to ask myself, Am doing enough? The answer is, of course ...more
Sarah Galvin
Jun 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ethics-morality
I thought this was a really interesting read. However, the author hinges the work on the premise that the anecdotes chosen are about people who do not suffer any pathology, then goes on to describe individuals who not only seem to indicate pathology, but then fully describes why psychoanalysis of the individuals motives could be rooted in something much deeper and complex then a simple desire to the most good one can. She argues that our suspicions of do gooders are entrenched in culture but the ...more
Charlie Quimby
Sep 09, 2015 rated it liked it
I really liked MacFarquhar's introductory chapter, which conducted a brief tour of the thinking about ethical choices and offered (to me, at least) some compelling insights of her own.

I was less taken by the chapters profiling individuals and couples who have made what seem to be extreme choices for how to commit their lives. The portraits are engaging in the way of those New Yorker pieces of reportage you start reading and after two pages realize you've been sucked into a much longer article th
Dec 22, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-2017
As pop philosophy goes, this book is quite excellent. It would be great reading for a high school program in philosophy. The first few chapters focus on individual cases such that it seems it will be some kind of modern book of the minor saints, however later chapters focus on individual topics like how literature portrays altruism.

Once one gets into the later chapters it becomes clear that the earlier chapters were also meant to be on topics, but the case examples overwhelmed the sense of topic
Oct 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar, author and narrator
The book addresses the do-gooders of the world, those who place the needs of others ahead of their own, those that want to bring compassion to everyone in need, those that want to save others regardless of the risk to themselves, those that do it instinctively and those that do it by choice. In short, there are several categories of do-gooders and she explains how all types of do-gooders are perceived and why. Some are ridiculed, some a
Mariana López González
May 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
El libro parte de la siguiente pregunta: "Hay tres personas ahogándose, dos extraños y tu mamá. Puedes salvar a tu mamá o a los dos extraños. ¿A quién rescatas? ¿Es válido elegir salvar a tu mamá sólo porque la quieres más, aunque eso signifique sacrificar dos vidas por una sola?". A través de diferentes historias de vida de personas que eligieron vivir su vida dedicados a un extremo deber moral, este libro te enfrenta a cuestionamientos sobre tu propia responsabilidad moral, el valor de la vida ...more
Jan 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018, 4-stars, non-fiction
While slightly discomfiting, I enjoyed this a lot. MacFarquhar explores the lives of extreme do-gooders, weighing their deeds against those of the rest of us - what drives us and makes us all human. It made me think about how much good I want to do in the world and where my threshold is between duty to family and duty to strangers drowning.
Apr 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: audiobooks
I loved this. It left me feeling like I had taken a challenging and fascinating sociology class for the price of one Audible credit. Important stories and important questions in here. I don't always like nonfiction on audio, but the author reads it and is very engaging.
Jul 01, 2018 added it
Shelves: did-not-finish
I can't review this book because I could not finish it. I got part way through and it seemed like it was going nowhere, just tale after tale of mostly well-meaning Westerners trying to hone their impulses to save the world to razor-sharp purity. Maybe I am being unfair to give up on it, but the moral struggles of her subjects seemed so remarkably self-referential.

I remember reading about the concentration camps during the Holocaust. Unfortunately I can't find the reference - it was probably some
John Wiswell
Oct 30, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating investigation into what causes a minority of people to devote their existences to helping others. It's packed with profiles of doctors leaving their homelands for third world countries, altruists trying to raise the most money for the best causes, and even the tribulations of living organ donors. Throughout, MacFarquhar examines what makes some of them happy and others miserable, and why they are often pushed away or despised by normal people.

While we're supposed to admire do-goode
Mostafa Ehab
Feb 16, 2017 rated it liked it
الكتاب بيتكلم عن مفهوم الأثرة وتفضيل الآخرين على النفس وحتى لو كان ده هيعود بالضرر على الشخص نفسه، وبيدعم ده بقصص عن ناس وضحت مفهوم الأثرة ده وطبقته من خلال شغلها، منهم اللي عالجت شخص مصاب بطلقة وهي عارفة إنه ممكن يحاربها بعد كده ويهاجم العيادة بتاعتها، وأخرى كانت بتساعد زوجها يبطل إدمان الكحوليات وبعد ما بطل لقت في الموضوع ده اهتمام كبير بالنسبة لها فبدأت المؤسسة الخاصة بيها اللي بتساعد الناس تبطل الإدمان، والشخص اللي اتبرع بإحدى كليتيه لشخص آخر غريب تماماً عنه في حاجة إليها وسوف يموت مؤكداً بد ...more
Jun 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
Gripping and challenging, I never wanted to put it down. Having taken a couple classes with Peter Singer I was familiar with some of the underlying philosophical concepts discussed here, but it had been too long since I'd dug this deeply into them. MacFarquhar also provides valuable historical, sociological and even literary context (though the book's major missed opportunity, to me, is the relative lack of discussion of how all this--altruism, saintliness, family vs. strangers, community vs. wo ...more
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Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. Her Profile subjects have included John Ashbery, Barack Obama, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Mantel, Derek Parfit, David Chang, and Aaron Swartz, among many others. She is the author of “Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help” (Penguin Press, 2015). Before joining th ...more
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“To judge is to believe that a person is capable of doing better. It's to know that people can change their behavior, even quite radically in response to what is expected of them.” 5 likes
“Giving up alcohol is an asceticism for the modern do-gooder, drinking being, like sex, a pleasure that humans have always indulged in, involving a loss of self-control, the renunciation of which marks the renouncer as different and separate from other people.

To drink, to get drunk, is to lower yourself on purpose for the sake of good fellowship. You abandon yourself, for a time, to life and fate. You allow yourself to become stupider and less distinct. Your boundaries become blurry: you open your self and feel connected to people around you. You throw off your moral scruples, and suspect it was only those scruples that prevented the feeling of connection before. You feel more empathy for your fellow, but at the same time, because you are drunk, you render yourself unable to help him; so, to drink is to say, I am a sinner, I have chosen not to help.”
More quotes…