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

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  2,146 ratings  ·  343 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, 336 pages
Published September 22nd 2015 by Penguin Press
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Start your review of Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help
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
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
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
Roshni Sahoo
Jan 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
this book is about "do-gooders", people who push themselves to moral extremity. while reading this book, i felt uneasy and amazed in alternating turns and found it thought-provoking the whole way through.

i would recommend reading it if you're ready to think critically about your privilege, what you owe to yourself, and what you owe to other people (from family and friends to complete strangers). i wasn't super ready, which is why i think some parts made me feel guilty and uncomfortable.

this boo
Jul 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: eco
Larissa MacFarquhar's Strangers Drowning is mostly a series of profiles about do-gooders, though I often thought of them as extreme altruists. These do-gooders care about many things, including protesting, working in impoverished communities, donating to charity, alleviating or ending animal suffering, saving children—and more. Many books about altruism now focus on effective altruism, which often leads to cerebral, abstract numerical discussion and a sort of percentage-of-one's-pay-charitable-d ...more
Chunyang Ding
Jun 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is stunning. Whatever expectations I held for this book initially - as another dry, moral philosophy book, as a collection of biographies, as a preachy book about altruism - were blown away by this masterpiece by MacFarquhar. Each of the individual portraits of these "do-gooders" has that particular feel and style of a masterful New Yorker article, which is little surprise considering that MacFarquhar's day job is as a New Yorker staff writer. Stylistically, it does bring forward memor ...more
Caidyn (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
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
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!
Jun 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them... The moral virtues, present... to an extreme degree, are apt to crowd out the non-moral virtues, as well as many of the interests and personal characteristics that we generally think contribute to a healthy,
well-rounded, richly developed character... there seems to be a limit to how much morality we can stand.
– Susan Wolf

...the moral narcissist’
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
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
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
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
This fascinating book takes comparison out of the doing of good deeds and gives a broader understanding to why we feel the need to help others. Filled with examples of extreme do-gooders, the purpose leans more towards finding a balance in our lives where helping others doesn't need to be all consuming. We learn about ambition versus charity, helping family versus helping strangers, doing work near home versus far away, and finding peace in doing what we can instead of believing we can never do ...more
jasmine sun
Jan 08, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: theory
really unique book about altruism, bundling together stories of extremely altruistic individuals with sections on the history and theory of altruism.

macfarquhar is a gorgeous writer, which made the moral philosophy bits especially engrossing (request: entire ethics textbook by her). the individual portraits were like mini-biographies, and while some were more interesting than others, i appreciated that they were a geographically diverse group with vastly different rationales for giving.

the book
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
Oct 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The profiles of the do-gooders in this book were engrossing. Overall I found the subject and the philosophies fascinating and want to reread this again already.
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
Deane Barker
Sep 05, 2016 rated it liked it
This is a book about Do Gooders -- people who are compelled to help other people, often to a fault. The book is a series of stories about these people. These are people that sacrifice their lives, their happiness, to make life better for others.

The book is a study in some people's inability to moderate goodness, and their nihilism at their inability placate or silence evil or suffering.

The people described in the book almost suffer from neurosis or mania. They pursue good relentlessly, obsessive
alexandra leigh
Nov 19, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
a very interesting little book and a lovely little self-evaluation on us as people!! I learnt so much about mankind as individuals: survivalism vs nurture, the varying lengths of humankind's altruism, what we consider duty and why others feel it more and why do we all hold ourselves to different moral and ethical standards.

We are all, at the end of the day, different, and the real person accounts — or rather, the chaptered snapshots into the various do-gooders' lives (enjoyably written btw!!! an
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.” 9 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.”
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