A New Yorker staff writer delves into the strange lives and curious mindsets of extreme altruists.
In her debut book, MacFarquhar profiles a small, unusual collection of people who have sacrificed almost everything to help others. She calls them “do-gooders,” but their morals are so acute that they can seem almost mad, like saints and martyrs. A trust-funder–turned–animal activist descends into homelessness in the name of his cause. A couple in Boston gives the vast majority of their earnings to charity but struggles with the idea of having children. A couple in Philadelphia adopts more than 20 special needs children despite the terrible cost to their own fragile psyches. A woman donates a kidney to a stranger, and her act inspires a terrible hostility from other strangers. A Buddhist priest in Japan counsels people who want to commit suicide only to have them turn on him in his hour of need. In between these profiles, MacFarquhar explores a variety of disciplines, including philosophy, religion, psychology, sociology, and literature. It's admirable that the book never descends into an opaque discussion of moral philosophy. As the author admits, “in the abstract, there are ideas about saints and perfection. Only actual lives convey fully and in a visceral way the beauty and cost of a certain kind of moral existence.” The book is less a defense of sainthood than a portrait of people for whom the desire to do good often backfires, sometimes with horrible results. Yet MacFarquhar also discovers an intense compassion for these people whose lives she admires but cannot always understand. “It may be true that not everyone should be a do-gooder,” the author writes. “But it is also true that these strange, hopeful, tough, idealistic, demanding, life-threatening, and relentless people, by their extravagant example, help keep those life-sustaining qualities alive.”
Fascinating and terrifying portraits of saints and ministers of grace.