Graduate Prize Fellow‚ Adam Lerner‚ recounts Larissa MacFarquhar’s talk on ‘do–gooders’.

Nov. 25, 2015

View talk here.

There are people who do good, and then there are what Larissa MacFarquhar calls "do-gooders". Larissa MacFarquhar of The New Yorker has written a book about do-gooders, and she recently visited Princeton to talk about her book, Strangers Drowning. Eldar Shafir responded and Peter Singer moderated.

MacFarquhar's do-gooder is an exceptional character. She is not your ordinary decent person. And she is not a hero--she is not someone who merely finds herself faced with a challenging situation and rises to the occasion. The do-gooder is someone who goes out of her way to find suffering and then devotes her life to alleviating it. It is someone who takes seriously what Peter Singer argued for in his (1972) article "Famine, Affluence, and Morality": that if one can help someone else without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then one ought to do it.

MacFarquhar began her talk by introducing the audience to do-gooders she interviewed for her book. First off was Aaron Pitkin, who devoted his life to reducing suffering in the most efficient way he believed possible: by advocating on behalf of factory-farmed chickens. Next, we learned about Dorothy Granada, who after a stint as an anti-nuclear advocate moved to Nicaragua to lead a women's health clinic. And then there was Baba Amte, who started a leper colony to take care of the sick, exposing himself and his children to the risk of contracting leprosy. MacFarquhar also discussed the experiences of those who have given a kidney to a stranger, and others--such as Julia Wise --who donate the majority of their income to charity.

MacFarquhar observed that such do-gooders make ordinary decent people feel deeply uncomfortable. In the second half of her talk, she provided her account of why that is. She dismissed the idea that do-gooders merely make the rest of us feel weak, selfish, or lazy. The true cause of our uneasiness, MacFarquhar went on to argue, lies in our cultural heritage. Citing the influence of Adam Smith's "invisible hand", Sigmund Freud's concept of "moral masochism", and Marcel Mauss's book The Gift, she argued that we have learned to think of do-gooders as counterproductive, mentally ill, or even evil.

However neutral she may remain in the book, it was clear in person that MacFarquhar believes that our discomfort is unwarranted. Do-gooders are not counterproductive, mentally ill, or evil. They are admirable. And to the extent that they differ from others psychologically, it is only that they have an uncanny ability to keep other people's suffering at the forefront of their mind. (As an example, MaqFarquhar cited Aaron Pitkin's tendency to imagine seeing a starving child sitting next to a vending machine, a starving child who needed the money he could spend on a snack more than he needed the snack.)

In his response, Shafir took issue with MacFarquhar's hypothesis about what psychologically distinguishes do-gooders from ordinary decent folk. In Shafir's view, do-gooders are run-of-the-mill workaholics who happen to choose a career that involves helping other people, not people who have exceptional empathy. In support of his view, he cited several studies. One study that was referred back to several times throughout the discussion found that people who were asked how much they would donate to save 10,000 or 100,000 endangered birds from death were willing to donate no more ($80) than those who were asked how much they would donate to save 1,000 birds, suggesting that people's compassionate responses are largely insensitive to level of need. He argued that this is a deep feature of human psychology, and for that reason exceptional empathy could not explain why do-gooders do what they do.

A reception followed, where both MacFarquhar and Singer signed their books. After the reception, the conversation continued over dinner, where a variety of questions were taken up:

If individuals are exceptionally empathic, does this cause them to become do-gooders or is it caused by their decision to become do-gooders?

Do do-gooders see themselves as martyrs?

Why does our attitude toward do-gooders change in the context of war?

Do do-gooders take themselves to be going above and beyond what morality demands of them, or do they simply take morality to be much more demanding than others?

To what extent should we emulate do-gooders?

Are do-gooders such as Baba Amte wrong to impose risks on their loved ones in order to help strangers?

Should do-gooders be vocal about their good deeds or should they perform them quietly?

Does our cultural milieu contain any positive portrayals of do-gooders?

Although there was little consensus about how these questions should be answered, there was clear agreement that MacFarquhar's thought-provoking book deserved much more consideration than it could be given in one evening.