From Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar.

Reprinted by arrangement with
Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House
Company. Copyright © Larissa MacFarquhar, 2015.
This book is about a human character who arouses conflicting emotions: the do-gooder. I don’t
mean a part-time, normal do-gooder—someone
who has a worthy job, or volunteers at a charity,
and returns to an ordinary family life in the evenings. I mean a person who sets out to live as
ethical a life as possible. I mean a person who’s drawn to moral goodness for its own sake. I
mean someone who pushes himself to moral extremity, who commits him- self wholly, beyond
what seems reasonable. I mean the kind of do-gooder who makes people uneasy.
This person has a sense of duty that is very strong—so
    strong that he’s able to repress
most of his baser impulses in order to do what he believes to be right. This is a struggle, but one
that he usu- ally wins. He rarely permits himself time off from his work, and spends little money
on himself so he has more to give away. He has his joys and pleasures but they must fit—they
must gain admittance. Because of this, there is a certain rigidity and a focused narrowness to the
way he lives: his life makes ordinary existence seem flabby and haphazard. The standards to
which he holds himself and the emotions he cultivates—care
for strangers, a degree of
detachment from family in order to care for those strangers, indifference to low pleasures—can
seem inhumanly lofty, and separate him from other people.
The life of a zealous do-gooder is a kind of human sublime—by
    which I mean that,
although there is a hard beauty in it, the word “beautiful” doesn’t capture the ambivalence it stirs
up. A beautiful object—a
    flower, a stream—is
    pleasing in a gentle way, inspiring a feeling that
is like love. A sublime object, such as a mountain or a rough sea, inspires awe, but also dread.
Confronting it, you see its formidable nobility, and at the same time you sense uncomfortably
that you would not survive in it for long. It is this sense of sublime that I mean to apply to
do-gooders: to confront such a life is to feel awe mixed with unease—a
    sense that you wouldn’t
survive in that life for long, and might not want to.
The do-gooder is both more and less free than other people. In the usual sense of the
word he is less free, because he believes it’s his duty to act in certain ways, and he has to do his
duty. But in an older sense he is more free, because he can control himself, so his intentions
aren’t frustrated by weaknesses that he’d rather not have. He knows that if he makes a promise
he will keep it; that if a thing is right he will do it; that he will not turn away because something
seems too hard. Because of this, his life is what he intends it to be.
The usual way to do good is to help those who are near you: a person grows up in a particular
place, perceives that something is wrong there, and sets out to fix it. Or a person’s job suddenly
requires heroism of him and he rises to the occasion—he
    might be a priest whose church
becomes a refuge in wartime, or a nurse working in a hospital at the start of a plague. Either way,
he is taking care of his own, trying to make their lives better—lives
that he understands because
they are like his. He may not know personally the people he’s helping, but he has something in
common with them—they
are, in some sense, his people. There’s an organic connection between
him and his work.
Then there’s another sort of person, who starts out with something more abstract—a
sense of injustice in the world at large, and a longing for goodness as such. This person wants to
live a just life, feels obliged to right wrongs or relieve suffering, but he doesn’t know right away
how to do that, so he sets himself to figuring it out. He doesn’t feel that he must attend first to

people close to him: he is moved not by a sense of belonging but by the urge to do as much good
as he can. There is no organic, necessary connection between him and his work—it
choose him, he chooses it. The do-gooders I’m talking about are this second sort of person.
They’re not better or worse than the first sort, but they are rarer and harder to understand. It can
seem unnatural to look away from one’s own people toward a moral idea, but for these
do-gooders it’s not: it’s natural for them.
The first sort of person doesn’t provoke the discomfort that do-gooders do. The first sort
of person is often called a hero, and “hero” is a much less ambivalent word than “do-gooder.”
(I’m using the word here in a modern, colloquial sense—I’m
not talking about Achilles.) A hero
of this type comes upon a problem and decides to help. He is moved to do so by compassion for
something he sees, something outside himself. When he’s not helping, he returns to his ordinary
life. Because of this, his noble act isn’t felt as a reproach: You couldn’t have done what he did
because you weren’t there—you
aren’t part of his world. You can always imagine that you
would have done what he did if you had been there—after
all, the hero is an ordinary person like
The do-gooder, on the other hand, knows that there are crises everywhere, all the time,
and he seeks them out. He is not spontaneous—he
    plans his good deeds in cold blood. He may
be compassionate, but compassion is not why he does what he does—he
    committed himself to
helping before he saw the person who needs him. He has no ordinary life: his good deeds are his
life. This makes him good; but it can also make him seem perverse—a
    foul-weather friend, a
kind of virtuous ambulance chaser. And it’s also why do-gooders are a reproach: you know, as
the do-gooder knows, that there is always, somewhere, a need for help.
The term “do-gooder” is, of course, often demeaning. It can mean a silly or intrusive person who
tries to do good but ends up only meddling. It can mean someone who seems annoyingly earnest,
or priggish, or self-righteous, or judgmental. Benjamin Franklin gave up his quest for moral
perfection when he realized “that such extream nicety as I exacted of myself might be a kind of
foppery in morals, which, if it were known, would make me ridiculous; that a perfect character
might be attended with the inconvenience of being envied and hated; and that a benevolent man
should allow a few faults in himself to keep his friends in countenance.”
But even when “do-gooder” simply means a person who does good deeds, there’s still
some skepticism, even antagonism, in it. One reason may be guilt: nobody likes to be reminded,
even implicitly, of his own selfishness. Another is irritation: nobody likes to be told, even
implicitly, how he should live his life, or be reproached for how he is living it. And nobody likes
to be the recipient of charity. But that’s not the whole story. There’s a certain suspicion of
do-gooders who work in NGOs, because aid money is often wasted and sometimes harms the
people it’s supposed to help. But that’s not the whole story, either.
Ambivalence toward do-gooders also arises out of a deep uncertainty about how a person
ought to live. Is it good to try to live as moral a life as possible—a
    saintly life? Or does a life
like that lack some crucial human quality? Is it right to care for strangers at the expense of your
own people? Is it good to bind yourself to a severe morality that constricts spontaneity and
freedom? Is it possible for a person to hold himself to unforgiving standards without becoming
unforgiving? Is it presumptuous, even blasphemous, for a person to imagine that he can
transfigure the world—or
    to believe that it really matters what he does in his life when he’s only
a tiny flickering speck in a vast universe? Should morality be the highest human court—the
whose ruling overrides all others?

The philosopher Susan Wolf has written that a morally perfect person would be an
unappealing, alien creature, driven not by the loves and delights of ordinary people but by an
unnatural devotion to duty. In a life devoted only to duty, there’s no room for art and little for
enjoyment. “Morality itself,” she writes, “does not seem to be a suitable object of passion.” (It is
a measure of how peculiar do-gooders have come to seem that a moral philosopher finds it unnatural to feel a passion for morality as such—and
Wolf is not the only one who feels this way. A
passion for morality is a passion for goodness—something
like a secular version of a passion for
that did not used to seem so strange.) Wolf argues that if the ideal of the saintly
do-gooder is not one we truly aspire to—if
    we feel that, in their strangeness or self-suppression,
such people are missing some crucial human quality; if we believe, in other words, that the moral
ideal is not a human ideal—then
we should revise our ideas about the place of morality in life.
Morality should not be the highest human court—the
    one whose ruling overrides all others.
So, yes, in the ambivalence toward do-gooders there can be petty defensiveness—
resentment of being reproached and having to justify one’s choices. There can be petty
with earnestness or self-righteousness or priggishness. But there are also
powerful forces that push against do-gooders which have nothing to do with any of those things,
and which are not petty at all. Some of these forces are among the most fundamental, vital, and
honorable urges of human life.