As a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin in 2002, I was one of four teaching assistants for David Sosa’s celebrated Introduction to Philosophy course, which had about 500 students. That day, Professor Sosa was teaching them about utilitarianism and the Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s arguments about our obligations to the poor, especially those in conditions of what Singer calls “absolute poverty”: the poorest of the poor, those who don’t even have enough food, water, and shelter to care for themselves or their families; the millions of people around the world who are dying for no other reason than that they happen to have been born in the wrong place and the wrong time.

“Suppose I was on my way to class and I saw a small child drowning in a fountain,” Sosa explained. (The example is from Singer, who likely originally found it in the works of Confucian philosopher Mencius.) “If I stop to save the child I will be severely inconvenienced: my shoes and pants will be muddy, I’ll be late for class, I’ll have the hassle of finding the parents of the child or the police to take over. That said, of course I would stop to save the child, and all of us would agree that I’d be a kind of moral monster if I failed to do so.”

I am paraphrasing Sosa, who was paraphrasing Singer. Singer goes on to argue that the situation of comparatively wealthy Westerners—that means you and me—is, with respect to those in absolute poverty around the world, morally equivalent to the professor who chooses not to inconvenience himself by saving the drowning child. Then Professor Sosa conducted a thought experiment—again, inspired by Peter Singer’s argument—that I’ll always remember: 

“There are 500 of us in this classroom. Suppose we spend, on average, about $5 each on lunch, and we meet twice a week. Now suppose that we all decided to skip lunch just twice a week and donate that money, as a class, to the poor. That would mean that every week we would donate $5,000 to, say, relieving starvation: more than enough to save the lives of several dying children, and probably cutting some unnecessary calories from our own diets to boot. But we don’t do it. We don’t save those dying children every week. Now in Singer’s argument that makes us moral monsters. And I don’t feel like we are moral monsters, but I’m hard-pressed to explain why he isn’t right.”

It is Singer’s now famous argument that provides the title for Larissa Mac- Farquhar’s terrific, challenging, often disturbing book, Strangers Drowning. In it, MacFarquhar, a staff writer at The New Yorker, looks at a variety of cases of what she calls “do-gooders”: 

The do-gooder . . . 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.

MacFarquhar’s do-gooders are ethical extremists, from any kind of ordinary perspective on the question of what counts as morally required obligations to others. She looks at a variety of real-life do-gooders whom she found through her scrupulous and very entertaining research: a couple who take their small children into a remote and dangerous part of India to found a leper colony; another couple who start by adopting two children in need and don’t stop adopting until they have a brood of twenty; a woman who spends all of her money—literally all of her money— on life-saving medications for others because of her conviction that should she fail to do so, she will be personally responsible for the deaths that result; a woman so committed to the principle of kindness to strangers that when she is nearly raped by several attackers in her home while helping war victims in Central America, she runs into the road after they leave to offer them a cup of coffee.

These people sound crazy, perhaps, and MacFarquhar doesn’t pull any punches: when they are acting in crazy ways—like the husband who berates his wife for spending 28 cents more than their allotted budget, pennies that ought to have been used to feed the hungry—she shows them to us in all of their weirdness. She is not afraid of the obvious truth that as a culture, we are more than a little suspicious of dogooders. Why this is the case is part of her investigation. One of the best parts of her book is her Freudian discussion of moral narcissism and psychotic altruism: “detailing the louche displacements of the ego that delighted in renunciation.” But she also has real love for her subjects, and she tells us about their childhood experiences and their maturation, their parents, education, and lovers, the fascinating, detailed stories of how each do-gooder developed her or his radically altruistic beliefs and came to live according to those (usually, self-damaging, if not self-destructive) belief systems.

For us Buddhists, these do-gooders are perhaps both less strange and more challenging than they are for people who adhere to other religious traditions. We all know the story of the Buddha in an earlier incarnation, offering his body to the hungry tigress so she could feed herself and her young. There are many, many similar stories of extreme altruism throughout the Buddhist canon, often performed by less illustrious individuals. Once when my own teacher was asked by a fellow student, “Rinpoche, I have to have surgery. What can I do so that my surgery benefits all sentient beings?” he replied, “If you really want to know . . . have the surgery without any anesthesia.”

There are a variety of problems with altruism as a moral philosophy. What if everyone were an altruist? You might remember the case, from Philosophy 101, of the lifeboat that is overcrowded with altruists in a stormy sea. Recognizing that others will drown if he tries to save his own life, each altruist in the boat leaps out to his death, and the boat floats away—empty. How does the altruist know what others actually need? We are all also familiar with the case of the young, naive do-gooder (MacFarquhar tells us about several) or the well-funded but misguided charity that enters a cultural situation without proper understanding and winds up, with the best intentions, doing more harm than good.

Because we are very limited in our ability to recognize anything but the most obvious needs of others, even the most compassionate act may result in harming both self and other, rather than benefiting either. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called this “idiot compassion”: the common but mistaken idea, often held especially by people new to the dharma, that we should all be out in the streets helping others as much as we can. The unfortunate fact, in Trungpa Rinpoche’s plausible account, is that the vast majority of us don’t even understand enough to help ourselves in a skillful way, much less help other people.

There is also the practical problem of actually living in the world in a day-to-day way and trying to honor a moral obligation as seemingly simple and familiar as avoiding taking life.

“Now look at tsampa [a staple food in Tibet],” Patrul Rinpoche writes in his classic The Words of My Perfect Teacher. “Before sowing the barley, the fields have to be plowed, which forces to the surface all the worms and insects living underground and buries underground all those living on the surface. Wherever the plowing oxen go, they are followed by crows and small birds who feed incessantly on all those small creatures. . . . Likewise, at each stage of sowing, harvest, and threshing, the number of beings killed is incalculable. If you think about it, it is almost as if we were eating powdered insects.”

But it’s too easy to conclude that because of the limitations of altruism and the difficulty of upholding even the simplest moral requirements we should simply abandon the project of helping others altogether. Toward the end of her book, MacFarquhar briefly considers the character of Dr. Rieux from Camus’s novel The Plague, a physician who insists that the extraordinary risks he takes in treating highly infectious, dying patients is merely a matter of doing his job. “You know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints,” Rieux tells a friend. “Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man.” It is this kind of altruism that MacFarquhar seems to endorse in the end: the simple and practical helping of others by someone who is an expert in her or his particular area of providing assistance.

Following this line of thought, each of us can be of our best assistance to others by carefully selecting an area of expertise at which we can become proficient, being sure that our chosen expertise is one that does in fact benefit others (in most cases, such an expertise will also benefit ourselves), and then do that work to the best of our ability, even when, as in the case of Dr. Rieux, it might prove inconvenient or even dangerous to do so. As a writer and teacher, I found myself thinking: but when would my work ever confront me with danger? Then it occurred to me how many of my heroes, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, refused to stop writing and teaching what they believed to be true even when the times changed, and paid the highest price for it.

So the Buddhist notion of skillful compassion is, by the conclusion of Strangers Drowning, supported as the most practicable form of moral altruism. Moreover, for the Buddhist, the two purposes of self and others are so closely intertwined that the category of altruism may no longer apply: our own good and the good of other people are, from the ideal perspective, coextensive.

And what about the crazy do-gooder and the Buddha feeding himself to the tiger? How are we to understand them? For MacFarquhar, examples of radical altruism are still crucial to the moral enterprise:

If everyone thought like a do-gooder, the world would not be our world any longer, and the new world that would take its place would be so utterly different as to be nearly unimaginable. . . . It may be true that not everyone should be a do-gooder. 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.

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