Clearly, the do-gooders are a special case. Larissa MacFarquhar’s book about them, Strangers Drowning will soon be published. If the extended example published in the Guardian is any indication, it will be an important contribution to psychology.
As MacFarquhar describes them, do-gooders believe that their lives have meaning only if they are making extreme sacrifices to help the less fortunate. In particular, they do not do good for friends and family, but only for strangers, people they do not know, people who do not know they exist, people who will rarely even feel any gratitude. Apparently, their charity is more pure because they are not contributing to the betterment of their own community.
It looks like the anti-narcissism. Rather than making oneself the center of the universe, one erases oneself in acts of giving that will never benefit oneself, directly or indirectly.
If one assumes, as is reasonable, that one can also improve the lives of others by fostering economic growth and development, the philosophy of do-goodism, focused, as it is, entirely on charitable giving might very well not be as helpful as its proponents believe.
True enough, they undertake extreme forms of self-sacrifice, living at subsistence levels in order to buy a mosquito net for a child in Africa, but they do not seem ask themselves whether their sacrifices are effective. After all, Bill Gates and his foundation have far more resources and can do far more for the children of Africa than Julia and Jeff ever will. And clearly, the Gates life plan did not involve any sacrifice at all.
One suspects that the do-gooders do not really ask themselves whether they are doing good for others. The often latch on to international do-goodist organizations and assume that, since their hearts are in the right place they are doing good. They do not seem to ask themselves whether the objects of their charity are really living better lives.
And yet, as the standard argument goes, when you bring a boatload of free food into a primitive community—to fight hunger—it will help starving people, except when there are local farmers who, thanks to your largesse, will be put out of business. Why would anyone pay for anything they can get for free? If you put local farmers out of business, next year the people of the village will be facing starvation again.
Note that giving things away for free is antithetical to economic activity. Taken to the extreme level that the do-gooders prefer, it makes underprivileged people into permanent wards of the do-gooders.
Would it be better for local villagers to be hired by NGOs or to be hired by international agricultural or industrial corporations? The question does not enter the minds of do-gooders, but they do not really consider that it might be better, as Nicholas Kristof once opined, to build a Coca-Cola factory in Haiti than to send so much relief. Do-gooders do not build factories, do not give people real jobs and do not foster economic growth or wealth creation.
Perhaps that is why do-gooders, MacFarquhar writes, make us feel uneasy, even irritated. They seem to be saying that they are better than the rest of us and that if they can do it, why can’t the rest of us do it too? Thus, they make themselves into living reproaches to those who do not sacrifice everything to give to strangers.
A do-gooder has a sense of duty that is very strong – so strong that he is able to repress most of his baser impulses in order to do what he believes to be right. 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.
It makes good sense that people feel turned off by do-gooders. If everyone did as they did, the world would be a bleak and barren, thoroughly non-productive place. Only by producing more wealth and offering more jobs can we hope to lift the poor and unfortunate from their misery. We cannot do that if people do not want to be productive citizens, to work for their livelihood.
MacFarquhar emphasizes that the do-gooder, for all of his willingness to sacrifice himself for strangers, does not consider himself a member of his family or his community. He refuses to give to them; he wants only to give to those who are distant and more clearly in need.
In her words:
He does not 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….
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. This makes him good; but it can also make him seem perverse – a foul-weather friend, a kind of virtuous ambulance chaser. And it is also why do-gooders are a reproach: you know, as the do-gooder knows, that there is always, somewhere, a need for help.
For all of the assertions of moral superiority, knowing that the do-gooder will sell out his friends and family in order to send a can of Spam to a needy family in the jungle of Borneo makes him unreliable, irresponsible and untrustworthy. If you are involved with him, if you are his friend of relation, you know that you cannot count on him. This does not make him morally superior; it makes him moral defective, someone who covers up his weak character by claiming a transcendent moral virtue.
Julia, for instance, happily abandoned her baby before she thought best because she felt that the suffering people of the world needed her more than her baby did.
Finally, Julia decided, sometime before her 28th birthday, that she would try to get pregnant. Their baby, Lily, was born in the early spring of 2014. The thought of leaving Lily in order to go back to work upset her, but she knew that she had to start earning again so she could keep donating. She felt that there were people in the world who needed her money as much as Lily needed her presence, even if their need did not move her as Lily’s did.
It makes some sense for people to think ill of the do-gooders. MacFarquhar explains:
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 judgmental. But even when “do-gooder” simply means a person who does good deeds, there is still some scepticism, 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.
And note the last line. When you treat people mostly like charity cases, you are telling them that they cannot do it themselves. No one is denying that there are times when charity is appropriate, but do-gooders do not choose an incident and try to help. They devote their lives to giving charity to others. They do nothing else.
Undoubtedly these do-gooders resemble the religious who devote their lives to serving the poor. And yet, the religious do so within religious institutions that are, dare I say, not quite as impoverished as are Julia and Jeff. But the do-gooders are also living out, in a rather literal way, a slogan first stated by that noted atheist, Karl Marx:
From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.
Whenever they are aware of a need, the do-gooders are ready to sacrifice themselves in order to fulfill it. With the important caveat, that the need must be felt by complete strangers.
I would add that do-gooders do not identify as members of a family or a community. They see themselves primarily as citizens of the world, as members of the human species. They are living out the cosmopolitan reverie of escaping all social ties in order to live for humanity.