Extreme Altruism

Sunday, December 9, 2018
First Aired: 
Sunday, April 3, 2016

What Is It

We can all agree that helping others is great, a deed worth doing. But devoting too much to helping others – too much time, too many resources – may get you labelled an oddity, a freak. How much can morality demand of us? Is it good to live as moral a life as possible, or do we lose something – devotion to one’s family, for example – by adhering to extreme moral principles? Can somebody be both fully rational and also a saintly type? John and Ken lend a hand to New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar, author of Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help.

Listening Notes

Some think humans are by nature self-interested, but most of us have at least a touch of altruism within us. Examples would be the parent who gives up some of their well-being for their child, or soldiers who risk their lives for the purpose of others’ well-being. Some psychologists even argue that an altruistic tendency is built into human beings by natural selection, and John adds that morality and religion also suggest altruistic practices. But, Ken wonders, is it possible to take altruism too far? John thinks so – for example, a person who adopts as many children as they can and then is filled with regret that they can’t adopt more is extreme in their tendencies. Those people seem saintly to Ken, and we tend to admire saints, so why wouldn’t one want to live in such a saintly way? John asks to put oneself in the place of the child of said parent who wants to save everyone. At some point, the child might require the parents’ attention. But, Ken asks, where do you draw the line between self-indulgence and duty? Sure, it’s unacceptable to let your children starve for the sake of saving other children. But overindulging your own children is also troubling. How can a parent justify buying a brand new toy for their child when there are children who have nothing? The duo concludes that while they admire extreme altruists, they don’t think they have what it takes to be one.

John and Ken welcome guest Larissa MacFarquhar, Staff Writer at The New Yorker and author of Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help. John asks Larissa how a successful journalist like her became interested in a deeply philosophical quandary. She explains that she has a long-standing admiration for saintly types, but she is constantly faced with a frustrating misconception about them: that while evil people are fascinating and complex, good people are simple and boring. She sought to combat said misconception, and found real-life examples of extreme altruists. John asks her what her encounters were like; Larissa explains that while she would love to say they are almost like another species, that would not be true. They are ordinary people with an extraordinary drive to be as moral as possible, but not for their own sake. They think it’s what a decent human being does. But most people would think their psychology is out of the ordinary, says Ken. Larissa says that there have been some psychological theories which make sense to her; these overly altruistic people are often considered pathological, the assumption being that human nature is selfish and so altruism needs to be explained. But the Theory of the Parentified Child stands out to her as an alternative, and said theory is further discussed. Larissa explains her idea of altruism as being a matter of degree.

Ken asks Larissa whether there is a limit to the amount of self-sacrifice one can do. Larissa says that there is. In fact, most extreme altruists have found limits to preserve their sanity; if they gave away everything they had, they would be left with nothing. Ken wonders whether extreme altruists are morally deranged because they don’t realize they are living above the normal call of duty or whether they are more morally pure. Larissa develops the notion that we can do a lot more than we think can. Utilitarianism is also discussed.

Larissa, John, and Ken welcome questions from the audience, and they continue the discussion by tackling questions such as: what is the role of society in developing an altruistic person, how effective is considering the futility of individual action as a means of preventing extreme altruism at an individual level, and the impact of visual stimulus in prompting us to be more altruistic.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 5:54): Shuka Kalantari talks to two “extreme altruists:” a social worker from Philadelphia who adopted 20 children and a woman who, along with her partner, lives off of only 6% of the couple’s combined income.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 50:00): Ian Shoales speeds through our judgy giving: we are altruistic based on a subconscious notion of the poor getting away with something, and so we put constant constraints on the recipients of donations. 



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