If you had to choose between saving two people you didn’t know or one of your close relatives from drowning, what would you do? What if there were ten strangers who needed to be rescued? Or one thousand? Would you help a starving child standing right in front of you? How about three million living on the other side of the world? Where do you draw the line? These are some of the questions posed by journalist Larissa MacFarquhar in her 2015 book ‘Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity’ in which she profiles the true stories of extreme “do-gooders” or those who devote their lives to help strangers rather than people they are close to through a sense of duty. These include a couple who adopt 20 children, a founder of a leper colony, a radical vegan activist, a nurse who set up a women’s health clinic in a warzone and others who live on the bare minimum so that they can donate the vast majority of their salary to charity.

There have been a number of non-fiction books in recent years which examine the minds and lives of psychopaths. In some ways, do-gooders represent the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of levels of empathy and responsibility towards others, yet there are also certain parallels in their levels of detachment. The subject of ‘Strangers Drowning’ might sound uplifting but altruism is much more complicated than simply being charitable. What benefits or helps one person can often end up hurting someone else and many of the people profiled here have experienced a relationship break-down of some kind at least partly as a result of their devotion to their chosen cause.

In the style of several recent memoirs by medical professionals, MacFarquhar takes a case study approach towards her subjects and lets their stories unfold without interference of personal bias. The profiles themselves are incredibly thought-provoking, forcing the reader to confront their own feelings and prejudices. Whereas most people are capable of some level of generosity, it can be difficult to understand the total dedication of extreme do-gooders and the personal sacrifices they make to the point where they deny themselves any pleasure at all. Some of the profiles are uncomfortable to read but it is the contradictions in their stories which make them so fascinating.

MacFarquhar also presents the arguments for and against altruism along with a chapter on how the concept is portrayed in literature – these sections are a little dry compared to the profiles but they offer a clear introduction to moral philosophy for beginners. For those like me who rarely venture into the subject of ethics and philosophy in their non-fiction reading, ‘Strangers Drowning’ is a very good place to start.