Strangers Drowning | Larissa MacFarquhar

Summary of: Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help
By: Larissa MacFarquhar


Dive into the world of true altruism with this book summary of ‘Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help’ by Larissa MacFarquhar. Explore the fascinating lives of individuals who have gone to great lengths, even risking their own lives, to provide aid to strangers. Discover the principles of utilitarianism, the complexities of balancing meaningful work and financial security, as well as the powerful stories of those who have made remarkable sacrifices for the greater good. This summary will challenge your understanding of selflessness and encourage you to reflect on the applications of altruism in your own life.

True Altruism

True altruism means helping others, even at the risk of your own life. Dorothy Granada, an 80-year-old nurse, demonstrated this by opening a clinic in Nicaragua during a time of political conflict. Despite pressure to only treat Sandinistas, Granada insisted on helping wounded Contras as well. One of them later intervened to save the clinic from attack. Helping the enemy can ultimately lead to great benefits for the altruistic person.

The Immorality of Excessive Spending and Favoritism

Have you ever considered the morality of excessive spending or favoring your loved ones over strangers? According to the philosophy of utilitarianism, such behavior is immoral. Utilitarians believe in promoting the greater good for all, not just oneself. Philosopher Peter Singer argues that spending money on unnecessary items rather than helping those in need is selfish. He suggests that humanity would benefit more from using our resources to help others rather than indulging in retail therapy. Additionally, according to strict utilitarianism, favoring the life of a loved one over the lives of strangers is also immoral. For example, if forced to choose between saving the life of your spouse or two strangers, strict utilitarianism dictates saving the lives of the two strangers. While these concepts may seem extreme, they prompt us to reconsider our values and priorities. Perhaps by practicing altruism and promoting the greater good for all, we can create a more just and ethical society.

Work-Life Balance

Finding the Right Balance between Meaningful Work and Financial Security

In today’s world, people often struggle to balance their desire for meaningful work with financial stability. Research shows that people prefer work that is fulfilling rather than a high-paying job that provides comfort. Baba’s story is an excellent example of someone who was wealthy and respected but was deeply unhappy and unsatisfied. In his thirties, Baba left behind his successful career as a lawyer to open a leper clinic, which provided him with a sense of altruistic purpose and happiness.

But Baba’s story also highlights the challenges that come with altruistic work. Baba’s dedication sometimes meant neglecting his family’s needs. When his wife, Indu, became ill and had to leave the village with their youngest son, Prakash, Baba had to choose between supporting his wife and fulfilling his responsibility to his patients. Ultimately, Baba chose his patients, and his wife understood the importance of his work.

In conclusion, finding a work-life balance is a challenge that many people face. Baba’s story presents a reminder that while fulfilling work can be incredibly satisfying, it often comes with a price.

An Altruistic Act

A man named Paul, inspired to help others, volunteered to undergo a kidney transplant for a stranger he found on Although his selflessness brought him emotional distress, he remained positive about his decision and developed a meaningful friendship with the recipient. Paul’s family and loved ones were unsuccessful in dissuading him from his decision.

Altruistic limits

The story of Nemoto, a Japanese Buddhist monk, illustrates that finding the right cause is crucial when pursuing an altruistic life. Nemoto created a website to address the issue of suicide in Japan, which became so popular that he found himself counseling people around the clock. However, he soon learned that limiting his efforts was necessary to protect himself. Doctors warned him that he was at risk of a heart attack, and he retreated to a remote temple, where he would only counsel those who journeyed out to him. He realized that if he worked himself to death, he wouldn’t be able to help anyone and felt he could offer better help in person. The story reminds us that while the desire to help is strong, altruists must be careful not to get overwhelmed, and sometimes, limits are necessary to perform better.

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