Larissa MacFarquhar: How Far Would You Go To Help Others?

May 26, 2017
Originally published on May 26, 2017 9:40 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Wired For Altruism.

About Larissa MacFarquhar's TED Talk

Larissa MacFarquhar writes about extreme altruists, people who make great sacrifices to help others. She says most of us aren't prepared or willing to do that — which is why we don't give more.

About Larissa MacFarquhar

Larissa MacFarquhar is a staff writer at The New Yorker — where she has profiled subjects ranging from Noam Chomsky to Barack Obama to Quentin Tarantino. In her book Strangers Drowning, Larissa writes about the lives of extreme altruists and why their actions may make the rest of us feel uneasy.

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LARISSA MACFARQUHAR: Most of us feel that we want to spend our lives doing the right thing. But certainly, for my purposes, I was more interested in people who give until it hurts.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

This is a Larissa MacFarquhar She's a staff writer at The New Yorker. And Larissa spent years researching and writing about extreme altruists, people who devote their entire lives to helping others, even if it means putting themselves at risk.

MACFARQUHAR: It's a sense that they are required to help - that a life of duty requires them to do the most that they can. They don't wait for something to be thrust upon them. They calculate. They plan. They go out looking for trouble.

RAZ: Like in the case of one man Larissa wrote about, a man named Baba Amte.

MACFARQUHAR: He had been a lawyer. He grew up as a very rich young man and kind of a playboy in India and right in the center of India in Nagpur. And he one day was walking along in the rain when he saw a leper lying by the side of the road, and this man was in the last stages of the disease, crawling with maggots, flesh caved in. And he was horrified by the sight. And he was scared of catching the disease, so he ran away.

RAZ: Which would be the end of the story for a lot of people. But what happened next would completely redefine Baba Amte's life.

MACFARQUHAR: The thing about Baba Amte is that he was a very macho guy. He was always fighting. Being a courageous macho guy was at the core of his self-image. So when he realized that he had run away, he'd been a coward, he couldn't stand this thought. And he decided that he would have to - in order to restore his sense of self of himself as this brave man, he would have to steer right into this fear.

And so the first thing he did was go back to that man by the side of the road, and there wasn't much he could do for him. He was almost dead, but he covered him to protect him from the rain. And then he made leprosy his life's work.

RAZ: Larissa Macfarquhar picks up the story from the TED stage.

MACFARQUHAR: The first thing he did was enroll in a school of tropical medicine, and he discovered that one of the reasons there was as yet no cure for leprosy was that it seemed to be impossible to transmit the disease to animals for the purpose of experiments. He thought about this for a day, and then he offered himself as a human experimental subject. And he was injected with the leprosy bacillus, but he didn't catch the disease.

As it happened shortly after he graduated from the school, there was a cure found, the drug dapsone. But the symptoms of leprosy were so terrifying to people and so unmistakable that even once a cure had been found, leprosy patients had many of the same problems they'd had before. They were thrown out of their families, thrown out of their villages, forced to beg, sometimes even burned alive. And so even after a cure had been found, leprosy colonies were still necessary. And Baba decided to found one. He was given a tract of land by the state, a total wilderness. And he moved out there with several leprosy patients, his wife, their two baby sons and four dogs to protect them from the wild animals because at first there was nothing there at all - no water, nothing.

And they were living in shelters that had no walls. And one by one, every single one of the dogs was carried off and eaten by a panther. Baba's two baby sons were not carried off and eaten by a panther as the dogs were, but they might have been. And they did not catch leprosy, but they might have done. Now, I've visited this leprosy colony many decades later after he founded it, and it's now a flourishing community. It's an extraordinary place. Several thousand people live there. And this is not just a refuge for the desperate anymore. It's a place where people live their whole lives. They have children. They get married. There are many schools there. There are workshops. There's even a college.

But this is what I mean when I talk about preparedness to sacrifice family for strangers. This willingness to sacrifice for a cause - many people find it strange and unnatural. And it's this sense that I think is a deeper reason why some of us don't give more than we do.

RAZ: I mean, to be honest, this story is kind of uncomfortable, right? I mean, like, it doesn't seem right for him to have injected himself with the disease and to put his family at risk.

MACFARQUHAR: Yeah. And that's what people have a problem with. They think you should draw the line somewhere. You should not be so devoted to strangers that you are prepared to sacrifice your family. And I think it's interesting to think about how we would have evaluated Baba Amte's achievement if those sons had died or gotten sick.

RAZ: Yeah.

MACFARQUHAR: And that's - that was the most difficult part of altruism for everyone I spoke to was this question of how much do I give? At what point do I protect my family? Do I give to the point where not only I, but they are making unbearable sacrifices?

RAZ: In your book, you also talk about this extremely altruistic couple Hector and Sue. Can you tell us about them?

MACFARQUHAR: Hector and Sue are extraordinarily compassionate, but not the way that most of us think of that word. It's not just a person in pain in front of them that moves them, but the idea of someone who needs their help, specifically a child who needs a family.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MACFARQUHAR: Sue had always wanted to adopt when she grew up. She thought it would be so much fun to bring in kids who needed a family and love them and make them happy. And so when she and Hector decided to get married, they decided to have two kids and adopt two, and they did. But then they got involved in the adoption world, and they discovered how many children there are who are unlikely ever to be adopted.

And when they thought - Sue and Hector thought about all those children who were likely to spend their childhoods going from foster home to foster home to foster home, they could not bear it. And so they started to adopt more and more and more, and they ended up adopting 20 of these special needs children in addition to the two biological kids they had. And as the family grew larger, and they started asking the older kids to help take care of the younger kids, they started to complain. They said, Mom and Dad, we cannot adopt all the children in the world. You have to stop. We don't get enough of your time and attention as it is. Now, I think for most ordinary parents that would be the end of it. It's making my kids unhappy; I'm going to stop. And this hurt Sue and Hector very deeply, too - because I want to emphasize, this is a real family. This was not an orphanage. And they loved their children as much as any parents do.

But this is what makes them different. They could not stop thinking about that child out there, the child who was still a stranger to them, but who would not have a family unless they took him in. And they thought even if it makes our children a little less happy, if it dramatically changes the life of that child, then it's worth it.

RAZ: Do Sue and Hector, do they think that they live their lives in a more moral way? Are they - do they look around the world, do they look around their communities and then sort of cast judgment on the ways other people live their lives?

MACFARQUHAR: You know, I'm very glad you asked me about judgmentalness because I think this is another big part of why people are ambivalent about people with a very strong sense of moral duty. They think, oh, they're - are they judgmental? Are they self-righteous? That's a bad thing. And I do think we overestimate how bad being judgmental is. You know, it's annoying.

People who are judgmental are annoying, but, you know, imagine somebody who spends their life trying to alleviate homelessness and is kind of priggish about others who spend a lot of money on luxury goods. And then on the other hand, imagine someone who's this delightful cynic who's very fun to have dinner with but never does a thing for anyone. Do we really want to say that the second person is better because they are not judgmental? I think judgmental is an annoying quality, but it's not such a big thing.

RAZ: So, I mean, so maybe we can, you know, all be like Hector and Sue, right? But, I mean, but why don't more of us do more of that? Like, why aren't we more altruistic?

MACFARQUHAR: I think that part of the reason is that we are ambivalent towards very good people. We suspect them of being puritanical, unfun, annoying. But also I think there's a genuine ambivalence in most of us about what is the best way to live? And what are the proper values to live by? I think that if you are a truly devoted altruist, you are at some point going to start giving to the point where it requires sacrifices, not only of yourself, but of your family and the people you love.

And I think most of us are not sure that's the right thing to do. Is it right to give to others, to strangers at the expense of your family of your own people?

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MACFARQUHAR: People would ask Sue and Hector why they'd chosen to live the way they did. And what they didn't understand those people is that Sue and Hector never wanted an easy life. They didn't just love their children. They loved the challenge. They didn't just love their life in spite of its difficulties, but in part because of them. And this is another difference between people like Sue and Hector and Baba Ampte and the rest of us. For them, it is always wartime.

By that, I mean that they know not just intellectually, but vividly and urgently that there is always somewhere a need for help. And they feel that even though the people who need the help may be strangers to them, they are also in some sense their people. The thing about Sue and Hector and Baba Ampte is that they have a deep and happy sense of purpose. Of course, they have sacrificed many comforts, but in exchange, they know that they have changed many lives for the better. And they believe that they are living their own lives the way they ought to. And how many of us can say that? Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Larissa Macfarquhar is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her book on this is called "Strangers Drowning." You can see her entire talk at tedmed.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S BETTER TO GIVE THAN TO RECEIVE")

HELEN HUMES: (Singing) It's better to give than to receive. Yes, it's better to give than to receive.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on altruism this week. If you want to find out more about who is honest, go ted.npr.org to see hundreds more TED talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. Our production staff here at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Rund Abdelfatah, Casey Herman and Rachel Faulkner with help from Thomas Lu and Daniel Shukin. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Kelly Stoetzel, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee.

If you want to let us know what you think about the show, you can write us at tedradiohour@npr.org And you can follow us on Twitter. It's @tedradiohour. I'm Guy Raz. And you've been listening to Ideas Worth Spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S BETTER TO GIVE THAN TO RECEIVE")

HUMES: (Singing) Yes, it's better to give than to receive. Can't I help you see the light? Everything's going to be all right. It's better to give than to receive. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.