“Strangers Drowning” by Larissa MacFarquhar

AUTHOR: Larissa MacFarquhar

AUTHOR: Larissa MacFarquhar

We all have conscious and subconscious motivations into our calling in life. For some, the urge to help people is more greater than others but does this innate empathy and humanness come at a cost? How you help others may not always come across well in other cultures. For example, when caucasian travellers volunteer in parts of Africa and share their stories of helping these poor children, why does this come across negatively as the ‘white saviour’ for many black Africans across the continent? What does it mean to devote yourself completely to helping others? Does our integrity compromise the action of others? When does compromise become self-indulgent? How do we balance extreme ethical commitments and not always strive for utopian ideals of success?  

To help provide some balance and insight to some of these difficult and challenging ethical questions, we recommend the book “Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and Overpowering Urge to Help” by Larissa MacFarquhar. This book is recommended as further reading to support Chapter 2 “Fit for a Global Profession” to help shape your thinking on what it means to make a difference in the world. As a daughter of diplomats, MacFarquhar provides very interesting stories of people who lead a life of altruism. But first, the author asks us whether we are selfless enough to become an altruist. Can you really see yourself devoting your life to the cause of others? This is an important question to answer when thinking of joining the international relations field. As international relations professionals, we must be ready and willing to help strangers, even if that means serving your country. You are there to serve the public and people who aren’t your friends and family.  

Altruists feel a strong desire or even an obligation to help everyone but themselves. To be an altruist means helping other even when it causes you hardship, even putting your own life at risk for an enemy. Think of how nurses and health practitioners are obligated to treat everyone the same, even if the patient is someone of despicable nature. Through her stories, MacFarquhar eludes that helping an enemy can be of great benefit as it establishes characteristics of empathy, kindness and goodwill.  

Unlike altruists, who want the best for everyone except themselves, people who believe in utilitarianism is someone who wants the best for everyone. The difference here is that doing anything for yourself makes you a terrible person in the simplest sense. Utilitarian philosophers like Peter Singer uses the simple example of seeing a child drown but you are more concerned about ruining your clothes than jumping in to save them, and therefore becomes an immoral decision that benefits you and not the other person. Sadly, children across the world are dying everyday, yet we continue to spend money on ourselves rather than donate food and medicine that can save a child’s life.

But what would you do if you were forced to save your partner’s life instead of saving the life of two strangers at the same time? According to strict utilitarianism, we should always try to save as many lives as possible. Consider the life-making decisions that Heads of States and military personnel need to make on a daily basis. Do they consider the lives of many or just one, and is this a moral or immoral decision? 

Naturally, seeking work that serves an altruistic purpose may require some personal sacrifices that is common in the diplomatic and international relations field. As practitioners here, we may be financially less off than someone serving in the corporate field. We may hold off on starting a family to serve abroad or prolong the decision to settle down in one place to remain flexible and mobile. To can be difficult to find the right balance but finding meaning in your work may be serve you well in your own sacrifice. In Chapter 2 of the Diplomatic Planner, we specifically designed an exercise where you are forced to think about your future in terms of your own health, wealth and well-being. When considering the life and path of a diplomat, it is rare for young candidates to think 20, 10 or even 5 years ahead of their life without seriously contemplating on how their choice may affect their future. If you can gain foresight on how you see yourself in the future, you may be in a good possible to ensure that the work you do now serves you well, in spite of whatever sacrifice you may have to make in the present day.  

Altruists don’t shy away from helping strangers, even when it puts their own health and emotional well-being at risk. You will see that in Chapter 3 of the Diplomatic Planner, we focus quite heavily on emotion well-being which the author stresses on in parts of her book. Be as helpful as you can be by finding the right cause and using the right methods. It is possible that you may become overwhelmed by the problems and despairs of the world. It isn’t always possible to help people without it wearing you down, psychologically, emotionally and physically. Sometimes, you need to limit your efforts in order to protect yourself. If you aren’t able to look after yourself in the cause of others, you won’t be much help to others at all.  

MacFarquhar provides plenty of examples of how some altruists are ridiculed or demonised as anti-heroic or naive. Altruistic individuals may also be considered as intrinsically selfish or attention seeking. Even Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is based on the selfish struggle for an individual’s innate need to survive. For instance, why would you give up a loaf of bread if you are also hungry? Darwin described altruistic behaviour as an act of mutual benefit as helping others is more likely to allow the other person to help you in return. In the 90s, sociologist Samuel Oliner published an article that analysed the work of non-Jews helping to save the lives of Jewish people and asked why such people would put their lives at risk. Many of these Jews were not in a position to reciprocate the help. In the end, his studies made it clear that altruism isn’t always the result of selfish motivations. Sometimes, people just want to help others for no motivational reason at all.  

To be a true altruism, we must be willing to sacrifice without the drive of hidden motivations.  

“Strangers Drowning” is recommended for the purposes of the Diplomatic Planner. The Diplomatic Planner is a 12-month career development for diplomacy and internationals for professionals looking to explore or grow their expertise in the field. Both books are available for purchase via Amazon. For further recommendations, insights, case studies and practical worksheets, please join the Grassroot Diplomat Online Academy via: www.grassrootdiplomat.org/register