Larissa MacFarquhar (2015)

This is an excellent study of people who make unusual, sometimes (to some people) inexplicable, life choices. The individuals described have all made choices to serve humanity, and so so in many diverse ways: as doctors in the Indian tribal regions, as activists in volatile South American countries, as organ donors to strangers, and so on. These are choices that have been made by many over the centuries, and are only inexplicable if one assumes that people always seek to maximise their own comfort. The stories in this collection sit out on the end of a spectrum that includes teachers, nurses, care workers, and other who find meaning in jobs that satisfy them without necessarily enriching them.

What this book isn’t is about, therefore, is “moral extremity”, as the sub-title would suggest. There are few moral choices on show, although there are plenty of personal ethical decisions being made. The author makes a valiant effort to pull the psychological forces at play together, but in the end isn’t able to identify what “makes” a do-gooder: there are too many paths and too many gradations of doing good to even make a proper definition of when generosity shades over into something more – and that is itself a moving target, as shown by the excellent discussion on the evolution of how doctors in particular have thought about living transplant donors as time has gone on.

5/5. Finished Sunday 4 June, 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)