Extreme altruism: should you care for strangers at the expense of your family?

Larissa Macfarquhar in The Guardian:

ImagesThe term “do-gooder” is, of course, often demeaning. It can mean a silly or intrusive person who tries to do good but ends up only meddling. It can mean someone who seems annoyingly earnest, or priggish, or judgmental. But even when “do-gooder” simply means a person who does good deeds, there is still some scepticism, even antagonism, in it. One reason may be guilt: nobody likes to be reminded, even implicitly, of his own selfishness. Another is irritation: nobody likes to be told, even implicitly, how he should live his life, or be reproached for how he is living it. And nobody likes to be the recipient of charity. But that is not the whole story. Ambivalence towards do-gooders also arises out of a deep uncertainty about how a person ought to live. Is it good to try to live as moral a life as possible – a saintly life? Or does a life like that lack some crucial human quality? Is it right to care for strangers at the expense of your own people? Is it good to bind yourself to a severe morality that constricts spontaneity and freedom? Is it possible for a person to hold himself to unforgiving standards without becoming unforgiving? Is it presumptuous, even blasphemous, for a person to imagine that he can transfigure the world – or to believe that what he does in his life really matters when he is only a tiny, flickering speck in a vast universe? There are powerful forces that push against do-gooders that are among the most fundamental, vital and honourable urges of human life.

For instance: there is family and there are strangers. The do-gooder has a family, like anyone else. If he does not have children, he has parents. But he holds himself to moral commitments that are so stringent and inflexible that they will at some point conflict with his caring for his family. Then he has to decide what to do. To most people, it is obvious that they owe far more to family than to strangers; caring for the children of strangers as much as your own, say, would seem not so much difficult as unnatural, even monstrous. But the do-gooder does not believe his family deserves better than anyone else’s. He loves his more, but he knows that other people love their families just as much. To a do-gooder, taking care of family can seem like a kind of moral alibi – something that may look like selflessness, but is really just an extension of taking care of yourself.

More here.