The Gift

by Ian Parker

The New Yorker, August 2, 2004

Last summer, not long after Zell Kravinsky had given almost his entire forty-five-million-dollar real-estate fortune to charity, he called Barry Katz, an old friend in Connecticut, and asked for help with an alibi. Would Katz call Kravinsky’s wife, Emily, in Philadelphia, and say that the two men were about to take a weeklong trip to Katz’s ski condominium in Vermont? This untruth would help Kravinsky do something that did not have his wife’s approval: he would be able to leave home, check into the Albert Einstein Medical Center, in Philadelphia, for a few days, and donate a kidney to a woman whose name he had only just learned.

Katz refused, and Kravinsky became agitated. He said that the intended recipient of his gift would die without the kidney, and that his wife’s reluctance to support this “nondirected” donation-it would be only the hundred and thirty-fourth of its kind in the United States-would make her culpable in that death. “I can’t allow her to take this person’s life!” Kravinsky said. He was, at forty-eight, a former owner of shopping malls and distribution centers, and a man with a single thrift-store suit that had cost him twenty dollars.

“You think she’d be taking a life?” Katz asked.

“Absolutely,” Kravinsky replied.

Katz then asked, warily, “Do you mean that anybody who is not donating a kidney is taking someone’s life?”

“Yes,” Kravinsky said.

“So, by your terms, I’m a murderer?”

“Yes,” Kravinsky said, in as friendly a way as possible.

After a pause, Katz said, “I have to get off the phone-I can’t talk about this anymore,” and he hung up. A few weeks later, Kravinsky crept out of his house at six o’clock in the morning while his wife and children were still asleep. Emily Kravinsky learned that her husband had donated a kidney when she read about it in a local newspaper.

Kravinsky, whose unrestrained disbursement of his assets-first financial, then corporeal-has sometimes been unsettling for the people close to him, grew up in a row house in the working-class Philadelphia neighborhood of Oxford Circle, amid revolutionary rhetoric. “My father would say how great things were in the Soviet Union, and how shabby they were here,” Kravinsky recalled recently. “He would rail against rich people and the ruling class.”

Kravinsky’s father, Irving, who is now eighty-nine, was born in Russia to a Jewish family, which immigrated to America when he was a boy. A tank commander in the Second World War, he was a socialist whose faith in the Soviet Union was extinguished only after that country no longer existed. He worked as a printer, Kravinsky told me, “thinking he’d be in the vanguard of the revolution by remaining in the proletariat”; and when Zell, who had two older sisters, began to excel in school his success seems to have been taken by his father as a sign of class disloyalty. After Zell graduated from elementary school with a prize as the best student, Irving told him, “Well, next year you’ll be nothing.”

James Kahn, a childhood friend of Kravinsky’s, and a fellow-member of the chess team in high school, told me that Zell’s father and mother-Reeda Kravinsky is a former teaching supervisor, now seventy-eight-”were steadfast in denying him any praise.” He added, “I think what he did later was almost in desperation-doing the most extreme thing possible, something that they couldn’t deny was a good thing.” Reeda told me, “I think we did praise him, but maybe he didn’t get enough attention, for an outstanding child.”

As a boy, Kravinsky could hope to gain his parents’ attention either by conforming or by rebelling; he did both. “Zell was simultaneously more left-wing and more right-wing than I was,” Kahn said. He had an active social conscience-he read books on Gandhi, and, at the age of twelve, he picketed City Hall in support of public housing. (He remembers this as the last time he did anything that met with his father’s approval.) But, by the standards of the late sixties, Kravinsky was unfashionably curious about money. He first invested in the stock market when he was twelve, and told me that he was “pretty young when I understood money better than my father did.”

In Kravinsky’s eyes, his father had humiliated himself in his relationships with money. Citing his radical politics, Irving Kravinsky said he couldn’t apply for union work. “He was terrifically exploited,” Kravinsky recalled. “He was afraid to ask for a raise. My mother yelled at him, day and night, said he wasn’t a man, and ‘Zell’s more of a man than you are.’ ”

In 1971, Kravinsky won a scholarship to Dartmouth. He majored in Asian studies, wrote poetry, took up meditation, and grew his hair long. Soon after graduation, Kravinsky returned to Philadelphia, where he got a job at an insurance company. He began a relationship with a co-worker there, and moved in with her; the match lasted less than a year, but it had the side effect of introducing Kravinsky to real estate. He bought a duplex in the working-class neighborhood of Logan for ten thousand dollars, and rented out half of it. When the couple split up, Kravinsky kept the apartment, then sold it for a two-thousand-dollar profit.

As Kravinsky acquired a taste for property, he looked for ways to satisfy his idealistic self-in which good intentions were mixed with habits of self-criticism and a preemptive resentment about being ridiculed or undervalued. In 1978, he began to work with socially and emotionally troubled students in Philadelphia’s public schools. “I became a teacher in the ghetto,” Kravinsky recalls. “Everyone I went to college with laughed at that. I was written off as a failure.”

The job offered moral satisfaction, but it also depressed Kravinsky-his pride in self-sacrifice counterbalanced by the thought that he was being taken for a ride. (Once, after school, he took a promising student to the theatre and, as he walked the boy home, he was mugged in a way that made Kravinsky think he might have been set up.) He grew more involved in real estate: he bought a condo, then a house in Maine; his deals became grander, and he began to see profits of tens of thousands of dollars. “Nobody in my family had ever made that much money,” he said. He spent very sparingly, preferring to reinvest; by 1982, he owned a three-story building near the University of Pennsylvania campus, but he lived in the smallest, gloomiest apartment, with no shower, kitchen, or windows.

Barry Katz, who met Kravinsky around this time, and who is now a developer of luxury homes in Connecticut, found him to be brilliant and articulate, “with the kind of intensity you don’t encounter in many people. He also had a lost-puppy quality.” Kravinsky had skipped a year in high school and one in college, and, according to Edward Miller, another old friend, who is now a lecturer in English literature, his intellectual and emotional maturity seemed out of step. “You could call it high-school-geek syndrome,” Miller said.

In 1984, Kravinsky was devastated by the death of Adria, the elder of his two sisters, from lung cancer. She was thirty-three; Zell was thirty. “She was the only person in my family who liked me in any meaningful way,” Kravinsky said, describing the guilt he still feels for not showing her enough affection, and for not persuading her to quit smoking. “We were close, but there were so many things that kept me from spending more time with her. I wish I could go back.” Kravinsky entered a period of deep depression. He shared a house with Miller, who remembers that Kravinsky mostly stayed in his room, writing poetry on a typewriter. Kravinsky stopped teaching in 1986, and he gave two of his three properties to his surviving sister, Hilary, and sold the other.

It was a despairing time, but it jolted Kravinsky out of the life of the self-abnegating schoolteacher. He expanded his intellectual ambitions, completing a Ph.D. in composition theory at Penn’s School of Education. (His unusual dissertation proposed a “table of rhetorical elements,” which was inspired by the periodic table.) He also took courses at the New School, in New York, and at the School of Criticism and Theory, at Dartmouth; in 1990, he began a second Ph.D. at Penn, with a dissertation, “Paradise Glossed,” that dissected the rhetoric of Milton with mathematical rigor. At Penn, he started teaching undergraduate courses in Renaissance literature, and met and married Emily Finkelstein, a doctor who is now a psychiatrist with an expertise in eating disorders. Kravinsky became a resident adviser, and the couple lived frugally in student housing. (“Free rent, free meals-the greatest deal in the world,” Kravinsky recalled.) They had the first of four children in 1991.

Kravinsky’s Milton dissertation was “an intense close reading and quite wonderful,” according to Maureen Quilligan, then the graduate chairperson of Penn’s English department and now a professor at Duke. “It’s one of the best I’ve ever read. It sounded like deconstruction, although he’d got there without having to do any deconstruction theory.” After it was finished, Kravinsky taught an undergraduate Milton course at Penn that Quilligan describes as “fantastically successful-the kids responded to it with the wildest enthusiasm, and they worked hard for him and had a sublime intellectual experience.” At the end of each lecture, Kravinsky would stand at the door and shake hands with every student. “He said he was hunting for another Milton,” Quilligan remembers.

Though he was admired by students-and had impeccable leftist credentials-he was galled to find that his intellectual interests were considered insufficiently avant-garde by academe. As Kravinsky saw it, “What they didn’t like was that Milton was the great classical liberal. Classical liberalism, bourgeois liberalism-they felt the same way about it as my father.” Quilligan says that he was handicapped by “the eccentricity of his intellectual and spiritual intensity, added to the fact that he had written about a single white male author.” Kravinsky recalls going to job interviews carrying letters of recommendation from scholars as distinguished as Stanley Fish, “and at every one they said, ‘You have a spectacular portfolio, both of your Ph.D.s are relevant, Fish said you “can do anything”-but we’re looking for diversity.’ ” Only the University of Helsinki offered him a job.

By 1994, he had decided to give up on an academic career. Instead, he would make a living in real estate. Kravinsky said that his wife was skeptical. “She said I’d become a bum,” he told me. But, thanks to his earlier real-estate record, and his evident mathematical brilliance, Kravinsky was able to persuade the United Valley Bank to lend him two million dollars, with which he bought two apartment buildings-around a hundred and fifty thousand square feet in total-one near Penn, the other near St. Joseph’s University. Kravinsky knew that in a recession people will go back to school, and that the ratio of rent to property prices will be highest where a university is in a run-down urban area. He was also fearless about being highly leveraged.

Kravinsky was improvising-”Nobody ever taught me how to succeed, or took me under their wing”-but his portfolio quickly grew, and within a year he had assets of six million dollars and debts of four million. Though he was now wealthy, he spent no more than he had before, with the exception of a hundred-and-thirty-thousand-dollar house that he bought in Jenkintown, a Philadelphia suburb, in 1995. (His second child had just been born.) “There was little of the mogul apparent to the eye,” Barry Katz said. Even to his close associates, Kravinsky’s business seemed implausible. Edward Miller took a job with him as an apartment manager but was never convinced that the property empire was real. “I didn’t fully believe it,” he told me. “I thought that somehow it was a deck of cards.” These mistaken thoughts were reinforced by seeing “the most disorganized, chaotic organization you can imagine-leases at the bottom of closets, under the toilets, soaking wet.” Miller was also surprised to see how blithely neglectful Kravinsky could sometimes be of contractors and janitors, as if he were grateful for the chance to take a vacation from the patient, solicitous persona he showed to his friends.

Property management ultimately did not suit Kravinsky-” ‘Tenants and toilets’; there’s a phrase that suggests the agony,” he said-and in 1998 he began selling most of his rental properties (now about four hundred apartments) and turning to commercial real estate, investing at a level where the building is a mere premise for an intricate dance of numbers. “Everything else can change, but numbers remain the same; numbers are your best friends,” Kravinsky said. “I needed to leverage my intellect, return to math.”

Kravinsky bought supermarkets and warehouses; that is, he looked for tenants with good credit ratings and with long leases, then paid for the buildings with loans bundled into bonds by Wall Street banks and sold to institutional investors. These loans have a singular advantage: if things go wrong, nobody comes for your stereo. In 1999, in a typical deal, Kravinsky bought a clothing-distribution center in Ohio for $16.8 million. He put up $1.1 million and borrowed $15.7 million. If the building decreased in value by a hundred per cent, he would lose $1.1 million; if it increased in value by a hundred per cent, he would make $16.8 million.

“Most people think the more you borrow the riskier it is,” Kravinsky has said. “In my system, the more you borrow the safer it is.” (On a single day in April, 1999, he borrowed thirty-two million dollars. He remembers Emily asking, “How much do we have to pay on that?” It was around ten thousand dollars a day. She said, dryly, “Well, if worst comes to worst, I can just treat a hundred people a day.”) Kravinsky made full use of the tax advantages of commercial-real-estate investments: in the eyes of the I.R.S., a shopping mall depreciates in value, like an office chair, and one can set that depreciation against income tax, overlooking the fact that a mall, over time, is likely to increase in value.

Kravinsky knew how to make money, but he had no talent for spending it. His investments were an expression of his intellect-they were splendid rhetorical gestures, and to take money out for, say, a swimming pool would be to lose the debate. Even as he became rich, he was arguing at home against buying two minivans to replace a 1985 Toyota Camry. (He eventually gave in, and lost the Camry, which has since become an object of regret and longing.) The children did not get pocket money, and Emily had to fight to have the front porch repaired. (“Emily was certainly complicit in the family’s frugality, but she became frustrated by Zell’s refusal to spend money,” a friend of the Kravinskys’ told me.) Kravinsky worked from home. He recalled how one well-dressed man came to interview for an accountant’s job and, seeing Kravinsky’s modest home and casual dress, ran away. Kravinsky watched him disappear down the street and called out, “Where are you going?” The interviewee shouted, “I don’t believe you,” and kept running.

About three years ago, as Kravinsky’s assets rose to nearly forty-five million dollars-a million square feet of commercial real estate, along with lofts, houses, and condos-friends began to hear him talk of giving all his assets to charity. He had long entertained philanthropic thoughts, although, as Katz told me, “I don’t think it ever occurred to Zell that the by-product of what he was doing would be wealth on this scale.” In 1998, Kravinsky had tried to donate some properties and empty lots to the University of Pennsylvania. He says that the university was wary of him, and “didn’t even take me out to lunch.” As his portfolio grew, however, Kravinsky’s charitable impulse became more urgent. Edward Miller remembers sitting at his dining table one night with Kravinsky and James Kahn, “and Zell began to talk of giving away his wealth. And we said, ‘Don’t do it.’ ” Kahn asked him why he didn’t give away a third of his fortune, and use the rest to become richer, and ultimately give even more money away. As Miller recalled, “We berated him for three or four hours. We said, ‘You’re depressed.’ He seemed like King Lear, dividing his kingdom so he could ‘unburdened crawl toward death.’ ”

For the moment, Kravinsky’s friends prevailed. “I think he wanted to be talked out of it,” Miller said. But Kravinsky, the skilled rhetorician, seems to have discovered something unanswerable in his own rhetoric. “The reasons for giving a little are the reasons for giving a lot, and the reasons for giving a lot are the reasons for giving more,” he recently said. Kravinsky feared that he might lose his assets, or his impulse to give, or that his wife would challenge the idea. Emily was philanthropically inclined, but, as Kravinsky recalled it, he needed to “walk her into the idea” of total divestment-gift by gift, keeping the emphasis on public health, which attracted her, and promising that quitting real estate would bring him closer to the family. “I said I’d have more time for the kids,” he told me. “She thought it was crazy to give everything away, but she said, ‘At least we’ll be out of the business.’ ” The gifts were made with her blessing and in her name. “My impression was that she decided she didn’t want to be made out to be a Scrooge,” a friend of the Kravinskys’ told me.

In 2002, Zell and Emily gave an eighty-seven-thousand-square-foot apartment building to a school for the disabled in Philadelphia. The same year, they gave two gifts, worth $6.2 million, to the Centers for Disease Control Foundation. The gifts were partly in the form of a distribution center, four condominiums, three houses, and a parking lot; Kravinsky placed them in a fund named for his late sister, Adria. In March, 2003, the Kravinskys created the Adria Kravinsky Foundation, to support a School of Public Health at Ohio State University; the gift included three warehouses, four department stores, and a shopping center in Indianapolis. Together, these were worth around thirty million dollars. Karen Holbrook, the president of O.S.U., called the gift “a magnificent commitment.”

Kravinsky had put some money aside-he had established trust funds for his wife, his children, and the children of his surviving sister. But his personal assets were now reduced to a house (on which he had a large mortgage), two minivans, and about eighty thousand dollars in stocks and cash. According to Katz, “He gave away the money because he had it and there were people who needed it. But it changed his way of looking at himself. He decided the purpose of his life was to give away things.”

Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, is a mixed-income community of about four thousand people which tries to maintain a small-town character within the sprawl of housing developments and shopping malls just north of Philadelphia. I made my first visit to Kravinsky in November, parking in front of a wooden-shingled house with a broken photocopier on the front porch and a tangle of bicycles, tricycles, and wagons. A handwritten sign by the door, a marker of spousal frustration, read, “Put Your Keys Away Before You Forget.”

Kravinsky came to the door several minutes after I rang the bell. He is slight, and looked both boyish and wan, with pale, almost translucent skin. He wore sneakers, a blue plaid shirt, and tan trousers with an elasticized waist. He seemed distracted, and I realized later that the timing of my visit was awkward: he knew that his wife would not want a reporter in the house, but she had gone out, and two of his four young children were home, so he could not immediately go out to lunch with me.

He invited me into a house crowded with stuff, including a treadmill in the middle of the living room. He cleared away enough books and toys for me to sit down on a sofa. His daughter, who is nine, came into the room to say hello, but when Emily Kravinsky came home, a moment later, she walked straight past us into the kitchen, taking the girl with her. Kravinsky followed. He came back after a few minutes and picked up his coat, and as we left the house he said, “She wants us out of here.”

We drove to a restaurant in a nearby mini-mall. He ordered a mushroom sandwich and a cup of warm water that he didn’t touch. “I used to feel that I had to be good, truly good in my heart and spirit, in order to do good,” he said, in a soft voice. “But it’s the other way around: if you do good, you become better. With each thing I’ve given away, I’ve been more certain of the need to give more away. And at the end of it maybe I will be good. But what are they going to say-that I’m depressed? I am, but this isn’t suicidal. I’m depressed because I haven’t done enough.”

Within a few minutes, Kravinsky had talked of Aristotle, Nietzsche, and the Talmud, and, in less approving terms, of the actor Billy Crudup, who had just left his pregnant girlfriend for another woman. (“How do you like that!”) Kravinsky’s mostly elevated range of reference, along with a rhetorical formality and a confessional tone, sometimes gave the impression that he was reading from his collected letters. “What I aspire to is ethical ecstasy,” he said. “Ex stasis: standing out of myself, where I’d lose my punishing ego. It’s tremendously burdensome to me.” Once achieved, “the significant locus would be in the sphere of others.”

His cell phone rang, and a mental switch was flicked: “You have to do a ten-thirty-one and put fresh money in on terms that are just as leveraged . . . going eight per cent over debt. . . . I think we should do it. It’s nice to start with a blue chip.”

These contrasting discourses have one clear point of contact. In our conversations, Kravinsky showed an almost rhapsodic appreciation of ratios. In short, ratios are dependable and life is not. “No number is significant in itself: its only significance is in relation to other numbers,” he said. “I try to rely on relationships between numbers, because those relationships are constant-unlike Billy Crudup and the woman he impregnated. Even if the other relationships in our lives are going to hell in a handbasket, numbers continue to cooperate with one another.”

In the months following the first of Kravinsky’s financial gifts, a new ratio began to preoccupy him: the one-in-four-thousand chance that a person has of dying in an operation to donate a kidney. In early 2003, he read an article in the Wall Street Journal that introduced him to the idea of nondirected kidney donations, in which an altruistic-minded person gives an organ to benefit a stranger-someone in the pool of sixty thousand people on America’s kidney-transplant waiting list. The demand for kidneys outstrips the supply; the buying and selling of organs is illegal, and although there are between fifteen and twenty thousand deaths in America each year that could yield organs, about half of families deny permission for the bodies of their relatives to be used in this way, often disregarding the dead person’s donor card. Kravinsky was so struck by the article that he cut it out and kept it in a desk drawer.

The notion of nondirected organ donation is not new. Joseph E. Murray, who directed the first successful human kidney-transplant operation, in 1954, in Boston, recently recalled that, by that time, he had received three offers of kidneys-from a prisoner, a homeless man, and a nun. They could not be accepted; early transplants were generally between identical twins, for a precise biological match. But in the early sixties advances in immunosuppressant drugs allowed surgeons to begin transplanting from deceased donors to unrelated recipients and from living donors other than twins-typically, blood relatives. By 1963, there were no medical barriers to nondirected donation. But while kidney transplants became almost routine-last year, there were sixty-five hundred living-donor and eighty-seven hundred deceased-donor transplants in America-nondirected donation did not.

On occasion, altruists engaged in a somewhat less radical practice, donating kidneys to people they had not met but whose plights had attracted their attention (say, through a newspaper article). But doctors were resistant even to this idea, and questioned the sanity of these donors; according to a paper published in Seminars in Psychiatry in 1971, the practice was viewed by most physicians as “impulsive, suspect, and repugnant.” Doctors were also under the impression, now revised, that related donations were almost always better than unrelated ones. In addition, a kidney-removal operation was initially far more painful and invasive than it later became; until the mid-nineties, it was often necessary to break the donor’s rib, and the donor was frequently left with a long scar.

In the late nineties, by coincidence, two donors independently approached two hospitals with a request to make a nondirected kidney donation, and neither hospital could think of a good reason for turning them away. Joyce Roush, a transplant nurse from Indiana, introduced herself to Lloyd Ratner, a leading transplant surgeon then at Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore. “I was quite skeptical,” Ratner told me. “I said, ‘Give me a call and we’ll consider,’ thinking she’d never call me. She called and called.” And at the University of Minnesota a would-be donor with a long record of altruistic acts made the same request, saying, “I want to do this and go home and be happy.” Following bioethical consultation, and psychiatric testing of the donors, the hospitals accepted the offers: in Minnesota, the anonymous donor’s kidney was transplanted in August, 1999; a few weeks later, at Johns Hopkins, Joyce Roush donated one to a thirteen-year-old boy. Now, several dozen nondirected donations are performed each year in the U.S.

Kravinsky considered the risks. Although Richard Herrick, who received the first kidney transplant, died eight years later, Ronald Herrick, his donor and twin brother, is still alive. As Herrick’s example suggests, and medical research confirms, there are no health disadvantages to living with one kidney. One is enough-it grows a little bigger-and the notion that a spare should be packed for emergencies is misconceived: nearly all kidney disease affects both.

The risks are in the operation. “I had a one-in-four-thousand chance of dying,” Kravinsky told me. “But my recipient had a certain death facing her.” To Kravinsky, this was straightforward: “I’d be valuing my life at four thousand times hers if I let consideration of mortality sway me.”

He made one other calculation: there was a chance that one of his four children-then aged between three and eleven-might need a kidney that only he could supply. Kravinsky took into account the rarity of childhood kidney disease, the fact that he had only ten or so years left as a viable donor, and the fact that siblings tend to be the best kidney matches-his children were well provided with siblings. He decided that the risk was no greater than one in two hundred and fifty thousand, and that it was a risk he could accept. In fact, Kravinsky began to think of a donation as “a treat to myself. I really thought of it as something pleasurable.”

In a now famous 1972 essay, “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” the Australian philosopher Peter Singer set up the ethical puzzle that has become known as the Shallow Pond and the Envelope. In the first case, a child has fallen into a shallow pond and is drowning; Singer considers saving the child, and reflects on the inconvenience of muddy clothes. In the second, he is asked by the Bengal Relief Fund to send a donation to save the lives of children overseas.

To ignore the child in the pond would be despicable, most people would agree; to ignore an envelope from a charity would not be. (And the law supports that view.) But Singer’s contention was that the two derelictions are ethically alike. “If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it,” he has written. To allow harm is to do harm; it is wrong not to give money that you do not need for the most basic necessities.

Many philosophers disagree-and would argue, in one way or another, that we can have greater faith in our intuitive moral judgments. Colin McGinn, a philosopher at Rutgers, has called Singer’s principle “positively bad, morally speaking,” for “it encourages a way of life in which many important values are sacrificed to generalized altruism” and devalues “spending one’s energies on things other than helping suffering people in distant lands. . . . Just think of how much the human race would have lost if Newton and Darwin and Leonardo and Socrates had spent their time on charitable acts!” Singer has his adherents: in 1996, Peter Unger, a philosopher at New York University, published “Living High and Letting Die,” an extension of Singer’s analysis whose aim was to show how we let ourselves off the ethical hook too easily. According to Unger, we placate our consciences with an “illusion of innocence.”

By the spring of 2003, Zell Kravinsky had become a man with no such illusion. “It seems to me crystal clear that I should be giving all my money away and donating all of my time and energy,” Kravinsky said, and he speculated that failure to be this generous was corrosive, in a way that most people don’t recognize. “Maybe that’s why we’re fatigued all the time,” he mused-from “the effort” of disregarding the greater need of others. “Maybe that’s why we break down and suffer depressions: we have a sense that there’s something we should be remembering and we’re not. Maybe that’s what we should be remembering-that other people are suffering.”

He discussed the idea of kidney donation with his family and friends. “I thought, at first, that people would understand,” Kravinsky told me. “But they don’t understand math. That’s an American pastime-grossly misunderstanding math. I’ve had to repeat it over and over. Some people eventually got it. But many people felt the way my wife did: she said, ‘No matter how infinitesimal the risk to your family, we’re your family, and the recipient doesn’t count.’ ”

Arguments about philanthropic extremes tend to be arguments about families. In “Bleak House,” Dickens says of his character Mrs. Jellyby that she “could see nothing nearer than Africa”: in a home full of trash, she is so busy helping the unfortunate abroad that she disregards her children, who are filthy and covered with bruises-the “notched memoranda of their accidents.” As Esther Summerson, the novel’s moral center, says of Mrs. Jellyby, “It is right to begin with the obligations of home. . . . While those are overlooked and neglected, no other duties can possibly be substituted for them.” This is a reasonable case for philanthropic restraint, but it’s also an excuse for philanthropic inaction: the narrator of Nick Hornby’s novel “How to Be Good” wrestles with this argument, guiltily, after her husband makes a sudden conversion to virtue-giving away money and goods, and offering their spare room to a homeless teen-ager. “I’m a liberal’s worst nightmare,” her husband says, in response to the narrator’s Esther-like fears for her children’s comfort. “I think everything you think. But I’m going to walk it like I talk it.”

Chuck Collins, a great-grandson of Oscar Mayer, is a rare nonfictional example of someone who gave away all his assets during his lifetime-a half-million-dollar inheritance, which he donated to charity nearly twenty years ago. He became used to hearing pleas in behalf of his (then only potential) offspring. “People would say, ‘That’s fine, you can be reckless in your own life, but you shouldn’t do that to your children,’ ” Collins told me. “But I think parents make decisions for their kids all the time-that’s what parenting is.” He now has a daughter, who does not live like a Jellyby. “Of course, we have to respond to our immediate family, but, once they’re O.K., we need to expand the circle. A larger sense of family is a radical idea, but we get into trouble as a society when we don’t see that we’re in the same boat.”

Kravinsky’s conversations with his family, and about his family, left him feeling like an alien. “The sacrosanct commitment to the family is the rationalization for all manner of greed and selfishness,” he said. “Nobody says, ‘I’m working for the tobacco company because I like the money.’ They say, ‘Well, you know, I hate to do it, but I’m saving up for the kids.’ Everything is excused that way. To me, it’s obscene.”

During one of our conversations, I asked Kravinsky to calculate a ratio between his love for his children and his love for unknown children. Many people would refuse to engage in this kind of thought experiment, but Kravinsky paused for only a moment. “I don’t know where I’d set it, but I would not let many children die so my kids could live,” he said. “I don’t think that two kids should die so that one of my kids has comfort, and I don’t know that two children should die so that one of my kids lives.”

Judith Jarvis Thomson, a philosopher at M.I.T. and the author of “The Realm of Rights,” later told me, “His children are presumably no more valuable to the universe than anybody else’s children are, but the universe doesn’t really care about any children-yours or mine or anybody else’s. A father who says, ‘I’m no more concerned about my children’s lives than about anybody else’s life’ is just flatly a defective parent; he’s deficient in views that parents ought to have, whether it maximizes utility or not.”

Someone who knows both Kravinskys well told me, “If your spouse is doing something to himself, he is, to a certain extent, doing it to you also. Zell would be an exasperating person to be married to.” Susan Katz, the wife of Kravinsky’s friend Barry Katz, told me, “I thought he was crazy. I thought it was just weird. If you’re a father, you can’t put your life at risk.” Kravinsky said that his wife’s initial attitude echoed these sentiments-she was “adamantly opposed,” on the ground of familial responsibility. She eventually grew more accepting of the idea, at least in the abstract. During a recent telephone conversation in which her anger about Zell’s actions was made clear, Emily disputed this description, saying that her opposition was constant, and derived from her opinion that Zell, who has digestive difficulties, was unsuited to an operation of this kind. “I have no objection to nondirected organ donations,” she said. “I think they’re a very good thing, if the donor is medically appropriate for elective surgery, and if the donation is carried out in a medical center that’s prepared to provide good care.”

The rest was math and poetry: Kravinsky has said that he was driven by “the mathematical calculus of utilitarianism,” which gives primacy to the idea of the “greatest good.” But he acknowledges, too, another impulse, which emanated from what he calls his romantic or neurotic self: to give a kidney was a self-sacrificing, self-dramatizing act. The utilitarian in Kravinsky might give up his coat to a stranger, if to have no coat would not disable him as a champion of the coatless; but the romantic in Kravinsky would give the coat unquestioningly, loudly renounce coat-wearing worldwide, and then give away his pants.

In April, 2003, Kravinsky called the Albert Einstein Medical Center, an inner-city hospital where he could be fairly confident that a donated kidney would go to a low-income African-American patient. Kravinsky told me that the transplant coordinator who spoke to him was “pretty leery of the whole thing, and kept telling me there was no payment.” The hospital had never operated on a nondirected donor. But he went there to meet a surgeon, who believed Kravinsky’s reports of two Ph.D.s and his philanthropy only after doing a Google search, and then a psychiatrist, who told him, “You’re doing something you don’t have to do.” Kravinsky replied, “I do have to do it. You’re missing the whole point. It’s as much a necessity as food, water, and air.”

Kravinsky acknowledged that he suffered from depression and that he did not have his wife’s approval for the donation. He allowed the hospital to speak to his own psychiatrist, but said that he would not be able to bring Emily in for joint consultations. The hospital accepted this, after officials learned that family support of nondirected donors is often hesitant, at best. “The consensus was, if this is what he wants to do and he’s a competent individual, you can’t deny him because someone doesn’t want him to do it,” Radi Zaki, the director of the Center for Renal Disease at Albert Einstein, said. “But we made the process hard for him. We delayed, we put him off. The more impatient he got, the more delay I gave him. You want to make sure this is the real deal.”

In June, Kravinsky was accepted for the operation. Donnell Reid, a twenty-nine-year-old single black woman studying for a degree in social work, whose hypertension had forced her to undergo dialysis for eight years, was informed that she was the possible recipient of a kidney from a nondirected donor. “It was so surreal,” she recently told me. “You’re going about your life, and then you get this phone call.” She went in for tests, then waited. “I prayed. I left it in God’s hands.” She told none of her friends: “It was such an overwhelming thing, such an awesome thing, I wanted to meditate on it on my own.” A week later, on July 7th, she learned that she had been selected for the operation, and the next day, at Kravinsky’s request, they met at the transplant center. They talked for two hours. She described her plans for the future, and thanked him for a generosity “beyond words.”

On July 22nd, Kravinsky left home early-”I snuck out”-and drove to the hospital, where Zaki asked him again if he would like to reconsider his decision. “He was very calm,” Zaki recalls. Kravinsky had not told his wife the details of his plan, but he had approached a reporter at the Philadelphia Daily News, a local tabloid, which ran a story that morning. In a three-hour operation that started at 8 a.m.-a laparoscopic removal, requiring minimal incisions-he gave up his right kidney to Reid, who was in the room next door.

The next morning, Kravinsky called his wife from his hospital bed. Because of his digestive complications, he had to be taken off opiate-based painkillers, and he says that he took nothing in their place. (Zaki, affectionately describing Kravinsky as a “dramatic” patient, disputed this memory of total abstinence.) Zell asked Emily for help: “She was furious. She didn’t want me to die, but, on the other hand, she was beyond human rage.” She said that she was willing to talk to the doctors about his treatment. She also threatened to divorce him.

At that moment, Kravinsky recalled, “I really thought I might have shot it with my family.” His parents were also appalled. When Reeda Kravinsky visited her son in the hospital, she recalled, “I was so filled with anger that I didn’t speak.” Meanwhile, Kravinsky’s mind was still turning on philanthropic questions. “I lay there in the hospital, and I thought about all my other organs. When I do something good, I feel that I can do more; I burn to do more. It’s a heady feeling.” He went home after four days, and by then he was wondering if he should give away his other kidney.

A few weeks ago, in a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Jenkintown, Kravinsky pulled out his shirt a couple of inches and showed me a tidy scar, no more than six inches long, on his right hip. “Once in a while, I remember I only have one kidney,” he said, smiling-apparently struck anew by the thought that the donation had been a surgical act as well as a symbolic one. “It feels a little weird-’Oh, yeah, I only have one!’-but the other body parts are very happy, they have breathing room.” It was an unusually upbeat thought, connected to a moment of moral clarity. “It was a good deed,” he said. “However I screw up morally in the future, this is something nobody can take away.”

Kravinsky’s mood had improved since our first meeting, four months after the operation, when he had seemed vulnerable. He was always engaging, eccentric company-during lunch at a restaurant, he opened twenty packets of sugar and poured the contents into his mouth; he gave the impression that he would rather wait forever in a stationary elevator than be the one to press the button-but he was dispirited. He often spoke in fateful terms about his marriage, which had held together but was under constant stress. He worried about his relationship with his children-he showed me touching poems he had written about them-and their relationship with the world. (In the schoolyard, a child had approached one of his sons, saying, “Why don’t you just donate me that cheese stick?”) He said he had lost his sense of direction. “I feel unmoored,” he told me.

Having redefined his life as a continuing donation, but having given away everything that came immediately to hand, Kravinsky was not sure how to proceed. His utilitarian and romantic selves were now in competition, and he did not trust his ability to distinguish between the two, or to distinguish between them and vanity. He saw a baffling choice between engagement and disengagement, between creating wealth and withdrawing into a life of poverty. When Kravinsky’s thoughts migrated to rhetorical extremes, the choice seemed to be between life and death.

Several times, Kravinsky talked of giving away his other kidney and living on dialysis, and then he would upbraid himself for hesitating. “If I didn’t have kids, and I saw a child who was dying for want of a kidney, I would offer mine,” he said. He sometimes imagined a full-body donation. “My organs could save several people if I gave my whole body away,” he told me. “But I don’t think I can do that to my family. Or, at least, I can’t endure the humiliation. I’ve thought about it: my kids would be under a cloud, everybody would pillory me as a showboat or a suicide. I know it’s a thing I ought to do; other lives are equal to my own, and I could save at least three or four. I have fantasized about it. I’ve dreamed about it. But I don’t have the nerve.” He said that “before it happened I’d have to endure the screams and yells from my family. Then I would be committed.” He laughed. “My wife and my sister are psychiatrists.”

Kravinsky could see one clear role for himself: as a promoter of a free market in kidneys, an idea with limited but growing intellectual support. Richard A. Epstein, a libertarian law professor at the University of Chicago, championed this argument in his 1999 book, “Mortal Peril: Our Inalienable Right to Health Care?,” urging a “frontal assault on the present legal regime” and its “moral philosophy of false comradeship.” He wrote, “No one disputes the Beatles’ proposition that ‘money can’t buy you love,’ but the proposition does not require any form of ban on the payment of cash in certain human relations.” Epstein recently told me, “When I talk about this now, nobody treats me as a complete kook. People are a little more respectful.” In Kravinsky’s opinion, an efficient market would quickly set a price for a kidney at ten thousand dollars or so. “College kids would do it. A college kid goes to a party, there’s a greater risk of dying from drugs or alcohol or a car crash than one in four thousand.” He said that any anxiety about exploitation was misplaced: “If the risk is lower than the other ways to make the money, where’s the exploitation? How dare people be so condescending.”

A few weeks after this discussion, Kravinsky called me. He had just been approached by a local woman in her forties who had spent years on dialysis, and who was running out of places on the body where a dialysis needle can enter a vein. She wanted to buy a kidney. Not long before, two young women had jointly written to Kravinsky; both were interested in selling a kidney. He told me that he had arranged to bring the women together at a cafe near his house. He would be an unpaid broker in a kidney sale. “I’ll take the heat, which will probably mean getting arrested,” he said. (The 1984 National Organ Transplantation Act prohibits the sale of kidneys.) “I feel very nervous, but I feel the decision’s been made-because I’m not going to let that woman die, and who else in America would do this? I’m the only person who can save her life by setting this up. I’m not going to do anything that stands in the way of saving a life, whether it’s my money, my reputation. It’s a very big step, but there’s no choice. The choice is, I say no and the rest of my life I know that someone died.”

He called me when he got home, a few hours later. “Oh, brother, she’s in bad shape,” he said of the would-be recipient. He said that “everyone had liked each other” at the meeting, and an agreement had been reached. The recipient would take a kidney from whichever of the two women was a better match: both would present themselves to a hospital as friends offering a donation. The sick woman had agreed to pay fifty thousand dollars for the organ.

Kravinsky was energized-he foresaw a test case, a shift in public opinion. He was ready to embrace infamy. But when we spoke again he was worried about legal consequences. “Can you imagine me in prison for five years?” he asked.

Later, when I brought up the subject once more, he said that a lawyer had told him to “just leave it alone.” He was taking every opportunity to promote kidney donation, but he had given up the role of broker. Today, the three women remain in touch, but they have not yet closed a deal.

According to Kravinsky, his family was living on about sixty thousand dollars a year, from Emily’s part-time medical practice and from interest derived from Zell’s remaining capital. The children were in public schools; the minivans were paid for. “The real test of my vanity would be if I gave everything away,” Kravinsky said. “Not just to the point of a working-class existence but to the point of poverty.”

Yet even while Kravinsky aspired to a life spent “passing out pamphlets on the subway,” as he put it, it pained him to think of giving up the language of finance, which he spoke so well. “To really achieve wealth, you have to have a love of money-you have to enjoy the play of numbers behind your eyelids,” he said.

Indeed, near the end of last year, Kravinsky had begun talking to a local venture capitalist; together they planned a real-estate partnership that would invest on behalf of others in the kind of commercial property that Kravinsky had experience buying and selling. He would give his half of the shares to charity. Other charities could invest without paying fees. Kravinsky initially talked of this as a single stratum in a layered life of agitation, donation, and sacrifice, but this spring, as he began to talk to real-estate agents, the partnership began to emerge as a new full-time job. His mood lightened, and he seemed giddy whenever I overheard him using the jargon of amortization, appraisals, and conduit financing. “I do feel a kind of bonhomie-it’s strange-in business,” he admitted.

Not long ago, Kravinsky toured a Cingular wireless-call center in eastern Kentucky, a building being offered at thirteen million dollars. His guide, the office manager, was a young tanned woman who wore pin-striped trousers. Kravinsky, bouncy and a little flirtatious, looked like a graduate student in geology, and, as he walked among the thousand desks laid out in honeycomb arrangements under signs reading “I Am Proud to Be Part of the Perfectly Awesome Crew,” everyone looked up. “It’s just a glue-down carpet?” he asked the office manager. “Are these load-bearing walls? Is that eight inches of concrete?” At the end of the tour, he said, with feeling, “This is a beautiful center, I have to say.”

He was no longer adrift, yet he had not discovered ethical ecstasy, either. Peter Singer has called him “a remarkable person who has taken very seriously questions of what are our moral obligations to assist people.” He says, “I think it’s very difficult for people to go as far as he has, and I don’t think we should blame people who don’t, but we should admire those who do.”

Kravinsky himself held on to self-doubt. He did buy the Kentucky call center; soon afterward, he spent the night at the sunny, high-ceilinged home of Barry and Susan Katz, in Westport, Connecticut. He got up late, and, long after his friends had finished breakfast, he sat eating cereal at the head of a polished black table. He was unrested, and was troubled by the thought that a renewed career in real estate might block his path to virtue.

“But don’t you think giving away forty-five million dollars was a good first step?” Barry Katz asked him, taking up the challenge of having moral absolutism as a weekend house guest.

“No,” Kravinsky replied. “That’s not the hard part. The hard part is the last ten thousand dollars a year-when you have to live so cheaply you can’t function in the business world.” He added, “If I need a coat to visit an investment banker’s office because I’ll look bizarre if I don’t have one, but then I see somebody shiver, I should give my coat to him.”

“But what if you made enough money, after meeting with the investment banker, to fund research into aids prevention, something extremely good for the world?” Katz asked. “You’re not going to get very far in an investment banker’s office wearing sackcloth.”

“I think suits are despicable. Suits and ties. I think I should go into the office naked.” Kravinsky was smiling. “If I went into the office of a banker naked, I’d be . . .”

“You’d be arrested,” Katz said.

Katz remembered the time he had hung up on Kravinsky a few weeks before the kidney operation. “He almost broke off with you,” Susan Katz told Kravinsky.

“Oh, Barry,” Kravinsky said. “It isn’t that I think people are evil. But it’s a fact that our actions, in some sense our thoughts, let some people live and some people die.”

Susan, sitting at the other end of the table, looked at Kravinsky with fond exasperation and asked, “This is how you think every day, really? That’s got to be tough. It seems so sad. You seem so sad.”

“Well, I am sad.” Kravinsky had arranged everything within arm’s reach-orange juice, mug, salt, sugar, cereal box-into a tight cluster on his placemat. His adventure in donation had been a rhetorical opportunity-a showcase for his underappreciated talent for argument. But for a moment the debate had slowed, and Kravinsky spoke less forcefully, in apparent recognition of the unequal ratio of sacrifice to sustenance, of good done to moral certainty felt.

“But shouldn’t there be more joy in this?” Barry said.

“I don’t think of it as something that’s joyful. Why should I feel joy?”

“I just feel that if you really were on this path to enlightenment, whatever it is, you would feel joy.”

“It’s not enlightenment,” Kravinsky said quietly. “It’s the start of a moral life.”