What does it mean to devote yourself wholly to helping others? In her book Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar seeks out people living lives of extreme ethical commitment and tells their deeply intimate stories; their stubborn integrity and their compromises; their bravery and their recklessness; their joys and defeats and wrenching dilemmas.

In this provocative conversation writer Samanth Subramanian along with Larissa contemplates what it means to be human. In a world of strangers drowning in need, how much should we help, and how much can we help? Is it right to care for strangers even at the expense of those we are closest to?  What exactly do we value most as human beings, and why?

This conversation was originally streamed as part of the The Bangalore Life Science Cluster and NCBS Archives’ Public Lecture series and has been adapted to this podcast.

Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. She has written about child-protective services, the battered-women’s movement, and dementia and hospice care, and her Profile subjects have included John Ashbery, Barack Obama, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Mantel, Derek Parfit, David Chang, and Aaron Swartz, among many others. She is the author of “Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help.” Before joining the magazine, she was a senior editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at The Paris Review, and she wrote for Artforum, The Nation, The New Republic, the Times Book Review, Slate, and other publications. She has received two Front Page Awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York and the Johnson & Johnson Excellence in Media Award. Her writing has appeared in “The Best American Political Writing” and “The Best American Food Writing.”

Samanth Subramanian is a writer and journalist. His latest book is: “A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of JBS Haldane.”