Considerations about the concept of helping
people in social need and the paradox of the Good Samaritan
Department of Education, Learning and Philosophy
University of Aalborg, Denmark
“I … talked
to a girl caught in the spotlights. Her name was Almira Zahalić, eighteen
years old, and I found her in a bed at Koševo Hospital, where her leg was
in a cast after being broken by a sniper’s bullet. She had tried to escape the
siege with a group of nine people running across the tarmac. They almost made
it to the other side, to Butmir and freedom and food and a gateway to the rest
of the world, but thirty yards short of the finish they were ‘lit up,’ as she
put it, by a U.N. patrol. They had been coached to hit the ground immediately
if this happened, because the lights were always followed by bullets, as though
the United Nations and Serbs worked in tandem, one shining the lights, the
other pulling the trigger” (Peter Maass 1996, Love Thy Neighbor, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 170).
cousins in Chicago. (…) I have been there. New York too. I could never live in
America.’ ‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘Things are just getting worse here in Serbia.’
‘Yes, but here I have many friends. I do business with them. They help me, I
help them. Look, if I meet you, and after a few month we become friends, then
we do business. It doesn’t matter when you pay. We are friends. Maybe you will
do me favor later. This is Balkan way. In America, it’s cold. You have lawyers
and meetings and contracts. Friends and business are separate. I could never
live there Is too inhuman. I am from Balkans. I love Balkans” (ibid., 225).
tenth Dane dies alone: About 5000 Danes die every year without being together
with their family or friends. Instead of they get found and registered by the
Police as found dead” (Danish Radio News, December 13 2008, http://dr.dk/, my translation JZ).
Ernst Cassirer, in his late “Essay on Man”
(Cassirer. 1992), understands man as forced to communicate and cooperate:
It is impossible – says Plato in the
Republic – to implant truth in the soul of a man as it is to give the
power of seeing to a man born blind. Truth is by nature the offspring of
dialectic thought. It cannot be gained, therefore, except through a constant
cooperation of the subjects in mutual interrogation and reply (Cassirer 1992, p.
And he adds: truth “must be understood as the outgrowth of a social act” (Cassirer, ibid).
The opposite view comes down to the idea that
man can solve his/her problems on his/her own. This is the ideal of the neoconservative-neoliberal man. The
German proverb, “Selbst ist der Mann”, corresponding to the English idea of a
“self-made man” is the appropriate motto for this kind of worldview and
anthropology. Notice that in the German version it is a male human being that
is understood and encouraged to be himself, and in the English version it may
be that by identifying mankind with masculine manhood, this is a little bit
veiled. However, it is almost the same. If we were able to “make” us ourselves then we were in every respect
responsible for who and how we are. The rich man would be rich because he would
have made himself rich. The powerful man would be powerful because he would
have made himself powerful. The true social status and destiny of such
self-made people would, thus, not be the result of constant cooperation with
other people and could not be understood as the outgrowth of social acts (cf. Husted & Lübcke,
In fact, men and women being understood this
way aren’t real. The neoconservative-neoliberal man is not an outgrowth of
historical reality but of a wrong theory or– as Marx and Engels (1845-1846)
would have called it, – ideology. Liberalism, in its classic or renewed
versions, postulates man (and woman) as being free by his or her nature. We are
all born free, says the theory, and this is one of the biggest historical lies.
Social, practical, political, and personal freedom is not a “natural”
prerequisite or genetic gift, but the outgrowth of constant social interaction
between real men and women born under specific historical and social
conditions. Human subjects, individual or collective, are only free as far as
the society, of which they are
members, is free. There must be
freedom. Whether or not there is freedom,
is the result of a logical construction and not of empirical evidence. The
liberal idea of freedom as a natural right is the result of a mistake of
theoretical (logical) construction and historical experience.
Conservatism is, in many respects, the opposite
of liberalism (cf. Jensen, Knudsen & Stjernfelt, 2006). It strives to
preserve the established social order and distribution of cultural and economic
values. To serve this purpose, conservative politics has to be prepared to
suppress all attempts to change the prevailing power structure. The coalition,
or rather fusion, of liberalism and conservatism becomes then, from a logical
point of view, a paradox. For example, it becomes a theoretical construction
that cancels the difference between truth and falsehood. Notwithstanding its
character as theoretical hotchpotch, a paradoxical worldview can have –
like “ideology” understood as “false consciousness” (cf. Marx & Engels 1845-1846)
– a very real impact on individuals and societies.
My claim in this paper is that a similar
hotchpotch of theory and practice was the reason why in the Balkan wars in the end
of the last and the beginning of the new Century the great political and
military powers (EU, US, UN) refrained to such a degree from helping people in
An extreme practical variant of the
neoconservative-neoliberal fusion of political ideologies that has dominated
the politics of Western Powers since the 1980’s could be summarized in the
following precept: don’t help people in need because by your help you prohibit
them from helping themselves. In other words, you do something good for people
in need if you refrain from helping them.
In the Balkan wars of the 1990’s and the
beginning 21 Century, the political and military powers that could have
prevented this biggest human disaster since the Vietnam War and the mass murder
in Kampuchea didn’t do so because of the liberal-conservative philosophy that
had infected the politics of the late 20th Century.
The authors of a Danish “Philosophy Textbook”
from 2001 (Husted & Lübcke) understand the Balkan Wars as an instance of
Thomas Hobbes’ theory of “war of all against all” in consequence of the
dissolution of state power. Husted and Lübcke say:
When the Cold War stopped, a power vacuum emerged
as a result of the dissolution of Yugoslavia as a state power. Shortly after
there was civil war, and the nice surface disappeared in favor of ethnic
cleansing, mass rape, looting and treacherous killing. Hobbes wouldn’t have
been astonished: get rid of the state, and the consequence is war of all
against all.” (ibid., 347, my translation JZ)
In the following I shall do first some
conceptual work on fundamental concepts of social work. I define “social need” and
investigate the etymology of the concept of “help” and the difference of
several kinds of help. I then give an example how in my opinion “spirituality”
can be understood to find alternative ways to help people in social need
– alternatives to traditional forms of social work in post-modern societies.
I look at the helping-situation from the two different poles of the helpless
and the helper and try to give an example of a “spiritual” alternative of
social work. At last, I conclude my considerations with some remarks about the
logical paradox of the Good Samaritan and its political impact on the situation
in the Balkan Wars in the end of the 20th and the beginning of the
I would like to start with a joke. It goes like
this: Two social workers meet on the street. One of them asks: Can you tell me
where I can find Gornji Kono street? The other answers: No, I’m sorry –
but I am glad that we talked about it.
Let’s first clarify what I mean by “social need”.
A person who hasn’t the means in advance or is not able to find or to do the work
necessary to secure his or her own subsistence is in social need. A person, who
is not able to communicate or to cooperate with other people around him or her
both in his or her private and professional life, i.e. a lonely person, is in social
need. A woman who is at a violent man’s mercy and by fear of this man is
isolated from her social environment. She is in physical, mental, and social
need. A child who is at a violent father’s or mother’s mercy and by fear of
them is isolated from other, perhaps benevolent, persons or her peer group is
in social need. And – in the widest sense of the concept – a person
is in social need when she is forcedby another person or a collective of
persons, to do things she doesn’t want to do, or is forced to forbear things
she would like to do. These are only a few examples of the many kinds and
variants of social need. Trying to find a common feature characterizing most
kinds and variants of social need we could say a person is in social need if he
or she is not able to solve an existential problem on his or her own.
Apparently such a person needs help.
Certainly not all of the problems a person is
unable to solve on his or her own are existential problems or cause him or her
social need. With this background, I will distinguish between accidental,
essential, and existential problems. If my washing machine doesn’t work and I
want to repair it myself but find out that I lack a necessary tool then I do
have an accidental problem. This problem can be solved, for instance by asking
my neighbor if he has the tool I need and if I may borrow it from him. This is
an accidental problem because I accidentally do not have this tool.
If I am a single man and want to have children
of my own, then I have an essential problem. It can only be solved with a
female person’s help willing to beget a child together with me. It is not only
an accident that I can’t solve this kind of problem on my own. It is essential
for me to get help from a woman. On the other hand, the problem is not an
existential one. I could get on with my life without begetting children.
Existential problems are problems that have to
be solved so that a person having this problem is able to survive –
physically, mentally, and/or socially. Even if it should be possible for a
person to survive physically without having solved an existential problem it
may turn out that her future life, in mental or social respect, ends in
disaster. Let’s be conceptually
broadminded and assume that mental problems always also are social problems and
vice versa. People fired from their work normally run into mental problems.
They can’t avoid asking themselves why it was just them who got fired. To be
fired lowers one’s self-confidence.
People who lose a person close to them by death
or by being separated against their will from a beloved person frequently run
into mental and social problems. These may be either problems at their
workplace because they find it difficult to concentrate on their work, or have problems within
their social network – neighbors, colleagues, friends, relatives –
because they can’t get over the lost person and apparently aren’t able to get
on with their life. Sad and depressed people are in the long run saddening and
depressing for other people.
Let me sharpen my conjecture that most mental
diseases are social diseases. I assume that a great deal of psycho-somatic and
plainly somatic diseases are social diseases. On this basis we could conclude
that the mental, psycho-somatic, and also somatic diseases, from which
individuals in a society suffer, are symptoms of the sickness this society is
How can people in existential need be helped?
Remember the morale of my opening joke: just talking about a problem doesn’t
solve it. My assumption in this paper is that the incredible crimes against
humanity and the whole disaster of the Balkan Wars in the 1990’s and the
beginning 21st Century together with its consequences for the mental and social
situation in after-war Balkan states and societies until our days could have
been prevented if … Yes, this “if” contains a lot of preliminaries that should
have been satisfied in order to prevent letting people for instance in Sarajevo,
in Srebrenica, in Višegrad, in Dubrovnik and so terribly many other places
so terribly down.
Solving existential problems understood as
symptoms of a much larger, social disease presupposes communication between the
helping person and the person helped. Let’s look at what helping other people
means – both generally and in the special case of people with existential
The word “help” is either a derivation from the
Indo-European root *kelb- meaning “to
support” or from the Indo-European root *kel-
meaning “to rescue” or “to save” but also “to hide” or “to preserve”. No doubt,
help is an action of somebody else who does something that enables the person
in need to solve a problem. Seen from its semantic origins, the word “help”
looks like an action that either can support or save somebody or preserve
something for someone. On the other hand, it can also hide something from
someone. The last meaning variant is especially interesting. In which way could
helping someone at the same time hide something from this person?
If I ask my neighbor if I may borrow the tool I
lack to repair my washing machine and he agrees, he could have a hidden motive
behind his apparent motive to help me. Helping him now, he could think, commits
him to help me later, when I myself am in need of something. The apparent
altruism of my neighbor has then an ulterior egoistic motive - not necessarily,
If a woman is willing to beget a child with me,
her ulterior motive could be to live together with me, to get married, or to
keep the child herself.
We can take the spectrum of etymological
meaning variants of “help” as sign of a problem structure under the surface of
the seemingly plain meaning of helping a person in need. Taking the two
extremes of this spectrum – supporting a person on the one hand and
hiding something from this person on the other hand – we may get a
glimpse of the hidden drama connected with any kind of helping whatever. Let’s
look at this drama a little closer.
To help somebody is an action performed by
somebody, the helping person, let’s call him/her A. This action should enable another person to find a solution for
a problem that she cannot solve herself. Instead of an “action” I should rather
have talked of an interaction. Trying
to help a person normally has no chance to succeed if the person in need
doesn’t cooperate with the helping person. I said “normally” because there are
occasions where the helping person is forced to perform his or her helping
action without the cooperation from the helped person, and sometimes even
against the will of this person. Rescuing a child that doesn’t realize that she
is in danger by preventing her from what she is going to do could be an
example. Now, I will explain what I mean by “spiritualism”.
“Spirit” originally meant to “breathe”. Without
breathing we can’t live. Living without doing what has a desirable meaning for
us, i.e. doing meaningless things, living a meaningless life, results almost
certainly in getting in trouble, becoming depressed, and in the long run
getting sick. Sickness means losing the contact with our inner source of life,
our vital power that gives us courage to make existence meaningful. I will call
this power “spirit”, and I understand by “spirituality” the ability to make
life meaningful. Let’s assume that every person, every living being has this
spirituality. Getting cured of sickness or solving existential problems could
then be understood as the path and process to find one’s own source of life,
one’s spirit again.
My son, who is interested in shamanism, told me
that on a seminar on shamanism he recently learned that there is a kind of
Nepalese shamanism where the shaman cures a sick person by involving the whole
social environment around this person in the curing process. The idea behind
this, let’s say, environmental healing is apparently that a person’s state of
health depends on the state of health of the society around him or her. In
shamanic cultures the shaman is understood as a person able to mediate, i.e. to
move to and fro, between reality and the spiritual world. If the cure consists
in guiding the sick person on his way to find his spiritual self then meeting
one’s spiritual self must be the same as meeting or understanding the meaning
of one’s own existence. So, I equate the concepts of spirit and of meaning
– meaning understood in an existential and not just a linguistic way.
Linguistic and other signs do have meaning if we connect them in our minds with
other things in the world or with experiences in our mind. In this way our mind
becomes the locus of meaning, and becomes “spiritual”. In other words –
translating spiritualistic speech into the language of a realistic world view -
the spiritual can be understood as the meaningful, the way we are able to see,
to feel, to think things in the world as interconnected with each other.
Let’s go back to the idea of helping people in
social need as a kind of environmental healing. What role do all the persons
who are part of the social environment of the helpless or sick person play in
this process? Apparently we have to consider all those persons who have had or
still have influence on the kind of life the sick person lives. Let’s look at
the question first from the helpless person’s point of view.
If you are in social need and helpless, i.e. if
you are unable to solve an existential problem on your own, you are emotionally
in the situation of a child. It goes beyond your physical or mental power. A
child playing on a playground having his/her mother sitting within sight feels
secure and apparently acts as if he or she was self-supporting and wouldn’t
take notice of the mother’s presence. As soon as the mother for one reason or
another is out of sight, the child becomes insecure and feels helpless. Most
likely she gets scared. In this situation it wouldn’t help very much if a
social or mental worker would just try to talk with the child about her
problem. The best help would probably be to re-establish the situation that
made the child safe and secure, namely to bring the mother again within sight
of the child. The worst for a person in social need is the feeling that there
is no social help in sight, i.e. no people around who are able and willing to
help. That is to say that there is no person or group of persons nearby that
give the person in need the feeling of not being all alone and completely out
of his/her mind. In German “being out of one’s mind” is the same as “deserted
of all good spirits”.
Being out of one’s mind is thus apparently the
same as being out of contact with one’s spiritual self, and the spiritual self
can be understood as a person’s relation to all those persons in his social
environment playing a significant role in his efforts to make existence
meaningful. The job of the social worker consists then in enabling the helpless
person to come in touch again with those situations and persons that made his
life meaningful. And, once again, ‘meaningful’ means here “sensually,
emotionally, reasonably or practically connected with other things, persons,
and situations”. Being is only meaningful as being together with other beings.
The helper – an alternative model of
helping a person in need
I said above that the shaman in shamanic
cultures is understood as a mediator between the sensual and the spiritual
world. In other words, she connects the physical and the meaningful
understanding of the physical as the embodiment of the meaningful, and the
meaningful as the experience of connectedness of things and living beings in
the world. The art of the helper consists then in her ability to connect the
disconnected, to unite the divorced, and to bring a person in mental and/or
social need in contact with his or her own spirit.
How this looks like in practice can be seen
from a group-curing ritual described by the Hawaiian shaman Serge Kahili King
(cf. Kahili King 1990, p. 267). I give here a simplified version of this
The person seeking help is placed inside a
circle of other people. The shaman encourages the help-seeking to focus on
his/her positive expectations about the wanted help. By means of a
rhythm-instrument the person to be helped or cured is ordered to beat the time.
When the rhythm has stabilized itself, the people in the circle around him/her
are asked to chant a verse like:“Be conscious, be free, be alert, be present,
be loved, be strong, and be cured.” (ibid., p. 268).
This chant should be continued until it is
experienced as stable and almost automatic. Then one person in the circle is
asked to move to the center and touch the person there gently on his/her head
or shoulder and whisper a short blessing or encouragement. At the same time the
circle should contract. After having finished his/her blessing, the person
moves back and takes again his/her place in the circle. Then the person to the
left in the circle moves into the center and touches the person there,
whispering a blessing. This procedure continues until all persons of the circle
have performed the same touching and blessing action. All this time the person
in the center continues beating the time, and the people in the circle continue
to chant the verse. When the shaman has also moved into the center, touched and
blessed the person there and has returned to his place in the circle, the
drumming and chanting continues perhaps one minute longer. Then the shaman
shouts, “Stop!” and calls on all the present people to embrace each other and
talk about their personal experience during the séance.
This is a simple example of attuning the
spirits of each person in a group by a harmonizing rhythm and an encouraging
chant. The individual spirits are in this way united to a common spirit and
become transferred to the person seeking help to solve a problem or to be cured
of a disease.
The paradox of the Good Samaritan and its
application in politics
From a logical point of view, to help a person
that is being attacked presupposes that the person is being attacked. Because
to attack a person is wrong, helping an attacked person is also wrong, because
it entails something wrong. Of course, this is absurd because the attack must
have happened before the helping. That helping an attacked person entails, i.e.
logically implies, the attack, does not justify the forbearance of helping an
Nozick and Routley suggested a solution for the paradox in 1962. They express it
this way: if doing a strictly implies
(entails) doing b and if doing b is wrong (or forbidden) then doing a is also wrong. But, as they correctly
establish, “it is not the action of helping the victim which entails he has
been” attacked, “but the description of the victim which does so” (ibid., p. 379).
In other words, the Paradox of the Good Samaritan is a logical and not a
practical misunderstanding. It is based on a mistake of understanding of and acting
in the world. It is logically correct that if you want to help an attacked
person, this person is been or is being attacked. On the other hand, it is
morally correct that it is wrong to attack a defenseless person. But it is of
course not morally correct to refrain from helping an attacked person because
helping him or her logically implies something morally wrong. This paradox
obviously confuses thinking and doing, or theoretical understanding and
practical changing of the world in a desirable way.
The same confusion is being committed by a
political philosophy that mixes an abstract concept of freedom as natural right
with real power structures in historical societies. If all human beings are free
because of their “human nature”, then their real bondage is seemingly their own
fault. Extending this idea from the morale to the whole universe of human values
comes down to the ideological “wisdom” that everybody, himself or herself is
responsible of his or her misfortune. This is the exact opposite of the shaman
understanding of disease or misfortune as the result of people being let down
by their social environment that could help if it wanted to help.
Freedom understood as a natural right detaches the
concept from the only conceptual environment where it really makes sense
– social interaction. Freedom as part of human nature is a purely
theoretical construction that transplants it from the field of social
interaction to a “natural” or physical environment where it not really makes
sense. A human person is able to be responsible for (some) of his or her
actions. He or she is, however, not able to be responsible for the complete
chain of causes of which physical reality is an effect. To think, a human being
could be responsible of his or her own phenotype and the process of evolution
resulting in this phenotype as a whole, is completely absurd. In fact, it is
mistaking the human condition with the illusion of divine omnipotence.
The paradox of the Good Samaritan can according
to Nozick and Routley be solved by making clear that there exists a substantial
difference between understanding and describing an action on one hand and doing it on the other hand. Our
understanding of the world takes place in a certain logical form or a certain mode
of thinking. Nozick and Routley suggest introducing an expression that
clarifies the difference between naming or describing an action and performing
it. Then they can show that the paradox from a logical point of view
disappears. Transferring the logical solution of the theoretical paradox to
practically helping people in real need would require, in my opinion, to get
rid of a political philosophy that fuses theoretical (neoliberal) freedom with
practical (neoconservative) suppression and results in letting down people in
existential emergency situations – as it was so terribly the case in the
Looking back at my introducing joke I would
like to close my considerations with the following lines from Peter Maass’ book
about the Bosnian War:
Thanks to the wonders of the satellite
communications, and thanks to the ingenuity of Tuzla’s television engineers, the local
news featured a long segment on the opening ceremony at the Holocaust Museum. I
listened to excerpts of President Clinton’s speech and wanted to believe that
he meant what he said about standing up to the bullies in the world. I wanted
to believe, in particular, his final words: “With God’s blessing upon our
souls, and the memories of the fallen in our hearts and minds, it is to the
ceaseless struggle to preserve human rights and dignity that we rededicate
ourselves … We will never relent, and we will prevail. It was a beautiful speech, and I wanted to believe he meant it, if
only because it was delivered on such hallowed ground, the Holocaust Museum.
Who would dare to be insincere on a day like that, at a place like that? But I
knew otherwise, and so, I am sure, did … anybody else in Bosnia who had
listened to President Clinton’s speeches over the previous months and suffered
at the mercy of an untouched bully named Serbia. It was just words, eloquent
words of course, but words intended as substitutes for action rather than
precursors to it. My disappointment in President Clinton – no, let me be
precise, my disgust with President Clinton – turned to shame. I felt no
personal responsibility for the fact that he was a hypocrite. But something new
stuck me: President Clinton was making hypocrites of us all, and there was very
little that could be done about it. (Maass, 1996,p. 246)
Cassirer, Ernst. (1992). An Essay on Man. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Jørgen & Poul Lübcke. (2001). Filosofi
Håndbog. København: Politikens Forlag.
Hans S., Knudsen, Ole., & Stjernfelt, Frederik. red. (2006). Tankens Magt, Vestens Idehistorie,
København: Linhardt & Ringhof.
Kahili King, Serge. (1993). By-Shaman, Sphinx.
Maass, Peter. (1996). Love thy Neighbor, A Story of War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich 1845-1846, Die
Deutsche Ideologie, in: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels 1969, Werke, Band 3, Berlin: Dietz Verlag.
Nozick, Robert & Richard Routley (1962). Escaping
the Good Samaritan Paradox, in: Mind,
vol. 71, No. 283, 1962, pp. 377-382.