Fall 2008



Considerations about the concept of helping people in social need and the paradox of the Good Samaritan


Jörg Zeller

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).

“I have 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).

“Every 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,, 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. 5).

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, 2001).

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 need.  

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 21th Century.   

Social need

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 suffering from.   

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 problems.


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, but possibly.

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.   

The helpless

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 description.

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 attacked person.

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 Balkan Wars.

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.

Husted, Jørgen & Poul Lübcke. (2001). Filosofi Håndbog. København: Politikens Forlag.

Jensen, 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.   




Back to Top

Copyright for the I.U.C. Journal of Social Work Theory and Practice is owned by the Social Work Program, Department of Social Relations and Services, Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minnesota, USA. One copy may be made (printed) for personal use; teachers may make multiple copies for student use if the copies are made available to students without charge. Permission must be secured from the editors for sale of any copies of articles or for any commercial use of the material published in the Journal.
2001 Copyright BSU/IUC Journal of Social Work Theory & Practice