The conditional altruist and the Samaritan’s dilemma

Joselito Sescon



The Samaritan’s dilemma refers to any situation in which an actual or expected altruistic behavior of one actor generates an incentive for exploitation on the recipient, such that the altruist suffers a welfare loss beyond the cost of the originally intended transfer. This study hypothesized that the Samaritan’s dilemma condition does (not) apply when the help given is a substitute for (complement to) the effort of the beneficiary to help herself. Using static and sequential game analyses, it is proven that either substitution or complementary condition could arise in the act of giving and receiving help. It is in the substitution condition only that the Samaritan dilemma arises. The players in a sequential game, with the first-mover advantage, can transform the game’s payoffs by setting assistance or work effort at the outset that forces the other player to adjust. Thus, Buchanan’s Samaritan’s dilemma is not a universally strategic outcome in the altruistic acts of giving. The empirical part tested if the Samaritan’s dilemma pervades or not in Philippine households by investigating the effects of expenditures of gifts on work hours. Household total transfers (consumption gifts plus remittances) and household members’ work effort are found substitutes. Thus, the Samaritan’s dilemma equilibrium is implied. However, there is also an implied equilibrium outside that of the Samaritan’s dilemma among high-effort workers: for these theoretically "altruist" workers, the gifts and income transfers are complementary to work hours. 

JEL classification: D64, D01


altruism, games, dilemma

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