Human needs are advocated, rejected, or problematized by different groups of scholars. This essay deals only with the first group. For surveys of “rejectors” and “problematizers” see Doyal and Gough (1991) and Springborg (1981), respectively. Human needs are grounded in human nature as Williams (1987, p. 101) and Gasper (2002, section 6.3) argue. Márkus (1978) systematizes Marx’s views: Human beings distinguish themselves from animals as their vital activity, work, is oriented toward need satisfaction through mediations (tool-making animal ), a view confirmed by modern paleoanthropologists (e.g., Leakey 2001). Through work humans become universal natural-historical beings capable of transforming all natural elements into objects of their needs and activities and of developing their human essential forces (needs and capacities) and creating themselves. Through work, which breaks the animal subject/needs-object fusion and makes human conscience and self-conscience possible, humans become a universal conscientious being, as conscience expands with work objects. In work the conditions of humans as social universal beings are given. Work is always social: Men and women work for each other using inherited means and capacities. Lastly, human beings are free beings who can actualize, by their conscious decision, the objective possibilities created by social evolution.
According to Maslow ( 1987, chapter 4), human needs are instinctoid as men and women only inherit the impulse but have to learn the other two elements of instincts (object, activity). Fromm ( 1990, p. 23) argues that at a certain point of evolution, life became self-aware and action ceased to be determined by instincts. This rupture in the dominion of life by instincts is the same implied in work as a mediated activity, as tool making is not instinctual and means a huge liberty leap.
Marx ( 1973) conceives needs (except biological original needs) as produced in a similar sense as products and capacities are produced. Production creates not only consumption objects but also consumption modes, consumption impulses, and the consumer himself. The historical character of human needs expresses itself in the humanization of biological needs and in the creation of new needs devoid of biological roots : for example, aesthetic and cognitive needs. Marx’s conception contrasts with neoclassical economics’ instrumentalist view of production at the service of the sovereign consumer and his preexistent preferences, not needs (Rothenberg 1974).
Wiggins (1998) distinguishes needs from desires/wants and defines rigorously needs and the needed object. In the following three paragraphs his ideas are explained and other viewpoints are incorporated.
Distinguishing needs from desires/wants. Needs are not strong or unconscious desires (or preferences):
Unlike desire, or want, then need is not evidently an intentional verb. What I need depends not on thought or the workings of my mind (or not only on this) but on the way the world is. Again, if one wants something because it is F, one believes or suspects that it is F. But if one needs something because it is F, it must really be F, whether or not one believes that it is. (Wiggins 1998, p. 6)
Doyal and Gough (1991, p. 42) distinguish between objective needs conceived as goals universally associated with prevention of serious harm and subjective wants, which are not.
Need and human harm. The special force of the term need and the normative character of noninstrumental but categorical/absolute needs come from the noncontroversial character of its purpose, avoiding human harm or human flourishing (Wiggins 1998, pp. 9, 13). Doyal and Gough (1991, pp. 2, 39) adopt the similar concept of serious harm (“significantly impaired pursuit of goals”) or flourishing but also define needs as universal, with which Fromm ( 1990, chapter 3) and Max-Neef, Elizalde, and Hopenhayn (1986, p. 27) agree: If all human beings have the same capacity to suffer serious harm or to flourish, all have human objective basic needs conceived as universalizable goals, Doyal and Gough argue. Fromm and Maslow identify the serious consequences of unsatisfied needs as physical or mental disease: For example, Fromm ( 1990, pp. 30–36) identifies narcissism (which in its extreme forms is equivalent to insanity) as the consequence of the insatisfaction of the need for intimate relations.
On the definition of the needed object and needs. Wiggins defines the object needed: “A person needs x (absolutely) if and only if, whatever morally and socially acceptable variation it is … possible to envisage occurring within the relevant time span, he will be harmed if he goes without x ” (1998, p. 14). He also defines needs as “states of dependency (in respect of not being harmed ), which have as their proper objects things needed” (1998, p. 16). This distinction of satisfiers and needs is made by many authors, and Max-Neef et al. (1986, pp. 41–43) also distinguish satisfiers from goods as different analytical spaces in the sense of spaces developed by Amartya Sen (1983, p. 335). Orthodox economists, and paradoxically Sen (1985), usually restrict satisfiers to goods and services, whereas Lederer (1980) identifies objects, relations, and activities as satisfiers and Boltvinik (2007), on the base of Márkus’s description of Marx’s conception of human nature and of Max-Neef’s satisfiers and needs matrix, has identified seven types of satisfiers: goods; services; activities; relations; information, knowledge and theories; capacities; and institutions.
Needs constitute what is called “thick ethical concepts,” speaking of which “factual description and valuation can and must be entangled” (Putnam 2002, p. 39). To use this term “with any discrimination one has to be able to identify imaginatively with an evaluative point of view.” Needs, poverty, and Sen’s capabilities are entangled terms in which description depends on evaluation (Putnam 2002, pp. 62–63). The entanglement thesis defeats many frequent criticisms addressed to scholars on the grounds that they incorporate values, and we can illustrate this with Fitzgerald’s criticism of Maslow. When Fitzgerald (1977, p. 49) states, “Speaking on the need of self-actualisation is either tautological or unequivocally normative” (that is, it is not synthetic or falsifiable), he adopts the logical positivists tripartite classification of all judgments, which constitutes the expression of the fact/value dichotomy: (1) synthetic or falsifiable; (2) analytical (false or true by the rules of logic only, and thus tautological); (3) without cognitive meaning (ethical, metaphysical, and aesthetic judgments). He thus states that speech on the need for self-actualization is located in categories 2 or 3.
Poverty (usually defined as economic incapacity to satisfy needs) is a central field of application of the concept of needs and is dominated by economists who are advocators of the fact/value dichotomy and rejectors of the concept of needs. As they conceive that rationality cannot be present in matters of values, they assume, and insist on it all the time, that the definition of the poverty threshold (highly charged with values) is an arbitrary act by the researcher, promoting a total void on this topic and making it easy for all those who want to minimize the extent of poverty to use thresholds that deny most human needs. They are impoverishing poverty studies in the same way that they impoverished welfare economics, as Putnam (2002, chapter 3) describes.
SEE ALSO Development Economics; Ethics; Fromm, Erich; Functionings; Marx, Karl; Maslow, Abraham; Needs, Basic; Poverty; Sen, Amartya Kumar; Universalism; Want Creation; Wants; Welfare; Welfare Economics
Boltvinik, Julio. 2007. Elementos para la crítica de la economía política de la pobreza. Desacatos. Revista de antropología social 23 (January–April): 53–86.
Doyal, Len, and Ian Gough. 1991. A Theory of Human Need. New York: Guilford Press.
Fitzgerald, Ross. 1977. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs— An Exposition and Evaluation. In Human Needs and Politics, ed. R. Fitzgerald, 36–51. Sydney, Australia: Pergamon Press.
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Lederer, K. 1980. Introduction. In Human Needs: A Contribution to the Debate, eds. K. Lederer, J. Galtung, and D. Antal, 3–14. Cambridge, MA: Oelgeschlager, Gunn and Hain.
Márkus, György. 1978. Marxism and Anthropology: The Concept of “Human Essence” in the Philosophy of Marx. Trans. E. de Laczay and G. Márkus. Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum.
Marx, Karl. 1857. Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. In Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Trans. Martin Nicolaus, 81–111. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1973.
Maslow, Abraham. 1954. Motivation and Personality, 3rd ed. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1987.
Max-Neef, Manfred, Antonio Elizalde, and Martín Hopenhayn. 1986. Desarrollo a escala humana. Una opción para el futuro, Development Dialogue, Special Issue, Santiago de Chile and Uppsala, Sweden: Cepaur and Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, 1986. English version: Max-Neef, Manfred, Antonio Elizalde, and Martín Hopenhayn. 1989. Human-Scale Development: An Option for the Future. In Development Dialogue 1: 5–81. Expanded as Human-Scale Development: Conception, Application and Further Reflections. New York and London: Apex Press, 1991.
Putnam, Hilary. 2002. The Collapse of the Fact: Value Dichotomy and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rothenberg, Jerome. 1974. Soberanía del consumidor. Enciclopedia Internacional de las Ciencias Sociales. Vol. 3, ed. David L. Sills. Madrid: Aguilar.
Sen, Amartya. 1985. Commodities and Capabilities. Amsterdam and New York: North-Holland.
Springborg, Patricia. 1981. The Problem of Human Needs and the Critique of Civilisation. London and Boston: Allen & Unwin.
Wiggins, David. 1998. Needs, Values, Truth: Essays in the Philosophy of Value, 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Williams, Bernard. 1987. The Standard of Living: Interests and Capabilities. In The Standard of Living. The Tanner Lectures, ed. Amartya Sen, 94–102. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
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needs / nēdz/ • adv. (in phrase must needs (or needs must) do something) archaic cannot avoid or help doing something: they must needs depart.
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