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Do?What We Owe to Each OtherWhat Would Aristotle Do?What's Good on TVWhat's Normal?What's Wrong with Children's RightsWhat's Wrong with Homosexuality?What's Wrong With Morality?When Is Discrimination Wrong?Who Holds the Moral High Ground?Who Owns YouWho Qualifies for Rights?Whose America?Whose View of Life?Why Animals MatterWhy Animals MatterWhy I Burned My Book and Other Essays on DisabilityWhy Not Kill Them All?Why Punish? How Much?Why Some Things Should Not Be for SaleWisdom, Intuition and EthicsWithout ConscienceWomen and Borderline Personality DisorderWomen and MadnessWondergenesWould You Kill the Fat Man?Wrestling with Behavioral GeneticsWriting About PatientsYou Must Be DreamingYour Genetic DestinyYour Inner FishYouth Offending and Youth Justice Yuck!
The essays collected in this volume
derive from a conference held by the Royal Institute of Philosophy in Britain in September, 2003. It appears that the concept of needs has had a checkered
history in philosophy. Perhaps it is because of philosophy's origins in Plato
that needs, being tied to the body, are seen as less important than such
theoretical entities as rights or utilities in discussions of ethics and social
philosophy. Philosophers prefer to speak of meeting 'subsistence rights' or maximizing
utilities when discussing what our duties of beneficence are in relation to
The problem with the concept of 'utility'
is that it takes people's preferences at face value and urges us to satisfy as
many of them as possible without distinguishing those preferences which are for
things necessary to a dignified human life and those which are for superfluous things
we merely want. Without this distinction the ethical demand to maximize utility
is too indiscriminate. According to David Wiggins' contribution to this volume,
this can only lead to injustices where the preferences of the many are given
priority over the vital needs of a few.
Of course, just what is to count as
a basic need is in need of some clarification. Is the drug addict's need for a
hit basic in the same way that anyone's need for food would seem to be? Both
Wiggins and Gillian Brock address this question and it is also discussed with
reference to Plato and Aristotle in essays by Christopher Rowe and Soran
Reader. The view that emerges is that a need is something which is necessary
for human agency. Insofar as agency involves deliberation and choice it requires
physical and mental health, a degree of security, a sufficient level of
understanding of what one is choosing between, and a certain amount of freedom
to act. Moreover, one will need some social relationships to support one in one's
For his part, Garrett Thomson
speaks of 'fundamental needs,' which are inescapably necessary conditions in
order for a person not to undergo serious harm. A need is inescapable if it is
not based on a desire which the person would be better off not having (like a
need for drugs) but on a desire which is intrinsic to the person. But if needs
are based on desires we seem to be back to the utilitarian's indiscriminate
preference satisfaction. Thomson's solution is to distinguish between desires
and the interests that motivate them. We all have an interest in food, but the
food we desire will be relative to circumstances. The desires are contingent
and malleable while the interest is basic. It is this deeper level of interest
and motivation that enjoys objectivity and grounds the harms we can undergo. Sometimes
it might not be good to get exactly what we want. This also allows us to
explain how desires change but continue to express our deeper interests.
Interests allow us to critically evaluate desires. So if fundamental needs are
inescapable they must be based on those of our interests which are also
inescapable rather than on our contingent desires.
It will be clear that the concept
of needs has ethical and political import. It would seem intuitive that the fundamental
needs of others establish an obligation to provide what is needed. Sarah Clark
Miller addresses this issue from the perspective of an ethics of care. She
explains how the care ethic acknowledges the situatedness and interdependence
of human existence. However, she does not think that the ethics of care can
generate a duty to meet vital needs. For this we need Kant. Given that
we are interdependent, no one could universalize the maxim that they would not
help another in need. In this way a Kantian argument for the duty of
beneficence can amplify the ethics of care. If there is such a duty, then needy
people might be said to have a right to assistance.
This raises the issue of subsistence
rights. The problem here is that rights are tied to obligations. But to whom is
the obligation to meet the needs of the indigent and poor around the world to
be attributed? Is it enough to say that we all have an obligation not to
prevent a needy person from getting what they need? This seems too weak. Yet
the obligation to give to each needy person what they need is too strong. No
one person can achieve that goal. Bill Wringe's solution is to speak of
collective obligations and to suggest that the collective obligation generated
by the subsistence rights of the world's poor can be discharged by collective
action through political institutions.
The issue of human rights emerges
in several of the essays with the suggestion that to discuss global justice in
terms of rights is not as helpful as to discuss it in terms of human needs.
Gillian Brock begins her essay with a variation on John Rawls's original
position in which she suggests that the choice made by participants in the
original position would not be for principles of distributive justice but for
the principle that basic needs should be met before any surplus is distributed.
She cites empirical research which shows that most people prefer social
arrangements that protect people from serious harms and also guarantee some
basic liberties. Distributive justice is seen by most people as of secondary
importance to the meeting of basic needs.
The fact is that many basic needs
are not being met in the world today. This raises some questions as to how best
to articulate the goals that social and political action to create global justice
should take. Essays by David Braybrooke and Sabina Alkire compare the discourse
of needs with Amartya Sen's discourse of capabilities, and suggest that needs
identify a basic level of provision which, because of the necessities that it
addresses, is more fundamental than capabilities. If I might put it in my own
terms, perhaps needs are necessary conditions for human dignity while
capabilities are sufficient conditions. Alkire suggests, however, that it is
important that providers of aid and assistance be aware of local cultural and
material conditions and ways of understanding needs. The discourse of needs can
lead to insensitive and oppressive policies (such as China's one child policy).
Accordingly, thinking in terms of capabilities, or the freedom to do things for
oneself, can be preferable. If aid agencies and governments seek to enhance the
capabilities of needy people to meet their own needs justice is more likely to
Underlying such suggestions are
deep philosophical understandings of how needs figure in the social fabric.
John O'Neill contributes an interesting historical essay which discusses Adam
Smith and the problem of so organizing society that the needfulness of some
does not lead to their humiliation as receivers of charity. Smith thought that
commercial society provided a form of solidarity between people which honored
both their own initiative and their interdependence. The modern welfare state,
on the other hand, seeks to overcome the problem of humiliation by depersonalizing
the giving of assistance by turning it into a bureaucratic entitlement. The
problem with this is that it breaks down social solidarity.
The concept of needs even
contributes understanding to the philosophy of action. Jonathan Lowe denies
that reasons are causes and yet wants to draw a close relation between reasons
and actions such that reasons are necessary if not sufficient conditions for an
action. The argument is that just as facts are truth-makers for beliefs and
propositions, so needs are 'goodness-makers' for actions. Needs support actions
in the way that facts support beliefs. A good action is one which corresponds
to need. According to Lowe, needs belong to a distinct ontological category.
The world is not just all that is the case -- it also contains needs.
While some essays in this
collection are less satisfactory than others -- especially those that summarize
the author's own previously published work -- and while the book contains far
too many typographical errors and word omissions, this collection presents
important work in the philosophy of need. I have no doubt that philosophers
working in social philosophy and ethics need to come to grips with the concept
of need, and its relevance to metaphysics and the philosophy of action also
seems compelling. This collection will be a good place to start.
© 2007 Stan Van Hooft
Van Hooft, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, Deakin University, Australia