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5: Needs in political and moral philosophy

A philosophical foray into needs and their position in normative reasoning.

A substantial amount of discussion on morality invokes the concept of needs. Philosophically, however, the notion of the role that needs play in normative reasoning is often controversial. This chapter will begin by discussing a handful of core issues concerning needs in modern political and moral philosophy. I will then turn to answering the question of how legitimate needs are defined, whose answer has been the focus of much philosophical discussion. 

Some philosophers have argued that there are no genuine needs at all; others argue that they can be important for determining how best to live one’s life (see, e.g., Dworkin 1981). The issue here is not whether there are any real or even possible needs but rather whether it makes sense to speak about them in normative terms. If so, then the discussion becomes more difficult because normative claims about needs will require us to make judgments about what ought to be done with people who lack those needs. This raises questions about the appropriate scope of moral norms.

Finally, we turn to the issue of whether there are any non-normative reasons why some people might want certain things over others. For example, many people may prefer to be left alone to avoid unpleasant social interactions, yet their desires do not count as needs. Is it permissible to treat these desires as if they were genuine needs? Or would it be better just to leave them out of account altogether?

In light of these concerns, we argue that the normative status of needs is controversial and that its importance depends upon the particular circumstances under which it is being discussed. The concept of a need is not going to be of any help in moral or political philosophy unless the nature and significance of the concept can be properly understood.

Approaching the question of needs from a political perspective, we can see that it is sometimes used as a justification for state action. For example, we might say that everyone has a need for food, shelter, and clothing, and that the government should take steps to ensure that these needs are met. The government cannot be expected to help people meet all of their desires, so it makes sense to focus on the most important needs. From this perspective, we can see that the concept of need is closely related to concepts like welfare and freedom from want.

In a similar way, the concept of need can also be used in more ordinary ethical contexts. We might say it is good to meet the needs of others or bad to neglect their needs. If we see someone in need, we are inclined to help them. In this way, the concept of need seems to carry with it a certain degree of urgency and importance.

So in what sense are these normative claims about needs true? One possibility is that needs are true in the sense that they represent the world as it should be. To say that someone needs something like food, shelter, or clothing is to say that they ought to have it. For example, it would be inappropriate to say that someone needs a million dollars or a new car when they do not have these things. Needs in this sense represent an ideal against which we judge the world, and they tell us what is wrong with it.

The more difficult question is whether these needs are actually binding or overriding. That is, are the needs in themselves reasons for action? Do we have some sort of duty to meet the needs of others? If so, what would this duty entail and how do we justify it?

The common way to justify a duty to meet the needs of others is to argue that we all implicitly agree to such duties when we choose to live in a society. For example, if you choose to live in a society where the government provides social services for its citizens, then you have implicitly agreed to respect the social contract and support the government.

In addition to this consent-based justification, there are two other prominent approaches that might be used to justify duties to meet the needs of others. The first is a consequentialist approach, which claims that we have a duty to help others when such actions will produce more good than harm overall. The second is a deontological approach, which claims that we have a duty to help others because it is the right thing to do.

The problem with these approaches is that they are not equally convincing. While all have their benefits, they also each face difficult challenges that make them less than satisfactory. In this regard, the problem of needs is similar to other philosophical problems.

Answers to this question should provide a reasonably accessible entry point to the subject matter while also being sophisticated enough to address the core issues. For this reason, I have chosen to focus on the following answers: Consent, Duty, and Need.

These answers can be further broken down into the following sub-answers: Social Contract, Utilitarianism, and Virtue Ethics.

Finally, these answers can be broken down even further in terms of the specific ways they attempt to address the questions outlined above.

Social Contract

The social contract is an idea that traces its origins to the 17th century writings of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. The basic idea is that individuals in a society give up some of their freedoms in order to gain the benefits of living in an organized community. In doing so, they establish a bond that creates a duty for the members of that society to help one another.

The social contract differs from other theories of normative ethics in that it does not rely on abstract ideas about human nature or our inherent needs and wants. Instead, the social contract looks to the real world where people actually choose to give up some of their freedoms for the benefits of society.

In this regard, the social contract shares some similarities with consequentialist theories. Both look to real world observations and try to draw general principles from them.


Utilitarianism is a normative ethical theory that claims that what matters most is maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain (or creating the most “good” and least “harm”).

Utilitarianism has an extensive history, but the most influential work in this area was performed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century. In a contemporary context, it has gained new life through the work of moral philosopher Peter Singer.

The key idea behind utilitarianism is that pleasure and pain are the basis for all that is good or evil in the world. What this means in practice is that utilitarian thinkers believe that pleasure and pain serve as a metric for what is good and bad for an individual and, by extension, society as a whole.

In a utilitarian world, the right action is the one that produces the most pleasure and the least pain. The obvious challenge, however, is in determining what actually causes pleasure and pain. For example, is killing someone for stealing your property really justified if it prevents others from doing the same? Utilitarian thinkers argue that it is because such an action promotes good will in others and prevents future thefts.

As utilitarianism is a normative theory, it must be used in conjunction with another theory that can determine exactly what “pleasure” and “pain” actually are. Utilitarians usually rely on the work of psychologists when determining these factors. For example, most utilitarians today would agree that a situation where one person suffers greatly but many others benefit slightly would not produce as much pain as a situation where many people suffer slightly but one person benefits greatly.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics is an ancient theory that was first formalized by Aristotle. It is based on the idea that morality should be about cultivating the right character in people rather than following a set of rules. In other words, it isn’t what you do that makes you good, it’s who you are.

From this idea, virtue ethicists conclude that we should measure moral worth by looking at the person’s intentions and their motivations for acting. For example, if you save someone from drowning, a deontologist would say that your action was either obligatory or a choice. A virtue ethicist, on the other hand, would praise your behavior because it shows you to have the qualities of a “good person.”

As with all moral theories, there are numerous criticisms of virtue ethics. Perhaps the most obvious is that this theory seems to focus on the individual and ignores the social context of our actions.

In summary, the needs of an individual are the base of their ethical system. We use moral theories in conjunction with needs to decide what is right and wrong in different situations. The key in making the best decision is to know these theories and how they work, and then use them wisely.