There are no human needs? What a monstrous thing to say! The very idea could only be entertained by someone living in relative comfort, someone whose needs are all taken care of. I’ve got mine, screw you right?
I identify as a free market anarchist. Perhaps some will suspect that ideological convictions are leading me astray when I say that human needs don’t exist. I can imagine a defender of the state questioning my motives, for example. He or she might reason that because the modern state is the provider of people’s basic needs when other options fall through, the anarchist practises need denial – either deliberately or subconsciously – in order to diminish the importance of the state.
This hypothetical statist is right at least about one thing: the way we think about human needs has political consequences. With my biases out in the open, I hope to explain why it’s correct to say that human needs don’t exist.
If human life is infinitely valuable, you really can't be too careful
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs attaches the greatest importance to physiological needs. This category corresponds to the sense of human needs or basic needs that I’m interested in. Take the claim ‘Man needs food’. We can be confident that a person making this claim doesn’t have poisoned food in mind. Food is regarded as a needed good thanks to its ability to extend life. How can we justify granting a unique status to goods, like food, that extend life? One way would be to maintain that life is of infinite value. Indeed, many claim that ‘You can’t put a price on human life.’ But do we really believe that? Does extending our life trump all other valued ends?
All of us, including those who avow that human life is of infinite value, knowingly do certain things that reduce the portion of the future we’re likely to survive long enough to experience.
Everyone exposes themselves to an increased risk of death in order to satisfy other preferences they hold: risky sports, smoking, drinking alcohol, travelling by car, crossing the street, biking, going swimming, giving birth, eating food that hasn’t been pre-liquified to minimise the chance of choking; the list goes on. Clearly most people do not place infinite value on extending their own lives. If they did, their lives would look very different.
In the brilliant little book The Machinery of Freedom, in a chapter entitled I Don’t Need Nothing, David Friedman explains the troubles we get into by entertaining the idea that life is infinitely valuable:
additional medical care continues to bring improved health up to a very high level of medical expenditure, probably up to the point where medicine would absorb the entire national income. Does that mean that we should satisfy our ‘need’ for medical care by having everyone in the country become a doctor, save those absolutely needed for the production of food and shelter? Obviously not. Such a society would be no more attractive than the ‘life’ of the man who really regarded his life as infinitely valuable.
This all gets us to the realisation that there’s no justification for treating life-extending goods and services as though they are qualitatively different to non-life-extending goods and services. Extending life is just one consideration among many that we (subconsciously) weigh against one another when choosing a course of action.
We all value extending human life to different degrees, and none of us assigns infinite value to this goal.
The most expensive life-support machine ever built
Imagine an old man, tired of life. He wants to die. Imagine also that at a cost of many thousands of dollars, a machine could be assembled and operated that would prolong his life. To me it feels grotesque, or at best misleading, to say that he needs this life support machine. I hope that your intuition agrees with mine on this: when considering conflicting goals related to the continuation of this person’s life, the goals of the old man himself must have priority.
It's possible that the phrase ‘the old man needs the machine’ could be intended to communicate 'without the machine the man will die'. The title of this article could be objected to on the grounds that human needs is harmless shorthand. ‘Bob needs food’ is just a quicker way of saying ‘Bob needs food if his goal is to extend his life’.
So human needs is just shorthand, what's the harm?
Thinking clearly about such matters is already hard work. Do we really want to make contemplating important subjects even more difficult by using phrases that suggest dichotomies where none exist? By using this human needs shorthand we make the mistake of reification more likely, we risk fostering the belief that an unqualified need is something that can exist in reality.
Friedman explains the political danger here:
The idea of ‘need’ is dangerous because it strikes at the heart of the practical argument for freedom. That argument depends on recognizing that each person is best qualified to choose for himself which among a multitude of possible lives is best for him. If many of those choices involve ‘needs’, things of infinite value to one person which can be best determined by someone else, what is the use of freedom? If I disagree with the expert about my ‘needs’, I make, not a value judgement, but a mistake.
An alleged need, something that must be provided to the needer whether they want it or not, can be employed as a justification for state intervention, and for the expansion of state power. The existence of a bunch of mere human wants doesn't open that same door to power.
But wants sounds so unimportant
There might be a concern that when we’re talking about desires for goods that would prevent imminent death, wants sounds too trivial. I think that in philosophically rigorous contexts that's just a bullet we need to bite. If necessary we can qualify wants as primary wants, intensely felt wants, longings or yearnings. The important thing is to stop implying the existence of a separate category of unconditional needs.
If we agree that human needs are more properly considered wants, can there be any justification for maintaining that a starving person’s desperate desire for food is somehow qualitatively different from a wealthy person’s casual desire to visit the new bar in town? I don’t think so. To insist that it is doesn’t tap any additional explanatory power and violates the principle of parsimony. All matters of human desire - including the desire to extend life - can be accurately expressed in terms of subjective wants of differing strengths.
Keeping this homology in mind we can appreciate the potentially huge difference between the intensity of any two wants in the world. Perhaps seeing things in this light can refresh our sensitivity to the suffering of the critically poor.
I believe the concept of human needs is dehumanising. It erases individuality by projecting the goal to extend life on all persons, and falsely assumes that infinite value is attached to this goal. Imagining categorical needs – divorced from individual values and goals – dismisses human difference, subjectivity, intentionality and reason; All of which exist even under the most desperate circumstances.
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