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The concept of need Bonney, Rubin

Abstract

In ordinary discourse the terms 'need' and 'want' are often interchanged and it is therefore necessary, in an analysis of the concept of need, to examine the term 'want' and to enquire into its relation to 'need'. In human behaviour the usual indicator of wanting is trying to get. Although some things are wanted for themselves, a thing is usually wanted for a purpose. When that which is wanted is an object, the want, or desire, can be expressed generally as 'wanting x for y' or 'wanting x in order to y'. We can also want objectives, the general expression of which is either 'wanting to x' or 'wanting that x'. 'Wanting to' depends to some extent upon 'able to' for its significance. If there is no possibility of doing, we can only wish we could act or we hope for a certain state of affairs. For various reasons our wanting may not issue in attempting to get. Conflict is intrinsic to the nature of desires, necessitating a choice of satisfactions. Our limited resources are another factor. Choices also have to be made between what we want and what we want to avoid. Due to our capacity for language we can mediate between conflicting wants and restrain ourselves from trying to get what we want. We can convert our desires into plans. Although we usually want x because we think it will be enjoyable or lead to something else that will be, sometimes x is wanted because of moral considerations. We arrange our wants into a hierarchy determined, to some extent, by our beliefs concerning obligation. When we look into the relation between 'wanting' and 'needing' we find that our way of expressing both is similar: we 'want/need x in order to y'. However, since we do not need everything we want, the terms must be distinguished. We also differentiate between needs in general and 'human needs'. Of the human needs the biological ones have been most accurately defined, although within broad limits. Conclusions about psychological needs are more tentative and usually involve a premise that requires scrutiny: the assumption that all human behaviour is a response to some need. When we examine the evidence for an alleged need - the need for identity - we find there are serious problems in defining it and when we consider an activity such as mountain climbing, or picture-buying, we are led to question the usefulness of a theory which claims to relate all human activity to a need. The conclusion arrived at is that the lists of categorical needs produced by the social sciences are given an absoluteness which is unwarranted. Need theory largely ignores the distinctions of ordinary discourse between wanting and needing and at the same time fails to take sufficient notice of the human activity of endowing things and states of affairs with value. The goals of physical and mental health are only two of many goals which we may pursue. Also modifying the need-behaviour equation is the acceptance of moral principles which impose prohibitions on our behaviour. Thus both value and need are terms required in an adequate account of human behaviour and in many instances explanations in terms of need-reduction are redescriptions of goal-seeking. Since value and obligation must be given a prominent role in the account of human behaviour, the question arises as to whether a normative definition of human need is possible. Any answer given must take into consideration the various ways in which our values, and consequently our needs, are socially determined. Not only do different cultures have different concepts of need, but the concept also varies from one sub-culture to the next. What is needed depends to a considerable extent on what is 'normal' behaviour and this concept is extremely variable since each culture develops only a small segment of potential behaviour and ignores or represses other possibilities. If cross-cultural normality could be defined it would presumably show how whole cultures deviate from the normal, but the problem is that before we can define normality we need the concept to determine which behaviour is relevant to the definition and which must be excluded as abnormal. Even if we confine ourselves to our own society, normality is usually described in terms of adjustment to the group. But to which of the sub-cultures should the individual adjust? And what is a good adjustment? Perhaps society needs adjusting as well as the individual. Answers to these questions require value judgments and until some agreement is reached on them, any definition of human need is provisional.

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