Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Needs and Wants

We all, humans and other living things, go to considerable effort to acquire food and whatever else we need or want to be able to live and to live well, or at least better. Our complex biological and social structures seem primarily to have taken form, by whatever means, in order to enable us more effectively to fulfill those needs and wants. We have hands in order to grasp.

The natural distinctions seems to be that needs are fundamental requirements and not legitimately subject to question, while wants are optional, negotiable. Perhaps we could extend this ranking by putting luxuries at another step past wants.

This notion, of need and want as differing in degree, misses important logical structure: a want is an end; a need is a means. Curiously, this makes wants more fundamental than needs. A need is a means to fulfill a want. I want to stay alive, therefore I need food. Some wants seem essential; what we need to fulfill those essential wants become the unquestionable needs. Inessential wants then become the conventionally questionable wants or luxuries, and whatever is needed to fulfill those wants, those needs are barely worth discussing.

These core wants and their ancillary nonnegotiable needs, though, are not fixed truths. Indeed, they arise interdependently with the biological and social structures that fulfill them. In a stable world, these structures do seem like fixed truths. But no world is stable across all time and space. The structures that define and fulfill wants and needs vary from place to place and from time to time. Understanding this variation can help one respond to such changes. One can imagine even managing such processes of change, pioneering new social or biological structures to facilitate new patterns of wanting and needing. For example, Shakyamuni Buddha’s creation of the Buddhist monastic order can be understood from this perspective.

For most of us most of the time, though, there is sufficient challenge just in responding effectively to the structural changes that we encounter. A general sort of wisdom involves recognizing that things that appear fixed are instead impermanent, arising and dissolving in dependence on a variety of connected factors. For example, consider how essential it has become to have internet access, when the internet hardly existed thirty years ago. As pay phones have disappeared, cell phones too have become essential.

I am not merely a biological being, I am a social being. I identify with my role in society. The things I need in order to maintain my social role thereby become essential needs. Occasionally one hears in the news about some enormously wealthy person whose needs have somehow become subject to public judgment, usually in some case of family law. It boggles the mind how a court can determine that a person actually needs $10,000 a month or whatever absurd figure. But to understand that a person’s identity is wrapped up in their social role, that understanding starts to make clearer how such needs could be considered legitimate.

Here is definitely a place where each of us has remarkable power to steer change. I can change my social role; I can become a different person. Of course this is never easy. On the other hand, sooner or later each of us will face such a change at the profoundest level as we undergo the process of dying. Given that we can’t hold on forever anyway, maybe a bit of letting go along the way shouldn’t be so unacceptable!

Society provides the stage upon which each of us plays our individual role, but the fabric of society is spun and woven from that very role playing. Of course these structures are all entangled in a boundless web that encompasses the diverse human cultures around the world together with biological, geological, and even astrophysical processes. If we can understand how our most essential wants and needs are in fact evolving parts of this vibrant network, perhaps we will be able to dance more freely with the changes we experience.


  1. Point well taken that the "core wants" are not fixed truths. But wanting to be alive could be said to be fundamental to the desire realm of samsara. By talking about "ancillary nonnegotiable needs," you're on the same page with what I was saying yesterday about there being a basic level of sufficiency for human beings that broadly speaking, reasonable people could agree upon (air, water, food). The key concept related to all this in my own system of thought is "frivolity." What sorts of economic goods are frivolous? And this turns out to be quite a complex question.

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