Philosophy of Needs

26.01.2017 |

Episode #5 of the course Understanding needs by Ryan Watkins, PhD


To be candid, I am not a philosopher. I never even took an introductory philosophy course in college. Nevertheless, I find that philosophy is foundational to understanding our lives—and our needs.

The considerations below are therefore based on the writings of Stephen McLeod, a real philosopher. Links to a couple of his seminal writings are in today’s resources.


Two Philosophies

There are two general philosophical orientations to needs. The first is that needs are instrumental. That is to say that their existence depends on there being an end, goal, or purpose. From this orientation, working to reduce or eliminate your need is done in order to accomplish some other result.

The second orientation is that needs can be absolutes. Here needs can just exist. This orientation typically recognizes that some needs can be instrumental, but insist that some other needs (such as food, water, and shelter) are absolute. That is, you can never overcome a continual need for food, water, and shelter, even if you have satisfied those needs temporarily.

We will not resolve any philosophical debates here, but it is important to recognize these orientations and the implications they have on how we consider needs within our lives.


Can We Know Our Needs?

If our decisions are responsive to our needs, then we must consider if we can even have knowledge of our needs. We can start with the proposition that we know our needs by feeling them, as we might feel strong desires or emotions. Yet, do we feel the need directly, or are we feeling something else?

You can have a need (such as for more sodium in your body) and yet be completely unaware of the need. The need might create a conscious desire (such as a craving for salt), but we should not confuse the need with the desires it generates.

McLeod contends that needs are more like medical conditions—they have signs and symptoms. It is our knowledge of these signs or symptoms, through inference, that leads to our knowledge of a need. But that is quite different than experiencing the need itself. For example, you do not feel the flu as it enters your body, but rather you know the flu through the fever, vomiting, and other symptoms that come with it.


Today’s Main Points

1. There two primary philosophical orientations to needs: instrumentalist and absolutist.

2. We know our needs indirectly through the signs and symptoms they produce.


Today’s Activity

Spend time this weekend with your head resting on your fist and think about the nature of needs in your life. Are they absolute, or do they serve a purpose? How do you know your needs?


Today’s Resources

Article on two philosophies of needs by Stephen McLeod


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