Liberalism

The struggle over if something is a need or a want is formidable in history, and the struggles shape society. When something is agreed to be a want and not a need, it is reduced to a less important issue of debate. It moves from an issue of truth to an issue of taste. Issues of taste and personal preference cannot easily be disputed and are frequently recognized to be questions of subjective value. In liberalism, the individual is sovereign when it comes to issues related to taste, opinion, consumption, and personal choices, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others.

Critics of liberalism point out that liberalism enables one to describe what people want, but it cannot prescribe what people should want. In liberalism, individual reason is frequently oriented toward self-interest, and need and right is the battle cry of the individual, sometimes enabling acts that hurt social values and solidarity. Liberalism is not well-suited for distinguishing individual from universal values. Conservatives think needs and rights ought to be determined from the organic history and tradition of culture as it transcends individuals and informs current human communities. Critics on the left also critique liberalism and the confusing of needs and wants. They have images of a post-industrial and post-capitalist society focused on equality and a collectively and democratically decided-upon definition of need, where tradition is superimposed by functional democratic politics.

Distinctions between needs and wants are not only made difficult by culture, history, and individuals, but also by the values of particular communities. Researchers in sociology and anthropology have long explored how needs and wants are shaped by the underlying values in different communities. Some argue that each society has underlying needs, but needs are expressed and met in different ways, depending on the culture. Each culture may agree on the need for food, but the food may be very different across cultures. While the differences look arbitrary and may distract the researcher, the differences mask the underlying need. The final question is not about the various social manifestations that attempt to meet needs, but whether or not needs are being met. The problem, however, is that the researchers are tempted to argue that they can identify the real needs of a foreign culture. Both needs and wants are defined and negotiated within each specific culture. Sociologists caution about defining needs and wants from outside a culture, or with abstractions, and are interested in how cultures define needs and wants internally.

As the world becomes more pluralistic, diverse, densely-populated, and in competition with itself, it is crucial to agree on universal needs. As more of the world industrializes and strives for a higher standard of living, there will be more competition over resources and other problems of an increasingly global nature. Developed and developing nations will increasingly be linked on issues of trade, immigration, and greenhouse gas emissions. The affluence of developed nations and poverty in the developing world will increasingly force moral discussions about the relationships between the world's haves and have-nots. Questions about poorer countries bearing the greater costs of climate change have already begun. The anticipated manifestations of climate change will intensify questions about the real needs and costs for industrial emissions and the needs of less-industrialized countries.

SEE ALSo: Climate Change Knowledge Network; Environmental Defense; Greenhouse Gases; Precautionary Principle; Social Ecology.

bibliography. Mortimer Adler, Six Great Ideas (Mac-millan, 1981); Chris Jenks, Core Sociological Dichotomies (Sage, 1998); Edmund Phelps, Private Wants and Public Needs (W.W. Norton, 1962).

John O'Sullivan Gainesville State College

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