Needs and Wants

THE CONCEPT OF needs and wants and the ability to distinguish one from the other plays an important role in society. The issue is explored in philosophy, psychology, ethics, and modern social thought. To assert that something is a need is to argue that it is an essential element that is required for the body or society to exist. Some philosophers call needs real goods, and wants apparent goods. In Western political thought, the goods of having, doing, and being are seen as needs. The good of having refers to physical things like food, water, clothing, and shelter. The good of doing refers to a state of freedom, the ability to determine one's own life. The good of being refers to the ability to choose one's own thoughts and spiritual sensibilities.

In American political philosophy, these three goods are seen as required needs, the required foundation for any good republic. These real goods, or needs, may be seen in the phraseology of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Basic needs are also defined by humanitarian aid agencies and may include human rights, medicine, freedom from torture, control of reproductive rights, and access to nourishment. Needs are argued to be objective goods, universal and compelling. Sometimes, needs are argued to be self-evident.

Whereas needs are seen as universal and objective, wants are argued to be products of taste, culture, and personal preference. Wants are seen as acquired, pluralistic, contingent, and subjective. Wants are stylish, preferential, dispensable, and luxuries beyond what are needed. Wants may also be insatiable, such as the desire for experience, luxury, and social competition.

Both needs and wants stem from human desire. Needs are in relation to natural desires, and wants come from acquired desires. While human beings may all have the same needs, individuals are different from each other in their wants. The Greeks thought an educated man was one who was trained to desire the right things and distinguish needs from wants, real goods from apparent goods. Their end goal was creating leaders of good character, who were virtuous and had the habit of desiring good things. The classical Greek philosophers recognized that it was possible to have dangerous and misguided wants and that such wants could distort the ability to apprehend what was a needed good.

Needs are sometimes closely related to rights, because they are argued to be essential. If the issue is sharing food or some other essential element, the failure to share such is seen as a social and moral failure. Arguing that something is a need (essential for the functioning of the world) is a powerful social tool, and, thus, has social, moral, and political implications. Many things argued to be needs, however, are not entirely objective, and the arguments occur in a social-historical context.

Food may be necessary to live, and a person may want a hamburger, but that does not mean that a person needs a hamburger. Children are commonly seen to say they need things that they, in fact, do not need, but only want. Parents, government officials, the clergy, scientific experts, and other authorities fre quently claim that things are necessary, even though this may not be evident. Experts, or a whole society can argue that there are needs that are not matters of personal choice, but fundamental essentials to all individuals and the whole society. Some needs are socially-created. Social power, social knowledge, and needs are closely related. In a debate about global warming, some nations organize around the perceived need to reduce greenhouse gasses, while other nations focus on the need to increase the size of the economy. A disciplined debate on these issues may lead to the realization that one of these positions is not really a need, but a want.

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