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Russ Colton – “To Have A Need”

A man is hanging from the hand of a clock fixed on the exterior wall of a six-story building, risking his life.
Harold Lloyd in the 1923 movie “Safety Last!”

In this post, Russ Colton discusses the article he recently published in Ergo. The full-length version of his article can be found here.

Every day we notice the needs of ourselves or others and are moved to address them. We often feel obliged to do so, even for strangers. Whatever is needed seems important in a way that perks and luxuries do not. Some philosophers take such observations quite seriously and give need a key role in their moral and political theories. Yet they characterize the concept of need differently, and sometimes not very fully. To help us understand and assess their ideas—but also just for the sake of improving our understanding of a common concept that enters into everyone’s practical and moral thinking—I want to try to say as clearly as possible what it means to have a need. My paper is focused on this task of conceptual clarification.

Throughout, I am concerned with a certain kind of need—welfare need, as I call it, which is the need for whatever promotes a certain minimum level of life quality, like the need for air, education, or self-confidence. This differs from a goal need (aka “instrumental need”), which is a need for whatever is required to achieve some goal—whether that goal is good for you or not—like the need for a bottle opener or a bank loan.

It is well-known that sometimes we say a person needs something when they have neither a welfare need nor a goal need for it: for example, “The employee needs to be fired.” In such cases, however, we can readily deny that the person has the need—the employee does not have a need to be fired. By contrast, in cases of welfare or goal need, the person has the need. Thus, insofar as we are interested in need because of its connection to human welfare, the specific concept of having a need may be more important than needing, which is why I focus on the former. In considering examples that test my analysis, it is best to think in terms of having a need.

Among philosophers, perhaps the most popular gloss on welfare need is this: to need something is to require it in order to avoid harm. This idea is approximately correct, but it needs improvement. The relevant notions of requirement and harm must be pinned down, and the idea must be broadened, since people also need what is required to reduce danger, like vaccines and seatbelts. To make these improvements, I offer two analyses of having a need—one that captures the original intuition about harm avoidance, and a broader one that captures the concept in full by covering both harms and dangers.

David Wiggins (Needs, Values, Truth) is the only theorist who has tried to clarify with precision the requirement aspect of the harm-avoidance idea. In broad strokes, his view is this: I need to have X if and only if, under the present circumstances, necessarily, if I avoid harm, then I have X, where necessity here is constrained by what is “realistically conceivable.”

This idea has a number of problems. One of the most serious arises when we have a need for some future X that will be unmet. If a non-actual X can count as realistically conceivable, there seems to be nothing preventing the non-actual possibility that, even without it, whatever harmful process was headed toward us is eventually thwarted by other means, leaving us unharmed. But that means I can have a need for X even though I could avoid harm without it.

Another problem is that often, when we’re in a pinch in a given circumstance, we view multiple things that could save us as needed. If I were short of money to pay rent at the end of the month, then each of the following assertions would be reasonable: I need more money in my bank account; I need a friend to lend me money; I need the landlord to give me more time. But on Wiggins’s necessity approach, given the circumstances, I can need only one X, which will have to be the disjunction of all potential rent solutions.

I argue that these (and other) problems are readily avoided with a counterfactual-conditional approach, along these lines: I have a need for something when, without it, my life would be (in some sense) harmed.

Understanding the relevant notion of harm requires attending to how we balance positive and negative effects on welfare over time. I explore this in the paper and conclude that when you have a need for something, your life from then on would be better on the whole, and less unsatisfactory for some period, with it than without it.

There will be different intuitions about what counts as unsatisfactory. My analysis is neutral, but I do make a case for the claim that for our most ordinary conception of need, the relevant sense of “unsatisfactory” is not good. With this idea in hand, my analysis implies a very natural idea: if you lack what you need, your life for a time will not be good and will be worse than it would otherwise be, and this loss will not be outweighed by any benefit.

Finally, I extend the analysis to our needs for what makes us safer, things without which we would be in more danger independently of whether we would be harmed. This is challenging because many present needs are for future benefits, and the risks relevant to our future welfare can change during the interval. Fortunately, there are easy ways to address the relevant issues so that the analysis remains quite simple. Roughly put: I now have a need for X if and only if it is now highly probable that, at the time of X, the expected value (quality) of my life from now on would, for some period, be less unsatisfactory with X than without, and would on the whole be higher.

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About the author

Russ Colton received his PhD from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His current research interests are primarily in ethics.