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A need is something that is necessary
Necessary may refer to:help* Something that is a required condition for something else to be the case, see necessary and sufficient condition.* A necessary truth, something that cannot fail to be true, see logical possibility....

 for organisms to live a healthy life
Life is a characteristic that distinguishes objects that have signaling and self-sustaining processes from those that do not, either because such functions have ceased , or else because they lack such functions and are classified as inanimate...

. Needs are distinguished from want
The idea of want can be examined from many perspectives. In secular societies want might be considered similar to the emotion desire, which can be studied scientifically through the disciplines of psychology or sociology...

s because a deficiency would cause a clear negative outcome, such as dysfunction or death. Needs can be objective
Objective may refer to:* Objective , to achieve a final set of actions within a given military operation* Objective pronoun, a pronoun as the target of a verb* Objective , an element in a camera or microscope...

 and physical
Physical property
A physical property is any property that is measurable whose value describes a physical system's state. The changes in the physical properties of a system can be used to describe its transformations ....

, such as food, or they can be subjective
Subjectivity refers to the subject and his or her perspective, feelings, beliefs, and desires. In philosophy, the term is usually contrasted with objectivity.-Qualia:...

 and psychological, such as the need for self-esteem
Self-esteem is a term in psychology to reflect a person's overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own worth. Self-esteem encompasses beliefs and emotions such as triumph, despair, pride and shame: some would distinguish how 'the self-concept is what we think about the self; self-esteem, the...

. On a social level, needs are sometimes controversial. Understanding needs and wants is an issue in the fields of politics
Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the...

, social science, and philosophy
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...


Psychological definition

To most psychologists, need is a psychological feature that arouses an organism to action toward a goal, giving purpose and direction to behavior.

The most widely known academic model of needs
Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology, proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation. Maslow subsequently extended the idea to include his observations of humans' innate curiosity...

 was proposed by psychologist Abraham Maslow
Abraham Maslow
Abraham Harold Maslow was an American professor of psychology at Brandeis University, Brooklyn College, New School for Social Research and Columbia University who created Maslow's hierarchy of needs...

. In his theory, he proposed that people have a hierarchy of psychological needs, which range from security to self-actualization. However, while this model is intuitively appealing, it has been difficult to operationalize it experimentally. It was further developed by Clayton Alderfer
Clayton Alderfer
Clayton Paul Alderfer is an American psychologist who further expanded Maslow's hierarchy of needs by categorizing the hierarchy into his ERG theory ....


The academic study of needs was at its zenith in the 1950s. It receives less attention among psychologists today. One exception is Richard Sennett
Richard Sennett
Richard Sennett is the Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and University Professor of the Humanities at New York University...

's work on the importance of respect
Respect denotes both a positive feeling of esteem for a person or other entity , and also specific actions and conduct representative of that esteem. Respect can be a specific feeling of regard for the actual qualities of the one respected...


One of the problems with a psychological theory of needs is that conceptions of "need" may vary radically between different cultures or different parts of the same society. One person's view of need may easily be seen as paternalistic
Paternalism refers to attitudes or states of affairs that exemplify a traditional relationship between father and child. Two conditions of paternalism are usually identified: interference with liberty and a beneficent intention towards those whose liberty is interfered with...

 by another.

Doyal and Gough's definition

A second view of need is represented by the work of political economy
Political economy
Political economy originally was the term for studying production, buying, and selling, and their relations with law, custom, and government, as well as with the distribution of national income and wealth, including through the budget process. Political economy originated in moral philosophy...

 professor Ian Gough. He has published on the subject of human needs in the context of social assistance provided by the welfare state
Welfare state
A welfare state is a "concept of government in which the state plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for those...

. With medical ethics professor Len Doyal
Len Doyal
Professor Len Doyal is emeritus professor of medical ethics at Queen Mary, University of London and a medical ethicist. He was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1944 and studied philosophy and sociology at Georgia State University, earning his undergraduate degree in 1966...

, he also published A Theory of Human Need.

Their view goes beyond the emphasis on psychology: it might be said that an individual's needs are representative of the costs of being human within society. A person who does not have his or her needs fulfilled—i.e., a "needy" person—will function poorly in society.

In the view of Gough and Doyal, each person has an objective interest in avoiding serious harm that prevents the endeavor to attain his or her vision of what's good, no matter what that is exactly. This attempt requires the ability to participate in the societal setting in which an individual lives. More specifically, each person needs to have both physical health and personal autonomy. The latter refers to the capacity to make informed choices about what should be done and how to implement that. This requires mental health, cognitive skills, and chances to participate in society's activities and collective decision-making.

How are such needs satisfied? Doyal and Gough point to eleven broad categories of "intermediate needs" that define how the need for physical health and personal autonomy are fulfilled:
  1. Adequate nutritional food and water
  2. Adequate protective housing
  3. A safe environment for working
  4. A supply of clothing
  5. A safe physical environment
  6. Appropriate health care
  7. Security in childhood
  8. Significant primary relationships with others
  9. Physical security
  10. Economic security
  11. Safe birth control and child-bearing
  12. Appropriate basic and cross-cultural education.

How are the details of needs satisfaction determined? The authors point to rational identification of needs using the most up-to-date scientific knowledge; the use of the actual experience of individuals in their everyday lives; and democratic decision-making. The satisfaction of human needs cannot be imposed "from above".

This theory should be compared to the capability approach
Capability approach
The capability approach was initially conceived in the 1980s as an approach to welfare economics....

 developed by Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen, CH is an Indian economist who was awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to welfare economics and social choice theory, and for his interest in the problems of society's poorest members...

 and Martha Nussbaum
Martha Nussbaum
Martha Nussbaum , is an American philosopher with a particular interest in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, political philosophy and ethics....

. Those with more internal "assets" or "capacities" (e.g., education, sanity, physical strength, etc.) have more capabilities (i.e., more available choices, more positive freedom). They are thus more able to escape or avoid poverty. Those with more capabilities fulfill more of their needs.

Other views

The concept of intellectual need
Intellectual need
Intellectual need is a specific form of intrinsic motivation; it is a desire to learn something. Although it is a difficult concept to grasp, it has been recognized as critical in effective education and learning...

 has been studied in education
Education in its broadest, general sense is the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next. Generally, it occurs through any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts...


In his 1844 Paris Manuscripts, Karl Marx
Karl Marx
Karl Heinrich Marx was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. His ideas played a significant role in the development of social science and the socialist political movement...

 famously defined humans as "creatures of need" or "needy creatures" who experienced suffering in the process of learning and working to meet their needs. These needs were both physical needs as well as moral, emotional and intellectual needs. According to Marx, human development is characterized by the fact that in the process of meeting their needs, humans develop new needs, implying that at least to some extent they make and remake their own nature. This idea is discussed in more detail by the Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller
Ágnes Heller
Ágnes Heller is a Hungarian philosopher. A prominent Marxist thinker at first, she moved onto a liberal, social-democratic position later in her career...

 in A Theory of Need in Marx (London: Allison and Busby, 1976). Political economy professor Michael Lebowitz has developed the Marxian interpretation of needs further in two editions of his book Beyond Capital.

Professor György Márkus
György Márkus
György Márkus is a Hungarian philosopher, a student of Lukács and a member of the "Budapest School" of socialist philosophy. He completed his philosophical training at Lomonosov University in Moscow in 1957...

 systematized Marx's ideas about needs as follows: humans are different from other animals because their vital activity, work, is mediated to the satisfaction of needs (an animal who manufactures tools to produce other tools or his/her satisfactors), which makes a human being a universal natural being capable to turn the whole nature into the subject of his/her needs and his/her activity, and develops his/her needs and abilities (essential human forces) and develops himself/herself, a historical-universal being. Work generates the breach of the animal subject-object fusion, thus generating the possibility of human conscience and self-conscience, which tend to universality (the universal conscious being). A human being's conditions as a social being are given by work, but not only by work as it is not possible to live a human being without a relationship with others: work is social because human beings work for each other with means and abilities produced by prior generations. Human beings are also free entities able to accomplish, during their lifetime, the objective possibilities generated by social evolution, on the basis of their conscious decisions. Freedom should be understood both in a negative (freedom to decide and to establish relationships) and a positive sense (dominion over natural forces and development of human creativity, of the essential human forces. To sum up, the essential interrelated traits of human beings are: a) work is their vital activity; b) human beings are conscious beings; c) human beings are social beings; d) human beings tend to universality, which manifests in the three previous traits and make human beings natural-historical-universal, social-universal and universal conscious entities, and e) human beings are free.

In his texts about what he calls "moral economics", professor Julio Boltvinik Kalinka asserts that the ideas exposed by David Wiggins
David Wiggins
David Wiggins is a British moral philosopher, metaphysician, and philosophical logician working especially on identity and issues in meta-ethics. His 2006 book, Ethics. Twelve Lectures on the Philosophy of Morality defends a position he calls "moral objectivism".- Life :Wiggins read philosophy...

 about needs are correct but insufficient: needs are of a normative nature but they are also factual. These "gross ethical concepts" (as stated by Hilary Putnam
Hilary Putnam
Hilary Whitehall Putnam is an American philosopher, mathematician and computer scientist, who has been a central figure in analytic philosophy since the 1960s, especially in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics, and philosophy of science...

) should also include an evaluation: Ross Fitzgerald
Ross Fitzgerald
Ross Fitzgerald is an Australian academic, historian, novelist, secularist, and political commentator.Author of 35 books, in 2009 Professor Fitzgerald co-authored "Made in Queensland: A New History", published by University of Queensland Press and also "Under the Influence, a history of alcohol in...

's criticism of Maslow's ideas rejects the concept of objective
Objective may refer to:* Objective , to achieve a final set of actions within a given military operation* Objective pronoun, a pronoun as the target of a verb* Objective , an element in a camera or microscope...

 human needs and uses instead the concept of preferences. They assume, just like many other logical positivists, that values cannot be rational and assert, therefore, that the definition of poverty threshold
Poverty threshold
The poverty threshold, or poverty line, is the minimum level of income deemed necessary to achieve an adequate standard of living in a given country...

, a task charged with values, is an arbitrary action of researchers, an assumption which implies a narrow view of poverty.

Marshall Rosenberg
Marshall Rosenberg
Marshall Rosenberg is an American psychologist and the creator of Nonviolent Communication, a communication process that helps people to exchange the information necessary to resolve conflicts and differences peacefully...

's model of Compassionate Communication, also known as Nonviolent Communication
Nonviolent communication
Nonviolent Communication is a communication process developed by Marshall Rosenberg beginning in the 1960s. NVC often functions as a conflict resolution process...

 (NVC) makes the distinction between universal human needs (what sustains and motivates human life) and specific strategies used to meet these needs. In contrast to Maslow, Rosenberg's model does not place needs in a hierarchy. In this model, feelings are seen as indicators of when human needs are met or unmet. One of the intended outcomes of Rosenberg's model is to support humans in developing an awareness of what life-sustaining needs are arising within them and others moment by moment so that they may more effectively and compassionately find strategies to meet their own needs as well as contribute to meeting the needs of others.

People also talk about the needs of a community or organization. Such needs might include demand for a particular type of business, for a certain government program or entity, or for individuals with particular skills. This is an example of metonymy
Metonymy is a figure of speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept...

 in language and presents with the logical problem of reification
Reification generally refers to bringing into being or turning concrete.Specifically, reification may refer to:*Reification , making a data model for a previously abstract concept...


See also

  • Fundamental human needs
    Fundamental human needs
    Fundamental human needs, according to the school of "" developed by Manfred Max-Neef and others , are seen as ontological , are few, finite and classifiable...

  • Maslow's hierarchy of needs
    Maslow's hierarchy of needs
    Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology, proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation. Maslow subsequently extended the idea to include his observations of humans' innate curiosity...

  • Need theory
    Need theory
    McClelland's Need Theory, created by a psychologist David McClelland, is a motivational model that attempts to explain how the needs for achievement, power and affiliation affect the actions of people from a managerial context...

  • Want
    The idea of want can be examined from many perspectives. In secular societies want might be considered similar to the emotion desire, which can be studied scientifically through the disciplines of psychology or sociology...

  • Murray's system of needs
    Murray's system of needs
    In 1938 Henry Murray published his system of needs in Explorations in Personality in order to describe personality. He states that humans have all basic needs and that everyone has unique varying dispositional tendencies towards a level for each need...

  • Simple living
    Simple living
    Simple living encompasses a number of different voluntary practices to simplify one's lifestyle. These may include reducing one's possessions or increasing self-sufficiency, for example. Simple living may be characterized by individuals being satisfied with what they need rather than want...