09 June 2013

Day 230: The Principle of Need and the Principle of Equality are One

For context, also read:
Day 228: False Dilemma: Abuse or be Abused – Social Justice and Human Rights - Part 6
Day 226: Deserving Life or Death - Social Justice and Human Rights - Part 5
Day 224: Justice and Human Rights - Part 4 - Social Justice: Merits and Deserts
Day 222: Justice and Human Rights - Part 3 - Substantive Justice
Day 220: Justice and Human Rights - Part 2
Day 218: Justice and Human Rights

The question of who should get what has been answered by (most prominently) communists and socialists as: In accordance to people’s needs.

What is a Need?

When one researches this topic, it is fascinating to see how much fuss is being made on the concept and definition of ‘need’ – where it is claimed to be a vague and a ‘notoriously difficult to define’ concept. This is most fascinating, since ‘need’ is one of the most straightforward words that exists – and so, making it seem that it is not clear what need is, is merely trying to find fault so that one has an excuse to discard the principle altogether.

So, let’s humor everyone by showing what need is. When one lacks something that is causing harm to one’s well-being – then that something is a need. Herein – well-being is understood from a holistic perspective as including physical, social and psychological well-being. Why such a holistic perspective? Because all three dimensions of well-being influence each other. If one’s diet is inadequate, one will suffer on a physical level, but it will also affect one’s psychological well-being, since our psychological well-being is intertwined with the physical through chemical relationships. When we manifest psychologically imbalanced behavior, our roles and position in relation to others will be influenced, in turn affecting our social well-being.

Traditionally, the word ‘need’ has been approached to only consider the physical dimension – where well-being is not the goal, but survival is – where, as long as one has a basic minimum requirements to sustain oneself – such as clothing, shelter, food and water – one’s needs are met.

More recently the word ‘need’ has been expanded upon through making a distinction between ‘basic’ and ‘non-basic’ needs – where basic needs include the traditional meaning of the word as one’s most essential survival requirements and non-basic needs include things like education and healthcare.

Which definition of the word ‘need’ is valid and appropriate depends on our aspirations as living beings on this planet. Are we here to survive or are we here to live a life worth living? Considering the history of mankind and how much effort was put into researching and devising ways to enhance the quality of human life on Earth – it is safe to say that we as a race do not merely aspire to surviving and making it to the next day – we would all like to enjoy ourselves, fulfill ourselves, and make something of ourselves and our lives. Therefore, to only consider need in relation to survival is inadequate and a holistic perspective of need is appropriate.

To say, then, that the principle of need cannot be a basis for the distribution of goods because the word ‘need’ is not definable, is unacceptable.

The Principle of Need and the Principle of Equality

As discussed in Day 224: Justice and Human Rights - Part 4 - Social Justice: Merits and Deserts, the principles of justice include
- The principle of merit and desert
- The principle of need
- The principle of equality

Each one of these are regarded as different principles. However – in clearly defining what a ‘need’ is – we see that the principle of need and the principle of equality are one and the same. Because – if everyone is provided with all they require to live a life of well-being – then it stands equal to distributing goods in a way to provide each one with an equal quality of life – a life where each one’s well being is effectively looked after.

However, this is not how the principle of need and principle of equality are interpreted in academic thought. Distribution according to the principle of need has been interpreted in two ways.

In communist thought, the principle of ‘from each according to his ability to each according to his needs’ is put forward. Herein, what a ‘need’ is can be defined on an individual level – where each one ‘decides’ what one’s needs are.

According to the socialist tradition, some form of authority should define what ‘need’ is at a particular time. Their idea is that – once everyone’s needs are met – further distribution can occur on the principle of merit and desert. This view is in line with the popular ‘Basic Income Grant’ proposals

Both views are problematic.

I decide what my need is

When we rely on each one to decide what their needs are – we open the door for abuse. The temptation becomes too big to define a need beyond a need, entering the arena of pure desires and wants.

We have defined need in terms of anything one requires to live a life of physical, psychological and social well-being. Those are obviously things everyone would want. We can in fact ask the question: “What more could one want?” And it is exactly within this – the ‘more’ – that we are dealing with desires and wants. Desires and wants are things that – if given to one being, would deprive another being of one of their needs, and thus, cause harm. Desires can also typically not be given to all equally. Being famous is a desire, being better off than one’s neighbor is a desire, having power over another is a desire.

Within this scenario we cannot ensure social justice – because if we allow individuals to manipulate the system through including desires and wants in their ‘needs basket’, then harm would take place in respect of others’ psychological, social and physical well-being, and thus – defying the goal of ensuring each one with their needs.

The Basic Income Grant proposal

The basic income proposal is a nice attempt towards eliminating the dangers of the principle of merit and desert as discussed in the previous blog-posts – and so, we can say ‘a step in the right direction’. However – in the long run it is not sustainable. The combination of applying the principle of need and the principle of merit/desert, manifests inequality, where, for some, one’s needs is what one will be provided with, while others will be able to indulge in desires as well. We end up in the same position as when each one decides what their needs are – where the need of some will inevitably be sacrificed, in order to satisfy others with the desires they apparently ‘deserve’.

We continue this discussion in the next blog of this series.
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