The Continuum of "Needs" and "Wants"

There are many discussions between the difference of needs and wants, from personal satisfaction and happiness to the aggregate social benefits. Certainly there is much in our political economy which actively encourages the idea that the path to happiness is to be achieved by having a bigger house (and more houses, and especially more land), a powerful car or three, expensive clothes, and the various trappings of luxury, such as being surrounded by gold and marble.

The earliest recorded advocacy of hedonism comes from Siduri in "The Epic of Gilgamesh". It basically suggested enjoy the sensuality of life, and don't worry about other things, specifically in the case of Gilgamesh, give up your quest for immortality. The Epicureans gave a more nuanced version, that we should seek a life of simple pleasures (especially intellectual pleasures), cultivate friendships and avoid conflicts (they didn't participate in politics as a result). It from the Epicureans that one witnesses the development of the many versions of utilitarianism and consequentialism etc.

Whilst both argued in favour of living in accord to nature, there is a stark contrast between the quasi-hedonistic Epicureans and their quest for "ataraxia", the freedom from disturbances, and the Stoic quest for "eudaimonia", happiness through the control of one's mind, virtuousness towards others, etc. The Stoics argued that this control and virtue could be achieved independently of wealth or poverty, sickness and health, etc. The the Peripatetics argued against the Stoics on this matter, with Aristotle suggesting that some external goods were necessary for virtue and control and beyond that the Delphic Maxim of the Golden Mean applied, i.e., moderation. This is clearly close to the teachings of Gautama Buddha in the Noble Eightfold Path against the extremes of self-mortification through austerity and the coarse addictions of sensual pleasures.

Taking all these options into consideration returns one to consideration of the distinction between needs and wants. One can certainly apply a simple and somewhat charming dichotomy between the two where the Romantic heart is drawn to various things that it wants, whereas the Stoic brain (or rather, mind) cools it down with things that one needs. But follow this too far and one ends up in the extremes of austere self-mortification, rather like the awful Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Perhaps like the "Stoic fork" of things that one can control and things that one can't, greater nuance is required. With the Stoic fork, an problem that is outside one's control can be broken down into parts that one can control. Virtue towards others clearly suggests that an end to poverty is desirable, but a person cannot control this. What they can control is their advocacy for social welfare, their work, their charitable gifts, etc.

A major difference between this classic Stoic fork and the dichotomy between needs and wants is whilst the former involves breaking down a larger problem into more and smaller problems, the latter is more of an absolute followed by a continuum. At an absolute baseline are those physiological and psychological needs that a person must have in order to express wants and engage in self-fulfilment. This certainly something like what was argued by Maslow, although that approach, as coherent as it may be and appealing to accepted universal existential requirements, does have some empirical problems concerning the relationship between the intensity of the various needs and personal development, and the often slippery relationship between the different levels.

It is from satisfying the requisite "deficiency needs" to the desires of the upper "growth needs" of human becoming that the continuum between "needs" and "wants" becomes most clear. As Arendt argued we can distinguish and build a continuum from the undignified status of "animal laborans", the social system of "labour", to the freedom of "action". Our physiological needs are absolute, and once satisfied when can start looking at those more transitional needs for social integration and physical or psychologically comfort, which are part "need" and part "want". But our greatest "wants" should be those that contribute the greatest to our "becoming". Fewer things is better than more things (regardless of price-tag) if those things are a true expression of one's heart. Beyond that, it is virtuous action towards others that is the greatest good.

This is actually quite challenging; in general people like things and for good reasons. Things provide pleasure, a sense of homely belonging, memories, security etc. But minimalism, including döstädning (Swedish for "death cleaning"), also has its advantages. Less clutter in one's life reduces entropy, reduces anxiety and stress, improves diet, reduces cognitive overload and improves productivity. But minimalism needs also to coupled of minimalism of something. So rather than a blanket minimalism, which can lead to an unhappy and unhealthy austerity, when it comes to things a wealth of necessities, a modicum of comforts, and precious mementos is a preferred continuum. A continuum is a difficult model, even requiring calculus at its core. But nevertheless those philosophical schools that have tried to avoid the issue, or argue for balance, do not provide for a satisfactory manner to deal with the dichotomy, because it isn't a dichotomy, it's a function. We should have sufficient wealth that necessity and poverty are overcome. Beyond that, it is increasingly the expression of meaning and ultimately deeds that is the path to the greatest wealth, that is, a richness of virtue.

In short, ensure that the physical needs are met, for they are a constraint upon any further action. This includes food, water, medicines, clothing and housing. Then there is the satisfaction of utilities; those things that are partially needs, because they provide comfort, but also partially wants, as they provide the opportunity for an expression of the self. Increasingly, the emphasis should be on the latter as that provides meaning and authenticity, independent of consumer value; the item of jewellery provided by a loved one will always be of greater value than the one purchased for future investment. The choice and quantity of the things purchased or kept will be an expression of one's soul; the more they have, the less they are, the greater the price, the poorer their spirit. Eventually, and sooner rather than later, one should want for no more things in their life and dedicate their resources instead to virtuous deeds to enable others. To want that, at the end of the continuum, is to want to be become an actualised person.

Presentation to the Melbourne Agnostics, Saturday November 14, 2020

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