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I.: THE DOCTRINE OF NEEDS - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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THE DOCTRINE OF NEEDS
much of the strength of liberalism as an ideology results from the manner in which it takes over ordinary words and gently inflates them into metaphysical tenets. Sometimes these words go in pairs. “Improvement” for example is a very ordinary and untechnical word which can either be used in its own humble station, or can give support to its more ambitious brother, “progress,” and “happiness,” by this process of conceptual elephantiasis, can become the unique object of human striving. But the logic of this ideological operation can perhaps best be seen if we turn from “desire” (which we assumed to be the key term of liberalism in its earlier development) to its partner, “need.”
The ordinary uses of “need” are familiar enough. “I need brushes,” a painter might say (“otherwise I can’t finish my picture”). This is little different from saying “I want brushes,” except that “need” implies that the things wanted are for something, in other words, are means to some important end. Desire may be capricious; need always claims to be taken seriously. It is for this reason that “need” is a vehicle of pleading, often of sentimental pleading. “I need brushes,” the painter may say with desperation in his tone if he is talking to a patron, from whom he wishes to extract money. A need is imperative; it is something which, by definition, has a right to satisfaction.1
Such a term is likely to attract both propagandists and philosophers (and especially those political thinkers who combine both roles). Its emotional overtones are beautifully persuasive. Further, in a puritan environment, a need is free from even the most austere kinds of objection to human desires. Thus we find that the writers of advertisements are eager to show that the product they wish to puff is not a luxury; it is a necessity—something which everyone must have. (There are times when the implausibility of this is evident; and the intelligent advertiser takes the bull by the horns and insists that, once in a while, everyone needs a little luxury in his life.) On the other hand, “need” as a term of propaganda has one serious disadvantage compared with “desire”; it always refers to an end, and thus invites enquiry as to what the thing needed is for. It therefore conflicts with a general rule of sophisticated propaganda, by which the terms used must seem to be absolute; they must be purged of all embarrassing relationships.
Philosophers are attracted to the term “need” because it opens up interesting variations of utilitarianism. The needs doctrine may be stated as follows: If our needs have been satisfied, we shall be happy. This is not a particularly interesting statement, but it becomes rather more so if it is converted: If we are not happy, then one or more of our needs has not been satisfied. This too is vapid. It simply inserts the term “need” into the assertion that if we aren’t happy, there must be some reason for it. But the insertion of emotionally loaded terms into a rather empty doctrine, a favorite device of utilitarianism, is never a casual matter. In this case it suggests a program for social scientists: if we find unhappiness (and therefore a social problem), then search for the need which is being, or once was, frustrated.
At this point the requirements of liberal philosopher and social propagandist coalesce. Both wish to establish the term “need” as something whose relationships do not require serious examination. This can be achieved by first establishing “need” in contexts where its imperative character is unlikely to be denied. Here we find the bedrock case. Food and drink are “basic human needs.” What are they basic to? To survival. At the present time, one can get no more fundamental.
It is formulation, not fact, which is here at issue. No one denies that any particular man will starve to death after a certain number of weeks if he has no food. No one denies that he is likely to be miserable while it is happening. Although these statements are perfectly general propositions about human beings, there are very considerable variations. A well-fed bourgeois is likely to be hysterically hungry after a day or so without food, whereas an Asian peasant will go about his business for a considerable time on very little. Hunger is partly a matter of habit.
Now if the issue is life or death (or survival, as the liberal ideologist prefers to put it) then people will agree that death ought to be prevented where possible. One might parenthetically observe that there have been some cultures in which the imperative did not operate so strongly. But the important thing here is the belief that life—“life itself,” sundered from any activity at all—is the most important thing for every individual. The issue may actually arise in a number of ways. We may imagine an isolated and starving community whose only available food happens to be the subject of a religious taboo. Is life then more important than a religious injunction? The liberal would say yes. Here is one of the functions of his criterion of rationality; here is one of the reasons why liberals regard rites and taboos as mere prejudices and prefer the generalized deity of natural religion. Here is one of the points where talk about survival and “life itself” involves the suppression of vital facts in a situation.
The issue arises again where the inhabitants of a richer country are faced with a choice: should money be spent on organizing a new symphony orchestra, or sent to buy food for famine relief? In welfarist terms, there is no doubt of the answer. Life is more important than music. But to whom? And in what mood? The situation also arises today as a result of a popular argument: In order to “conquer world poverty,” the educational system of the richer countries must produce more technicians, and this involves withdrawing resources from the teaching of the classics. Assuming for a moment that all the welfarist assertions about the nature, extent, and means of eliminating world poverty are true, is the dedicated teacher of Latin and Greek exhibiting a cold indifference to the needs of others?
The formulation of such questions in terms of “basic human needs” is thus a device which serves to obscure the conflicts and social changes which will result from following a welfarist policy. Every social policy requires sacrifices—which is why all political movements include one clause on the beauties of sacrifice. And sacrifice is good because it is self-sacrifice, the conquest of self-indulgence. Even the classics teacher resisting the encroachments of science can be presented as self-interested. So can the painter who thinks of painting but not of how much white bread for Red China his Chinese white would buy. Not to accept a welfarist policy can come to seem a moral defect, a lack of compassion, pity, sympathy for one’s fellow creatures.
The logical fallacy of this way of thinking is not far to seek. It consists of jumping from:
x is a necessary condition of y.
x is more important than y.
Examples of this would be: food is a necessary condition of maintaining a symphony orchestra. Therefore food (and especially the provision of food) is more important than music. The form this often takes (as in Spencer, for example) is to suggest a list of priorities from the rational (or welfarist) point of view. First one must make sure that people are properly fed, clothed and housed. Then there will be time for us to be cultured. This was one of the assumptions of nineteenth-century socialism, which believed that it was only poverty which prevented the working class from entering into its cultural heritage. There are two related mistakes in this argument. The first is to assume that culture is what the bourgeoisie thinks it is, an assumption which exhibits the bourgeois presuppositions of virtually all socialist movements. Thinking in this way has led to the vice of negative definition. The proletariat was defined (even by Marx, who in some moods was perfectly aware of this trap) as the poor, the deprived, the suffering class—defined in other words in terms of non-possession. The bourgeois insistence on personal possession is so powerful as to create entire definitions which leave the subject a complete mystery. Who are the poor? They are those who do not possess what others have. This is rather like defining a horse and cart as a thing that lacks an engine. It is equally a matter of ideology to talk about the “underdeveloped countries” and it reveals the political direction of liberalism. The liberal has little interest in the way of life of the peoples who live in these countries; in so far as he has, it is usually the sentimental interest of pity and compassion. He is simply concerned with the fact that in the “underdeveloped countries” people do not live as he does. And they ought to.
The other point in the slogan of “first security and then culture” is a mistake of fact. It is the assumption that affluence and security are both necessary and sufficient conditions of a cultured existence. And this assuredly is not true. There may be some relation between the leisure and resources of the upper classes of Western Europe who have produced so much of what we now revere as culture. But it is certainly a very complex relationship, and it has little to do with security. To a large extent, people who become interested in affluence move on to pursue more affluence: bigger and better things to buy.
The bedrock case of survival establishes the emotional tone of the doctrine of needs, and this tone can be carried over into its many other uses. For the important point about a need is that it is a way of discriminating between conflicting desires. Each man, as Bentham insisted, must be his own expert upon what he desires; no one else can try to overrule him on that point. With needs, the case is different. People may need things without knowing that they need them, and their needs may even directly contradict their desires. There is an element of truth in this view. The desires that people express vary from day to day, and they are often contradictory. There are also cases where, for complicated reasons, people insist that they desire something very different from what they in fact want. Our judgment in such situations must always depend upon our knowledge of the people involved; but even with the best knowledge of those close to us, we may miscalculate. Now just as the doctrine of needs requires a validating case where no one seriously contests its absoluteness, so also it requires a validating class of people where the discriminatory use of needs, contradicting expressed desires, is most plausible. And the conspicuous class of people who satisfy this requirement is children.
Exactly to the extent that they are inarticulate, and their actual desires need not be taken seriously, children are an ideal field for the use of the doctrine of needs. Children need understanding, security, love, discipline, punishment, and so on; given the absence of these factors (and any others yet to be dreamed of), then the troubles of later life stand explained. The doctrine of needs in the hands of psychologists and social workers is somewhat modified: if we are unhappy (and especially if we constitute a social problem), then the cause must lie in the frustration of some need whilst we were children.
This kind of explanation—it is highly elastic and often inscrutable—is simultaneously moral, and also morally evasive. It evades ethics by ignoring the moral experience of the relevant human beings to be explained, and seeking a chain of inevitable causes in human affairs. But it is also moral (in the conventional sense) because it prescribes behavior for us. It tells us what we ought to do, and we may accept Hume’s advice to look carefully at such terms.
It is of course immediately evident that no statement involving the term “need” can claim to be scientific unless the relevant consequence is specified. The proposition “children need love” may be passed off as expert advice, but it is clearly elliptical. The expert can only supply us with a set of possible consequences. If a child is not loved, then x will happen; if it is loved, then y will happen. But no expert is in a position to recommend either x or y to us;2 nor indeed are many such actual relationships any more than highly tenuous connections.
The authority of the needs expert is buttressed in a number of oblique ways. Political writings, for example, contain large numbers of references to needs, basic needs, human needs, or social needs, where no particular need is involved. These statements appear to say something, and accustom us to the idea. Next there is the bedrock case, where the need is validated by the fact that death may follow frustration of the need. Here our preferences can usually be taken for granted, and any uneasiness about the actual concept of “need” looks like pedantry. Further, by formulating the question as “such and such a class of people need x” (to achieve y implied), the needs expert may persuade people to fight on the ground: Is x really a need? And on this question, shaky statistical correlations look more convincing than they do when the question is directly faced: does x lead to y, and if so, under what circumstances? For these reasons, the elliptical use of “need” is a virtual index of the propaganda content of social science.
The relation between the concept of need and the fact of inarticulateness reveals part of the political significance of needs. Classical liberalism concerned itself primarily with desires, and a need was simply an auxiliary component more or less clearly related to the policy of which it was a necessary condition. Modern liberalism has reversed this order, playing down desire to elevate need. The cause of this reversal would seem to be the successive and rapid enfranchisements of large and inarticulate masses of people with little experience of political life. In democratic theory, all government acts must emerge from the popular will; but if the popular will is confused, immoral, inconvenient or otherwise defective, then some oracular device must be found by which it can speak with clarity and decision. The political theory of modern times has been singularly fertile in such devices. The notion of the general will, and that of the class-consciousness of the proletariat, are examples of this kind of device; for in each case, a small set of people may establish themselves as experts in the pronouncements of these oracles. Actual popular support is unnecessary; it can be rigged up after the event, if necessary. The concept of need is a less dramatic example of the same kind of device. Like most liberal conceptions, it looks innocuous, and it has never been saddled with atrocities like the reign of terror or the dictatorship of the proletariat. Most of its practitioners are mild social scientists, or benevolent welfarists, rather than wild-eyed fanatics like Robespierre or Lenin. Yet the logical and political identity remains.
Just as the conception of necessities was, for the Puritans, a moral battering-ram against the aristocratic style of living, so the attraction of “needs” is that they appear to exclude anything frivolous, eccentric, subjective or capricious. A need is a demand which has passed into the world of absolute moral acceptance, a thing not to be denied. The furniture of a rich minority in the past satisfied no needs: it was part of a way of life, and its aesthetic and its “functional” attributes were held together within that way of life. The mode of mass production of furniture is strikingly different from individual craft production. The concept of need breaks up a way of life and inevitably changes it. Not indeed always for the worse. The eccentricities of aristocratic taste may be at times as disastrous as the fashions of a mass market. Restricted aristocratic education may become a dogma for dilettantes, the learning of a few tags in a classical language which will serve as marks of social distinction. This is merely to say that there are corrupt pressures invading the exercise of every skill.
The political advantage of “needs” is that, because of their lack of discrimination, they permit of substitutes. A human need does not discriminate: it is for food, not for chop suey or goulash. It is for shelter, not for a brick bungalow in Brighton with two garages and all mod. cons. People can be encouraged or taught to satisfy—indeed to develop—needs in a required manner. A certain quantity of calories or of vitamins is needed to satisfy the need for food, and calculations of floor space and the existence of facilities like bathrooms can serve as precise criteria marking off the slum area from the new town. The satisfaction of medical needs can be calculated in terms of a ratio of doctors to patients. All this is welfare and, in a world of statistics, is far more useful than attempting to enquire into the purity, fecundity, etc., of pleasures and pains as Bentham suggested. In the conception of needs, utilitarianism has at last succeeded in becoming more or less “scientific”—that is to say, measurable.
The final task in any criticism of propaganda is to remake the social connections which propaganda severs by making its terms absolute. If a social need is a necessary condition of something, the question we must next consider is what that something is. It is a question which admits of no easy answer. To satisfy the basic needs of a population presumably involves allowing them the conditions of an austere way of life. There was undoubtedly an element of this in early formulations of need thinking, because the upper classes considered that too much prosperity for the lower would lead to lazy self-indulgence. This element of vicarious puritanism also enters into liberal approval of Soviet communism where it is precisely the sacrifices, the austere way of life, which commands admiration.
Yet by now, the idea of welfare depends so completely upon the variable standards of a rising industrial society that any question of austerity falls into the background. The concept of need is validated by reference to malnutrition in the underdeveloped areas of the world; its imperativeness depends upon its association with suffering. But with that imperative tone guaranteed, needs doctrine may move in any direction.
For social needs are those conditions which must be satisfied if social life is to be organized in a certain way. The propaganda function of needs doctrine is to confuse the issues which would arise out of a direct confrontation of competing political policies. Consider the argument that we must accept a high degree of central planning if the need for full employment is to be satisfied. The need for full employment is an end, indeed an imperative, likely to appeal to all who deplore poverty and enforced idleness. Economic planning features as a means; whether we support it or not appears to depend only on the technical question: does it promote full employment?
But this subordinate role is deceptive, for central planning can lead to a life of its own. It appeals by its rationality to all who have a passion for order and tidiness in political life. Remembering our principle that in politics everything is both an end and a means, we may formulate the argument in a less familiar way. In order to get a centrally planned society, full employment must become a need. Or, to take a related example, in order to organize society for the satisfaction of human needs, the political influence of unfettered capitalism must be replaced by governmental control. And again, we may reverse this neat arrangement of means to ends: in order to destroy capitalism, needs doctrine must be developed into a moral imperative.
It is thus a mistake—and not merely a liberal mistake—to imagine that the ends of policies arise in a moral field, and that political policies have only the subordinate role of means. All of these policies—full employment, economic planning, developing a welfare state, and destroying capitalism—are simultaneously moral and political; each leads a life of its own. How they are connected—whether cast for the role of ends or means—depends entirely upon the persuasive climate of the time, and it is that which is crucially moral. Politics is strongly influenced by changes in moral sensibility, and advocacy of such changes is therefore a political act.
Misunderstanding on this issue is virtually inevitable. Needs conceptions have, for many people, a vise-like grip which nothing will shake. Each attack on the conception of needs will be met by a baffled reformulation: Surely it is obvious that people do have certain fundamental needs if they are to live. And each reformulation will miss the point. There is no factual issue at stake, but the semantic issue has large philosophical implications. “Need” belongs to a particular language of political and moral thought arising from the conception of generic men. Once we have entered into that language, we can only say individualist things. It is a language which has grown out of the liberal movement (and some associated movements) and it has, like all languages, its particular blind spots, the things which it cannot say. Once inside, no matter how much we thresh about, we shall be hard put to it to escape. A great mistake has been to imagine that an ideology consists of a set of answers to neutral questions; whereas in fact it consists in the questions.
[1. ]Compare one of the later dicta of Simone Weil: “Where there is a need, there is an obligation.” This is a good example of the analytic statement with the synthetic overtones.
[2. ]The overall coverage of the expert is sometimes upheld at this point by casting the moral philosopher in the role of ends expert. V. 1, p. 133.