Needs and Wants

I don’t like living in a global community.  When everything is so interconnected, everything I do (or don’t do) is bound to be at someone else’s expense.  Mere self-interest seems impossible; selfishness is inevitable.

For example, if it pleases me to live in a cabin on a lake in a forest quite a distance away from the nearest town or highway, and I buy such a place, that no one else even wanted, let alone needed, I’m acting out of self-interest.  No one has been disadvantaged by what I’ve chosen to do.  However, if I prefer to keep warm with easy electric baseboard heaters or an oil furnace rather than with the hassle of splitting and carrying firewood and building fires, that’s another story.  With the former, I’m supporting a heavily-subsidized industry: the subsidies that support it could have gone instead into education, but didn’t – to the detriment of how many kids?  I’m also supporting the nuclear industry; I’m thus responsible perhaps for one of those microscopic flakes of plutonium that will give somebody cancer.  As for the oil furnace, well, the acid rain that’s killing our lakes?  Some of it was formed by the SO2 and NO from my burning of fossil fuels.  But even if I heat with wood, well I’m depleting our already endangered forests, the lungs of the planet.  Okay, what if I heat with the sun?  That wouldn’t be at anyone’s expense – taking heat form the sun for myself doesn’t reduce the amount available for someone else.  But I’d have to cut down a lot of trees to go solar, and well, the trees are the lungs of the planet.

But let’s back up a bit.  If I’d chosen instead to live in a rented apartment, that down payment of several thousand dollars could’ve provided housing for some ‘Third World’ family.  So actually, that initial self-interested action was at the expense of another – it was also selfish.  Okay, but maybe if that Third World family didn’t have so many kids, they could provide their own house.  Maybe if their country didn’t spend half of its money on weapons, they would have a home.  But, and, maybe if they didn’t spend the other half paying off their debt to us ‘First World’ countries who, let’s admit it, are as well off as we are because we’ve exploited them…  Okay, but why should we suffer for the past and/or present corrupt trade policies of our government?  Well, why should they?  I don’t know the solution to this problem: I know we’re connected but the connections are neither clear nor simple; how much self-interest should I sacrifice for the very low probability that my deficit will be their asset?

Let’s go on.  What about intangibles?  What about things like peace and quiet?  I happen to be very happy when it’s quiet.  My neighbour, however, seems to be happy when he’s making noise (he sings when he’s outside, loudly enough for me to hear him; he cuts his grass with a power lawnmower; he trims the weeds with one of those obnoxiously noisy weed trimmers; etc.).  I’m sure that if I told him he was being selfish whenever he cut his grass, because it was at my expense (it destroys the quiet upon which my happiness depends), he would disagree.  (He’d probably do a few other things as well.)  I’m sure he thinks he’s being a morally responsible person by cutting the grass.  He’d also claim, I’m sure, that he doesn’t want to cut it – it has to be cut.  And I, of course, would deny that – he doesn’t need to cut his grass!

And here we get to the infamous ‘needs/wants’ distinction.  Many people call a ‘need’ what is really a ‘want’.  For example, contrary to popular opinion, one doesn’t need sex.  Of course, the crucial question is ‘need for what?’  My answer is pretty basic – ‘for survival‘: if you can live without it, you really don’t need it, you just want it.

This definition allows us to make the persuasive proposal that all things being equal, one shouldn’t satisfy one’s wants until everyone has had their needs satisfied; one shouldn’t take dessert until everyone’s had some bread and water.  But what if someone didn’t help with the harvest?  Well, that’s why I said ‘all things being equal’ – we’re really back to the Third World family home problem.

Eventually we get to the equally infamous difficulty of ranking wants (or needs, if you like).  Whose want is more important, more to be respected?  I would argue that since my desire for quiet is truly autonomous and hence genuine, and my neighbour’s desire to cut the grass is just socialized habit and hence artificial (we live in a fucking forest for god’s sake, it’s stupid even to have a lawn), mine is better and therefore more to be respected.  Or I could argue that my desire does no harm, whereas his does (having a lawn that one maintains with fossil-fuelled machines adds to ecological degradation); but he’d probably say that his desire keeps people employed, it creates jobs (all those lawnmowers to manufacture and repair).  How do we judge?

Well, we could rank wants according to their proximity to needs, according to their relation to survival, both individual and collective.  And so, since quiet is totally unrelated to food, water, and shelter, whereas cutting the grass is negatively related (environmental degradation), my want should have priority.  (So yes this puts environmental health before economic health.)  In the case of two equally unrelated-to-survival wants (do we hear Bach or Bon Jovi), I think equal time to each would be fairest (unless some creative solution can be found – like headphones).

So what’s my guide here to living unselfishly in the global community?  Well, using truly unlimited resources is okay: it would be impossible to even have the stuff at another’s expense.  Use of limited resources should be directed by the distinction between needs and wants, with needs taking precedence; that is to say, one should not have what one wants if that causes another not to get what is needed.  (Wait a minute – who is this ‘another’?  Someone you made?  Why should I do with less because you replicated yourself?  Shouldn’t the people you make come out of your allotment?)  However, if the stuff is so limited that it would not even meet everyone’s needs, surely it’s insane for everyone to not get enough – that would be species suicide.  Someone should get enough.  In that case, then, it seems permissible to take what one needs.  But no more.  Those who die from lack of it don’t die because you took more than you needed, they die because there wasn’t enough.  And as for the non-stuff things, the more related something is to a need for survival, the greater priority it gets.  Failing that distinction, the more genuine the want, the more respect it should get.  And failing that, equal time or a creative solution should do the trick.

Not gonna happen though.  All those connections were made in the first place by people hoping to satisfy their wants, not their needs.  We don’t live in a global community: we live in a global marketplace.


Leave a comment