From edition

The Political Philosophy of Needs

In The Political Philosophy of Needs, Lawrence Hamilton contends that ‘[m]odern moral, legal, economic and political thought is characterized by an unwarranted glorification of the values of justice and welfare at the expense of political participation, democratic sovereignty, and the satisfaction of human needs’ (1). Hamilton’s most basic point is thus that political philosophy has long concentrated on issues of justice and welfare at the expense of the satisfaction of human needs. This decision on the part of political philosophy has resulted in a certain amount of degradation of human well-being. Hamilton believes that needs talk solves this problem as it ‘clears a path between the abstract objectivity of rights on one side and the particular subjectivity of preferences on the other’ (9), and thus can inform public policy in such a way that takes well-being into account.

For Hamilton, human needs encompass both vital human needs and the broader needs of political participation. However, he does not provide a list of needs that must be addressed for every individual, but instead proposes that the evaluation of needs be located as a part of institutional analysis and can help to justify forms of coercive authority that are directed toward the transformation of political and social institutions and practices. ‘If modern political theory,’ he tells us, ’embraced political sociology and political economy and rejected the dominance of moral philosophy it might begin to grasp the significant mechanisms that exist between certain forms of oppression and particular institutions and practices’ (116).

Needs can be divided into three politically (and theoretically) significant categories: vital needs, particular social needs, and agency needs. ‘Vital needs are the general ineluctable needs that are unproblematically associated with individual ‘health’. A non-exhaustive list of examples might be the need for adequate shelter, sufficient clothing, the required daily calorific intake, periodic rest, exercise, and social entertainment’ (23). Particular social needs, on the other hand, cover ‘a broad spectrum of largely uncontested particular needs that are felt in everyday experience. More exactly, there are the particular contingent manifestations of needs that are the focus of public policy, and those that are perceived and felt as needs, as ineluctable, and yet are seen to be of private concern’ (24). And finally, agency needs ‘are the general ethical and political objectives of individuals and groups. Examples are autonomy (as a goal rather than a moral premise), which in common parlance is called ‘control over one’s life’; intersubjective recognition; and active and creative expression’ (24). With these general categories Hamilton can develop his theory of need evaluation and legitimation.

In his account, ‘needs are defined ultimately in terms of human functioning, not in terms of lack’ (12). This aligns Hamilton’s project with Amartya Sen’s (and more philosophically, Martha Nussbaum’s) capability approach. He uses Sen’s conception of true interest to ‘mediate between reason and desire (the passions); that is, between people’s wants and certain rational ideals’ (89) and thus to move toward the capability approach. The capability approach is a neo-Aristotelian approach that attempts to gauge how each agent can flourish. In this way, it evades the problems of both modern Kantian contractarianism (that to enter into a contract each agent must be rational and have moral choice) and utilitarianism (that the utilitarian does not view the individual as inviolable). This approach sees human life as a set of capabilities, both elementary (health and life) and complex (including political agency, etc.). These capabilities map easily onto Hamilton’s categories of needs. One problem with the capability approach is that for the theory to work there need to be objectively valid methods for measuring capabilities. But obviously, needs are easier to measure (or stipulate) than capabilities. Thus, Hamilton’s needs approach might solve some of the capability approach’s difficulties. However, it might not be able to retain the idealistic spirit of the capabilities approach, which is one of the main reasons people are drawn to it.

Hamilton argues that ‘a coercive authority’ is necessary if his evaluative goals involving needs are to obtain. He writes: ‘This is the case not only because there is always the possibility that some groups might vehemently defend the criticized institutions and roles, but also because there is a need for an ultimate evaluator of possible trajectories of need. In other words, there is a practical imperative for there to be a single agent that can use its authority to decide when to act upon the outcome of the proposed method of need evaluation and what action to take in light of that outcome’ (17). However, he hedges, ‘in order for the modern state to become the kind of need-disclosing authority envisaged here it would have to become a radically new kind of political authority. I call this radically new kind of authority the state of needs’ (18). This state of needs would ‘be a constant participant in the disclosure and evaluation of needs, interests, institutions, and need trajectories and simultaneously the agency that ultimately decides when and how to act on the extant information in order to transform institutions and role matrices, choose trajectories, prioritize needs, and allocate resources in line with these choices and priorities’ (134).

This is where Hamilton’s theory takes a turn into territory liberals won’t enter. Theoretically, Hamilton needs the state of needs to solve the objectivity problem. That is, without it there is no body to adjudicate between needs, to see which needs are legitimate and most pressing. But I am not certain he needs the state to be quite as coercive as he presents it in his book.

Overall, Hamilton’s book pushes into new territory that is potentially useful for quite a few groups. It could be very interesting for practitioners who might be able to implement some of the speculative strategies Hamilton outlines. Indeed, Hamilton’s conclusion includes a case study of South Africa, where he outlines how the rights based framework of their constitution has acted against many of their stated goals. If his needs approach were used, the well-being of South Africans might have been better served.

In general, if needs were taken into account by political philosophy it is entirely plausible that we would arrive at more just outcomes than we currently do with our rights-based philosophical system. More work might be done on this subject over which Hamilton provides an excellent introduction.

Lawrence A. Hamilton, The Political Philosophy of Needs. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Francis Raven is at Temple University

This entry was posted in Miscellaneous and edition . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Pages

  • Categories

  • Issues