James Leroy Wilson's blog

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Five-Point Utilitarianism

Sometimes it is best to go outside of politics to get political insight. For instance, Blair Warren has listed Abraham Maslow’s five basic needs that drive human behavior (warning, link is up for just a limited time). I find in each a political insight, so I will put Maslow/Warren’s words in italics, followed by what I believe to be a corresponding political value. These five basic needs are:

1. Physiological needs (food, shelter, etc.)
- secure and inexpensive access to food, shelter, sanitation, energy, etc. necessary not just for life but for good health.

2. Safety/security needs (protection of one’s person, family and possessions, etc.)
- decrease the costs of necessary but “unwanted” goods such as security, emergency services, and insurance - that is, things we wouldn’t think of needing if accidents, violence, and other bad stuff never happened.

3. Social needs (love, sex, friendships, etc.)
- Feeling of solidarity and empowerment, that one’s fate is not determined by outside and hostile forces such as multinational corporations, central governments, or people of races, religion, and ethnicity outside of one’s own.

4. Self needs (self-respect, self-confidence, etc.)

- In a general sense, “equality” or “fairness.” That one doesn’t feel like the “system” is against him or her just because of race, gender, religion, or some other designation. That one has an equal vote and a fair chance in court.

5. Self-actualizing needs (personal growth, fulfilling of one’s purpose, etc.)

- In short, liberty. That you won’t be jailed for the painting you paint, the novel you write, the wages you pay, the business model you design, the crop you grow, the trinket you manufacture, the places you go, or the values you teach to your children.

I’m not suggesting an exhaustive theory, presuming that these five “needs” explain everything. But they do explain more than just “liberty vs. security” (or liberty vs. equality, or liberty vs. “social justice”). The world is made up of more than just two alternatives, even though it often seems that way. Many will value some of these needs or “values” more than others, or will change their minds at different times and circumstances in their lives, It is somewhat obnoxious, then, for those who value liberty more than the other values to assume that everyone else is mentally and morally challenged.

I believe that political persuasion should account for all of these items. It would, in effect, be utilitarian, would understand that everyone’s “good” derives from these five basic needs, and hence the utilitarian definition of “the greatest good for the greatest number” would also take these needs into account. We would do well to blame those who disagree with us less and empathize with them more; who are we to condemn them for their political opinions when we do not understand their experiences and circumstances?

People want the political order to reflect their own needs and political values, which each individual weighs differently. For a particular ideology to “win the hearts and minds of the people,” it must speak, even if subtly, to Maslow’s five basic needs. If it doesn’t, the receiver of the message may agree intellectually but “feel” empty about the message, or will generally agree because the message sounds good but will have intellectual “blind spots” or be confronted by conundrums they can’t resolve. If they aren't comfortable in both their hearts and minds with what you have to offer, they either won't accept it, or will accept it briefly and then abandon you.

In politics, don’t give the people a philosophy to accept, give them a platform they prefer over all the others, that will convince them that they will be better off, that they will feel good about working for it and living under it.


  1. I think Maslow posited these needs as forming a hierarchy with the earlier needs taking precedence. The platform should perhaps take priorotization of these needs into account and recognize that different classes will be concerned about different levels of need.

  2. Maslow discussed these needs in terms of hierarchy - the base psychological need needs to be taken care of before the safety security need, which must be fulfilled to be able to get to the point where social need can be filled, etc. To get to the point of self-actualization requires that the other four needs are taken care of, and there are times when you lose that actualization if one of the lower needs suddenly goes wanting. If explains very well why divorce wipes out all productivity of that family unit for quite a while.
    Maslow's theory of needs is built into the redile learning system that we use for the science zones. I thought it was neat that Blair Warren mentioned it, and now that you've spun it into the political sphere, it may be time to really think about what Maslow was onto. I have never gone back and reread his original works, but the concept really has helped ahape by basis of approach to life. (I was banged up by #3 for a while over the holidays, but we got through it)