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Keywords:

  • absolute needs;
  • biological needs;
  • instrumental needs;
  • needs;
  • normativity;
  • personal agents;
  • value

Abstract

Absolute needs (as against instrumental needs) are independent of the ends, goals and purposes of personal agents. Against the view that the only needs are instrumental needs, David Wiggins and Garrett Thomson have defended absolute needs on the grounds that the verb ‘need’ has instrumental and absolute senses. While remaining neutral about it, this article does not adopt that approach. Instead, it suggests that there are absolute biological needs. The absolute nature of these needs is defended by appeal to: their objectivity (as against mind-dependence); the universality of the phenomenon of needing across the plant and animal kingdoms; the impossibility that biological needs depend wholly upon the exercise of the abilities characteristic of personal agency; the contention that the possession of biological needs is prior to the possession of the abilities characteristic of personal agency. Finally, three philosophical usages of ‘normative’ are distinguished. On two of these, to describe a phenomenon or claim as ‘normative’ is to describe it as value-dependent. A description of a phenomenon or claim as ‘normative’ in the third sense does not entail such value-dependency, though it leaves open the possibility that value depends upon the phenomenon or upon the truth of the claim. It is argued that while survival needs (or claims about them) may well be normative in this third sense, they are normative in neither of the first two. Thus, the idea of absolute need is not inherently normative in either of the first two senses.