Still more on needs

On further reflection, one begins to wonder if the distinction between needs and wants is tenable at all.  It seems to end up with one person passing judgement on all others’ preferences.  This smacks of totalitarianism.

I remember once reading a leading sunday paper writer who reported on a conversation she had with a Very Rich Man.  She asked him, all these cars, yatchs, houses,…why do you buy them?  And this rich man replied: I need them.  And perhaps he does-denied these, he would quite possibly sink into a fatal depression.

What from a middle class perspective seems to be luxury, from another class perspective may seem like a necessity.

Economists traditionally shy away from normative propositions.  Thus they practice what they like to call positive economics, value free economics.  But I wonder if this is at all possible.  The push and pull and shoving over the net product of society (or the world) is the domain of politics, economists say.  Thus reducing economics to a branch of politics.  But Marx taught roughly that the “mode of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real basis from which a juristic and political superstucture arises.  To it there corresponds a specific form of social consciousness.[…] It is not the consciousness of man that determines his mode of existence, but conversely, his social state that determines his consciousness.”

Have to think more and clearly about the chain of determinations in i) the real world ii) the realm of theory.  (I used to know this stuff, but don’t know it anymore.  A chicken and egg type confusion.  As the sardar perspicaciously put it – jo pehle order kiya, woh hi pehle aya.)


5 Responses to “Still more on needs”

  1. HyperActiveX Says:

    I offer below, for pondering, a possible method of distinguishing between wants and needs:

    It is called a need if it helps in meeting a clearly defined economic goal, such as sustenance of self (as perceived by the self), else it is called a want.

    This is to be applied to the context of a specific individual and is subjective and perception-based – there is no absolute, objective need or want. Needs and wants only get defined and distinguished from each other in the context of a specific individual and otherwise have no clear meaning and hence no clear difference.

    In certain situations, therefore, an individual may ‘need’ wine and ‘want’ some bread with it. In this case one has to understand this individual’s context and motives, but the difference is clear.

  2. sxray Says:


    If I understand you correctly: anything could be a need and anything could be a want. This renders the distinction between the two nugatory. Subjectively, if I feel I can’t live without an ac in all rooms, it becomes a “need” of mine. Is this what you are saying?

  3. HyperActiveX Says:


    In my proposed taxonomy, the world consists of:
    1. subjects – sapient and sentient beings who exist unto themselves and who want and need things from time to time, to fulfill certain goals or at times for no clearly defined or known purpose (i.e. on a whim) and
    2. objects – things that exist unto themselves, and also happen to be things that subjects may want or need.

    In a world where there are no subjects, there are no wants or needs, even if there are objects. There must be a subject who wants, or has needs. Wants and needs have no ontological existence unto themselves.

    Subjects have “desires” (for want of a better word – I need a word other than wants or needs, which can fit either or both) which are a probabilistic mix of wants and needs (think momentum and position in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). To clearly define a want or a need, we need the following to be clearly defined: (a) the subject (b) the object (c) the context (d) the subject’s perception of his/her desire in his/her context.

    For a given subject and a given object in a given context (the context is important to determine whether there is goal orientation or not), a certain desire may be a called a want if the subject perceives it to be not fulfilling a ‘mandatory’ (as defined by the subject) goal, or it may be called a need if the subject perceives it to be necessary for the fulfillment of a mandatory goal. The subjectivity and perception centers around the goal and its extent of ‘mandatoriness’ (if I may), and drives the distinction.

    P.S. This is half-baked and not formally complete, since I’m thinking this out on the fly but I hope you get my drift.

  4. sxray Says:


    You have given me much to chew on, and I shall have to think much more about this before I can say I agree with you. What immediately comes to mind are situations in which (not uncommon ones I am sure you will agree) the object of ones desires is also an autonomous subject in her(!) own right. But this is a mere bagatelle compared to the Ancient Sages who will weigh in with: stuff like the knower and the known are ONE, and allied high falutin philosophy. Have to think this through, give me some time.

    BTW, your quote on posterous from Rilke was simply fabulous-I swear I identify completely with the subject of repeated defeat (at the hands of a conspiratorial reality.)

    And its been a long time since I’ve been addressed as Stranger-reminds me of the Camus book, which I read till the part where the protagonist’s mother dies 🙂

  5. HyperActiveX Says:

    I thought I’d deleted the comment addressed to Stranger 🙂 when I wrote it, posterous had not yet revealed the identity of the commentator to me, so I was not sure what it was all about (context always makes a big difference!) I guess it bubbled up in your inbox anyways. Do forgive the tone, it might have been a bit testy.

    I guess you must have found the Rilke poem (in its entirety) by now … and in case you haven’t its in my ‘Notes’ section on my facebook page.

    And oh – the ‘proposed taxonomy’ presumes the distinction between subject and object and is that sense in the ‘Western’ scheme of things – reductionistic as opposed to holistic. There is an ‘I’ and there is the ‘other’. In the ‘Eastern’ scheme of things, where I and the Universe are one, the talk of wants and needs is indeed nugatory 🙂

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