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New Left Review I/201, September-October 1993


Len Doyal

Thinking About Human Need

The discourse of objective and universal human need has been abused to reinforce a wide variety of relationships of dominance. The word ‘need’ is one of the first to which self-proclaimed ‘authorities’ have traditionally turned to justify their power and the morality of inflicting it on others. If it is believed that humans require goods and services that only certain experts know how to identify and deliver, then all the better that they possess the political means to do so. When motivated by arbitrary self-interest, the pursuit of such dominance in the name of satisfying human need has led to moral outrages against both persons and the biosphere. Combining this fact with a surfeit of sometimes misunderstood linguistic philosophy, many have concluded that the very idea of objective and universal knowledge is a dangerous aberration of modernity. Thus what we might understand to be universal human need turns out to be no more than a pluralism of needs, each articulated within culturally specific discourses which define the parameters of reality itself. [*] This response, like our book, would have been impossible without the collaboration and friendship of Ian Gough. Though he has offered helpful comments, he should not be held responsible for all of the views expressed herein. Also many thanks to Daniel Wilsher for his useful contribution and to Kate Soper for hours of stimulating discussion and debate.

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