The higher the level of abstraction at which any argument for universal needs is cast, the less controversial it is likely to prove, but the more open it becomes to the charge of being vacuously uninformative as a guide to specific welfare provision. Not even the most committed cultural relativist on needs is likely to disagree with Aristotle when he remarks in Metaphysics that, ‘when life or existence are impossible (or when the good cannot be attained) without certain conditions, these conditions are “necessary”, and this cause is itself a kind of necessity’.footnote1 If, that is, we construe this as an argument to the effect that all human beings have a need for whatever is essential to the maintenance of life and the provision of the ‘good’, then few will dissent from it.

Had Aristotle, however, proceeded to define human ‘existence’ and the ‘good’ in more precise terms, or to specify the conditions required for their realization (a task of discrimination in which, being Aristotle, he might well have felt obliged to distinguish between the good meat, wine, leisure and democratic institutions ‘needed’ by the male citizen, and the ‘needs’ of women and slaves), then clearly his argument would have become instantly vulnerable to the objections of the cultural relativists. For, from their perspective, his ‘universally applicable’ discourse on needs is exposed as all too patently ethnocentric and gender-biased.

The more, then, a theory of universal needs confines itself to stating the basic goals to be attained (Aristotle’s ‘existence’ and the ‘good’, or the rather more precise, but still quite abstract, ends argued for by Len Doyal and Ian Gough in A Theory of Human Need footnote2 the less it will offend the relativists, but the further removed it must be from any pretension to assist in policy-making. For what relativists primarily object to is not claims to the effect that we all need the ‘good’ rather than the ‘bad’, or even to the effect that everyone has a need to avoid serious physical or mental harm,footnote3 but rather to the idea that we can say more exactly in what such needs consist, or can prescribe the ‘universal satisfiers’ which would guarantee their being met. Actual needs, they will insist, together with their particular ‘satisfiers’, are always culturally and historically conditioned, and anyone who argues otherwise is guilty of generalising from an ethnocentric and temporally local conception of human nature and its needs.footnote4 No one, therefore, who proposes to define ‘basic’ or universal needs at anything less than the most abstract level, can hope to avoid the problem that the more empirical content they inject into their argument, thus gaining it an essential degree of political relevance, the more at risk they are of positing as ‘objective needs’ what are, in reality, culturally conditioned perceptions of the ‘good’.

This brings me more directly to the scrupulous and sophisticated case set forth for the ascription of universal needs by Doyal and Gough, since the great strength of this, so it seems to me, lies in the fact that it is both fully aware of the dilemma I have sketched and boldly prepared to grapple with it. As they themselves recognise, the key issue is how to chart basic need satisfaction, or ‘objective welfare’ without ‘either embracing relativism or working at such a level of generality that the relevance of our theory for specific problems concerning social policy is lost’ (p. 156). What is important and original (and doubtless in the eyes of some, presumptuous) about their project is that it not only tells us what our basic needs are (those of health and autonomy), but offers empirical criteria for the meeting of these goals—and is hence prepared to specify the ‘universal satisfier characteristics’ (or ‘intermediate needs’, as Doyal and Gough term them), essential to their realization. Thus while they readily concede that the specific form taken by the satisfiers of ‘intermediate needs’ will be culturally divergent, the ‘intermediate needs’ themselves are common to all cultures at all times, providing a standard by reference to which levels of deprivation within particular groupings can be charted and specific welfare strategies be defended as objectively grounded rather than ethnocentrically motivated. Abstractly, this standard is defined at two levels: (1) that of the ‘participation optimum’ (the health and autonomy needed such that individuals can ‘choose the activities in which they will take part within their culture’, possess the cognitive, emotional and social capacities to do so and have access to the means by which these capacities can be acquired’ (p. 160);footnote5 (2) that of the ‘critical optimum’ (the health and autonomy needed such that individuals can ‘formulate the aims and beliefs necessary to question their form of life, to participate in a political process directed towards this end and/or to join another culture altogether’) (ibid.). Concrete indices of this standard are provided by reference to a wide range of statistical data on the objective welfare of groups of nations in the First, Second and Third Worlds. This allows Sweden to be singled out as the average best performer, and its level of welfare provision established as ‘the only logical and moral criterion that can be applied to judge need-satisfaction in the long term’ (p. 161).

Now any attempt to operationalize a theory of needs to this degree is clearly fraught with problems, and it is to some of these to which I wish to turn in what follows. But I hope I have already said enough to indicate the value and importance of Doyal and Gough’s project, which is all the more to be applauded given the prevailing relativism of current approaches to issues of human consumption and life-style. Indeed, whatever specific objections their argument may be open to, it is their theoretical project rather than the relativists’ punctilious respect for cultural difference, which I would defend as the more politically progressive. For however well intentioned the ‘difference’ theorists may be, it is their admonitions against the ‘cultural imperialism’ of any attempt to speak to the needs of ‘others’ rather than Doyal and Gough’s defence of universal needs, that will be most readily seized upon by all those seeking to clothe a naked disregard for the deprivation of others with the mantle of theoretical legitimacy. While cultural relativism, therefore, by presenting all intervention in the affairs of others as a potentially totalitarian distraint on their autonomy, may all too easily licence political inactivity, the argument of Doyal and Gough tends in the opposite direction by refusing to allow appeals to cultural difference to obscure objective deprivations. It is motivated, that is, by a wholly commendable sense that overcoming scepticism about the universal and objective quality of human needs may be an essential first move towards the implementation of those global welfare programmes of most practical import to the preservation of life, and promotion of cultural diversity, among the most deprived.footnote6

That said, I now want to focus on what I find to be the more problematic aspects of their argument, all of which are inter-related, but which for purposes of exposition I shall deal with under the following headings: 1) The conceptualization of need; 2) Autonomy and political oppression; 3) Intermediate needs; 4) The basic and the non-basic; 5) Ecology and human needs.

Anyone offering a theory of basic human needs confronts the dual task, firstly of defining needs and secondly of specifying those which are ‘basic’. Doyal and Gough’s essential argument here is that needs are distinguished from wants in being goals which all human beings have to achieve if they are to avoid ‘serious harm’, this latter being defined in terms of the maintenance of physical health and autonomy. They recognise that this presupposes a consensus as to what constitutes the human condition when it is ‘normal, flourishing and unharmed’, but plead that any denial that such a consensus exists ‘goes against deep moral convictions throughout the world. If need were simply a function of cultural or individual preference, then we would find nothing wrong with Huxley’s Brave New World, where a diet of drugs, sex and ignorance produces a subjective contentment which is as uniform as it is awful’ (p. 44).