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.footnote

On this view the difference between needs and wants becomes at least blurred and at most no more than a socially constructed artifact. Such sentiments find their most coherent political expression in democratic pluralist writers like Keane, Laclau and Mouffe. Philosophically, the same can be said of Rorty and his followers. At their worst, they are reflected in the utterances of those who defend cultural outrages against human liberation—the fatwa against Rushdie is a good example—on the grounds of the cultural imperialism of doing otherwise.footnote1

The difficulty with such blanket dismissals of human universality is that they cannot provide a moral justification for their espoused cultural pluralism. Neither can they account for serious harm to the vulnerable and exploited within specific cultures inflicted in the name of cultural purity. Why should we believe that pluralism will do more good and cause less harm than dictatorship? Presumably, the answer must be because pluralism enables humans to flourish—because it is more progressive than dictatorship. Yet without a universal theory of need to give substance to terms like ‘flourish’ and ‘progressive’ such pronouncements become circular.

It was this insight, along with the politically divisive relativism espoused by many participants in political struggle during the seventies and eighties, which motivated Ian Gough and myself to write A Theory of Human Need.footnote2 In it, we argue that objective and universal human needs can be identified both in theory and practice, and can be employed to assess the success of political and economic formations throughout the world. We further show that a ‘dual strategy’ combining both state planning and political democracy follows from this analysis, one which gives a practical purchase on more effective policies for economic and political change.

In her review of our book in nlr, Kate Soper made some interesting and constructive criticisms of the philosophical foundations of our project.footnote3 In this response, I hope to return the compliment. I do so with particular pleasure since it was in part our reading of Soper’s own work which initially led to our interest in the concept of human need.

Soper’s notable insights into the problems posed for Marxism by the concept of need were first published in On Human Needs.footnote4 Here she also argues that without a universalistic conception of need—in this case one which transcends particular modes of production and the preferences which are expressed within them—the moral rationale of the Marxist critique of capitalism becomes incoherent. Similar reasoning permeates her more recent work on other issues.footnote5

Yet despite our mutual agreement about the importance of an empirical and moral yardstick with which to judge the liberating potential of different forms of life, Soper finds much to criticize in our book. Unfortunately, she does not say enough about the substance of our theory to enable those unfamiliar with it fully to assess her arguments. Before turning to them, therefore, it is worth briefly clarifying the object of her critique. Our case may be briefly summarized as follows: