Monday, January 21, 2013

Word Games: Wants and Needs

Given how much hot air has been expelled philosophically and politically over stuff like health care, education, food policy, and similar issues, I'd like to address the basis for how we look at luxury and necessity. So here goes.

Question: What do people need? And what separates needs from wants? What characterizes the difference between the two? Focus on material needs first.

Wants are obvious, and it seems like you can easily tell the difference between the two by pure intuition. Your first instinct might be to try and define needs by listing them off. An article lists a sensible set of what people might consider needs as:

  • A roof over your head
  • Enough food and water to maintain your health
  • Basic health care and hygiene products
  • Clothing (just what's necessary to remain comfortable and appropriately dressed)

Implied in this list is the practical definition of a need: We need what is biologically necessary to maintain life and a bare minimum of functionality as a human being. Some of these definitions (comfort, appropriate, basic, enough) are inherently case-by-case and subjective.

But anyway, it should also be readily apparent that almost every need on this list is readily met in modern America; if you work part-time at minimum wage, you can earn enough to supply those needs. I can say this because of how sketchy the minimum standard of some of those needs really is. You have to have a roof over your head; does that mean that you have to have a place you can call your own? You obviously don't need to own a house, because plenty of people live normally in rented residences. If you assume that most people can find a roommate, then you can pull this off for very little money, maybe a couple hundred bucks a month. There's no reason to think you can't co-habitate. Then there's the idea that, if you live in a big city with a high cost of living, you might want to consider hitching a ride out to the sticks and finding a cheaper area to live and work in.

Food: how many times per week can you eat Top Ramen? Clothing: off to Goodwill we go...

Wants and needs generally describes utility, from less necessary to most necessary; there is no solid line between must have and optional, just a perception of necessity to your life. It's totally subjective, relative, fueled by expectations. Really, if you can lower your standards to the barest level possible, then you can get by with dog food and a warm coat, assuming you live in the south. So where's the value in the terms, what is their purpose, if they don't describe anything tangibly apparent?

Simple: emotional manipulation.

How this Relates to Power: Offense and Defense

This is entirely a matter of morality and politics. The concept of want and need exist because society has found it necessary to delineate between the two, for moral purposes, which today means for political purposes. A need is something that the individual is morally justified in saying that society must make available for them, and on the other side, a need is something that a moral individual with the power to provide those things is morally obligated to provide to others. It's very much akin to a right. The terms don't really insinuate anything factual, but emphasize guilt and innocence in moral terms. No moral person can deny a fellow human being of what they need; to do so would be, quite simply, evil. And while society does not advocate outright theft, we sympathize differently if the thief was simply trying to provide himself - or, better, his family - with something they need. If society has not made the needed good readily available, then society is at fault. The perpetrator is the system, not the victimized individual, who was now just defending himself. When talking about needs, deprivation becomes a violent act. And it creates a drama for us to play with. We automatically take the route that the weak are deprived and the strong are depriving - our underdog fetish - and create crusades for ourselves. Most moralists that utilize the needs argument often seem to prefer that people not so enthusiastically pursue their wants; they call it greed. The true ideal of these moralists is a system in which the producers are motivated by love instead of self-interest, which is close to the Christian ideal of a society.

Put another way, differentiating between wants and needs is inherently propagandist. Saying you need something is a moral buzzword that gives greater weight to your statement that you should have something. It's another tool that people use to garner support from others who share their values, by claiming necessity as an obligation and expectation of help.

Now, there is no power on this earth that can invariably provide for people's needs, or even people's rights, no matter how you specifically define them. The most obvious case of this with the most basic need: survival. People get murdered every day in this country, and there not a damn thing any government can do to cut the homicide rate to zero. So, if the government says that everyone has the right to life and liberty, and every day fails to provide it, then how can you consider that government legitimate? Or is risk just a part of life... possibly the part of life that gives it value?

So the difference between a want and a need is the expected emotions in play. Obviously, I don't care for any of this. I would recommend using terms like gifts for things people give to us without expectation of return, exchanges for things given to us for something else, and privileges for things given to us by our country or family or any other institution, as a part of our membership. Life is a gift and a privilege. Those kinds of words encourage my preferred perspective; your child's education is not a need someone owes you, it is a privilege. Values are molded by language use.

Or does this suggestion lean me too far in the direction of promoting a status quo? Because it does do that; language that encourages appreciation instead of righteous demand creates stability, while language that encourages that other perspective promotes change. Given what's happened to the material quality of life and level of social restraint over the last two hundred years, and the ideological dysfunction this country has such a problem with, I think that we have had plenty of change. Life is already tremendously easy, to the point where it seems to have gotten cheapened.

Conclusion, For Now

Here's the real question: we obviously aren't owed what we want, but can we accept the possibility that we aren't owed anything at all? That everything we have requires fight, and that there is risk for us in this world that is - gasp! - our responsibility to perceive and weigh, with the consequences for failure coming down on us alone? Probably not, and the power games will continue. But the power games are a part of the responsibility that is life anyway. There is a tremendous amount of our language that exists strictly for the sake of those games, words that generate perspectives, perspectives that serve a worldview. I'm gonna be defining terms from the individualistic Western worldview more here, whenever Word Games is in the title. Justice, loyalty, honor, progress... there are plenty more words to go that could use some clarity.

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