July 25, 1978

Most of us have at one time or another said or thought that we had a "need" for something or other. And most of us probably feel deeply that we have "needs" which must be met; aad much of our energy goes towards seeking to satisfy those supposed "needs". By saying "supposed" needs, I do not mean to flatly deny their reality; but their "needfulness" is after all not proven merely because they are felt to be so.

The first thing to clarify about any of these supposed "needs" is not what they are or how strongly felt they are, but what they are necessary to. In other words, we cannot call something a need unless we know what it is necessary for. That is I may say that I need to sleep, or I need to be alone, or I need comforting, but why do I need any of these things? I may say that I need to sleep because my body will wear out faster, perhaps collapse utterly, if I don't; but to push it one step farther, why should I avoid collapsing or wearing out my body? Again, I may say that I need to be alone because of the rest it affords my emotions and communicative faculties, but why should I avoid overtaxing those parts of my being? The only answer to these questions can be, because I prefer to go on living longer. We cannot argue that these things are "necessary" to the universe, or to society, or to the species, because they're not; all we can say is that they are necessary for ourselves to go on living longer. Nor can we argue that we ought to live longer; who can show the reason for such an assumed obligation?

On a simpler level, to demonstrate the point urther, I may say that I need a house, or a car, or a set of garden tools; but all I really mean is that I will sleep more comfortably, have more storage space, and feel a sense of point of origin to which I can return and from which I venture forth if I have a house, that I will be able to get to and from work faster or to and from recreation or shopping faster and more comfortably and perhaps more sociably because of carrying other people with me and more soothingly because of perhaps having a radio to listen to, or that I will be able to take care of my garden plants with less back-breaking drudgery and more skill and thereby save time for other pursuits and possibly be able to grow more and different plants or larger plants if I have the garden tools than I could have otherwise. But I can still sleep, I can still get to work and recreation, I can still grow flowers and vegetables without any of these things which I say I need. Therefore I should say that what I want is storage space, or bigger plants, or more free time for which I want the storage space, or do i really need or more pleasure, but then do I really need the things the comfort and free time, or the pleasure, and for what? The answer is clearly, no, although I may want them; because I can still live without them. Thus, whenever I ask, for what do I need the things which I think I need, there can be only two answers the one spurious, the other real: the spurious one is, for comfort and for pleasure, and the real one is, to go on living.

Now most people probably realize this anyway consciously or unconsciously, that satisfaction of material desires or "needs" is but the shell or chaff of our existence. No doubt they will also strenuously insist that fulfillment, and living a whole life, and something called "self-actualization" are needs, over and above material needs. Perhaps they will even argue that we "need" wisdom, and understanding, and love, and peace of mind, all very non-material things. But the same tests as above can be applied to these things also; either the reason we think we need them is because of the comfort and pleasure they bring, or because we need them for our continued physical existence. The latter is clearly not the case, since people can live without them, however much they may suffer or consider themselves unfulfilled; we can only say that we prefer them in order not to suffer as much or to be unfulfilled. And we have already seen that we don't need comfort and pleasure, no matter how much we may want them.

People may also argue that we "need" the afore-mentioned things, particularly love, in order to live lives which produce the most benefit and happiness for others, to say nothing of ourselves. Now there is no doubt that this is desirable, in fact supremely desirable, but it still does not mean that these things are necessary to physical existence. They may be to psychological health; it certainly is the case that we prefer to be happy, and that other people are better off if we act wisely and lovingly to them and it may be the case that our beings deteriorate gradually without those things. But our bodies deteriorate gradually anyway, no matter what we do; so that gradual deterioration is not an argument which proves needs. Even if we could prove that we lived ten years longer, or a hundred years longer, by having all these non-material attainments, it would only prove that they enabled us to live that much longer; it would not prove that they were necessary to live, and again the argument would reduce to whether we preferred to live that much longer or not. And while it may be that society itself will deteriorate if people don't have these things, the best we can say then is that they are "necessary" for the continuation of society, but we cannot answer the question of whether it is necessary for society to continue. And this argument also merely subordinates the individual's importance to the supra-entity called society, so that it contradicts the intended desire of self-fulfillment.

I   have gone into this point at some length, trying to show by many examples that most of those things which we call "needs" are actually only "wants" no matter how much they may make our lives more comfortable or pleasant. Of course we are entitled to say that they are necessary to attain that comfort and pleasure, and further that life is not worth living (in our opinion) without comfort and pleasure, or satisfaction and fulfillment; but those opinions are not proven merely by asserting them and there is sound evidence for the opposite, that comfort and pleasure, and continued life can be found without any of the particular trappings so many of us deem "necessary". The proof of this is that some of us find comfort or pleasure in some things, and others of us are indifferent to those things but find comfort or pleasure in other things, and after all that people have lived for centuries without any of those things. But nevertheless we can say that we "need" whatever things there are which are necessary to our continued physical existence, although we can never say that we "need" that continued physical existence, we can only say that we prefer it.

I   identify a ten-point scale of basic needs for continued physical existencer based on the rough length of time that an individual can continue to iive without them. These things are as follows, and I will discuss each briefly afterward:
      0 - Safety
      1 - Air
      2 - Water
      3 - Food
      4 - Rest
      5 - Exercise
      6 - Social interaction
      7 - Intimate interaction ("love")
      8 - Aesthetic stimulation ("beauty")
      9 ~ Philosophical stimulation ("ideas")
It should be evident that we can go for longer without food than we can without water or air, and that when we are in a burning house or falling off a cliff, as much air or water as possible is useless; further that we can go for longer without exercise than we can without rest, and that rest and exercise while necessary to physical health, are unhelpful if we are deprived of food, water, or air; and finally that while all our social and psychological needs must be met for our longterm existence, we can go for much longer with them being unsatisfied than we can without sustenance or proper body care. Thus in this hierarchy our needs on each level must be satisfied before anything on the next level has any longterm use.

Safety, while indispensable and irrefutable, is not usually recognized as the lowest level of need. Also the length of time we can survive in precarious straits varies from individual to individual and situation to situation. But there are clearly some situations, such as being chased by a tiger, or trapped in a sinking ship, or in a building toppled by an earthquake, where we can survive for only a few seconds at most, even if the hardiest among us could survive for several minutes. Fortunately we are exposed to this kind of danger but seldom.

Food and water and air are obvious needs. We can survive only a few minutes without air, and only a few days without water. As to food, people's ability varies, but still the hardiest yogi can survive only a few weeks or at most a few months without food. But that only tends to prove that food is not the dire necessity we think it is.

Rest and exercise are opposite sides of a higher level of need. It may be that we can go for longer without water or food than we can without rest although here again individual capacity varies; some can go for days or weeks without long periods of rest, although probably none can go for more than a few days without any sleep or rest at all. The quality of the rest is also significant; short periods of deep rest appear to be better than long periods of disturbed sleep. But we can go for months or years without exercise, although our body weakens gradually and our muscles atrophy; such disintegration can often be overcome once exercise is resumed.

The last four levels of needs are admittedly more speculative. There can be no doubt however that contact with human beings is necessary for people to remain human; they can remain alive for a long time but their ability to interact and to care for others atrophies. Many people in fact will go insane after prolonged lack of contact with other people. Thus we can consider this a need, on a higher level than the others.

Intimate interaction is still one more rung up the ladder. Without it a person continues to live may even live a full span of years, but loses flexibility and spontaneity, and directness and immediacy in their interactions, if all they experience are the more formal and distant albeit necessary social contacts that we have with strangers passersby, even acquaintances. It is to fulfill our needs for comforting, for close sharing of experience for expressing doubts and worries and fears, as well as expressing childlike joys and radiance, that we require this supply of intimate interaction. The signs of its sufficiency are self-confidence self-respect, self-esteem.

Whether the last two are needs at all, in view of the arguments at the beginning of this essay may be questioned. However, it would appear that even with all the previous needs satisfied a person still fails to be creative, fails to be appreciative fails to be fully involved with life and people and the artifacts they produce, if they are denied aesthetic stimulation, the presence of at least a modicum of beauty and harmony in their surroundings in which they live. You can survive amidst squalor and ugliness and chaos, and you can be unconscious of it if you are receiving love and feedback, but it is like a cage, a barnyard, a cave; you will never be able to fly in spirit and reach the pinnacle of being able to love life without the assistance of other people ministering to your needs. And if a person fails to be creative then in some sense he has failed at being human, he has merely passed through life and neither contributed to it nor experienced it fully.

Finally, although perhaps interchangeably with aesthetic stimulation, we reach the need for philosophical stimulation. Inasmuch as many people live their whole lives without any such stimulation we may question whether it is actually a need at all. Where it differs from the previous level is that if it is unsatisfied a person never attains a sense of life as a whole or of moral and ethical virtue, or of what is really worthwhile. It is in trying to meet this need that the concept of God and purpose in life have been invented. So it appears to be the highest level of individual need though unmet in a majority of cases.

In another essay I shall present an analogous set of levels for the actual needs for the continued physical existence of a group, over and above that of an individual.

(originally published under the name of John Fitz)