Basic human needs: abstraction, indeterminacy and the political account of need

George Boss*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


The basic human needs approach contends that the needs which matter – the basic needs – are human needs. This article conducts a critical examination of that approach, and finds it wanting. My claim is that the abstract, indeterminate nature of human needs makes it impossible to establish their normative priority (or ‘basicness’). I begin by showing why human needs are necessarily abstract. This follows from the standard response given by basic human needs theorists to the problem of cultural diversity: to avoid favouring one way of life over others, and to plausibly apply universally, human needs must be specified at a high level of generality. The problem, however, is that this abstract specifica- tion undermines the capacity of basic human needs to offer guidance in concrete contexts. The approach thus requires some account of the properties which shape the concrete specification of basic human needs. However, the special status thus afforded to those properties (what I call ‘specifiers’) under- mines the arguments deployed to establish the basicness of human needs. Having rejected the basic human needs approach, I finish by sketching an alternative: namely, the political account of needs.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages24
JournalCritical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jan 2021


  • needs
  • human needs
  • harm
  • abstraction
  • politics of need

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