Dineen, Christina (2014). 'Basic Needs and Capabilities' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

While the capabilities approach is enjoying a surge of both philosophical analysis and popular support, basic needs theory is now thought by many to be incomplete, politically undesirable, or outdated.[1] Why aim at, or worry about, such a minimal goal as basic needs, when the capabilities approach vindicates a truly rich spectrum of things that make our lives go well? Is there anything to be gained for the capabilities approach by making sense of a notion of basic needs? I will suggest that there is something to be gained – a clear and immediate consciousness of responsibility to secure those needs which are necessary to realise any possibilities for a good life. In a context of financial and social crisis, the intuitive weight of needs claims merits serious consideration.

I will begin by reflecting on the relationship between capabilities and needs. I entertain three broad accounts of this relationship, and suggest that for the purposes of this paper, we should accept the account that proves most fruitful and constructive. First, I consider a pluralist understanding of justice, wherein various principles are weighed against each other casuistically. This is often the picture suggested by social research on distributive justice decision-making: we weigh between distributive norms such as equality, merit, and need to give each their appropriate consideration, while accepting each principle as potentially in conflict with its competitors.[2] On this picture, capabilities might either be understood in terms of some higher level principle or principles, or taken themselves to form a more or less homogenous 'principle' themselves. I suggest that while this picture might be helpful as a decision-making heuristic, it is reductive and does not do justice to the capabilities approach. Second, I consider needs as a central concept for justice theory – something like interests, capabilities, or rights in their own right.[3] Here, needs are more directly in competition with capabilities as a fundamental way of understanding entitlements and responsibilities and things that make a life go well. While we can make sense of a needs-centric theory of justice conceptually, I posit that the intuitive force of 'need' dies out as needs become less urgent and existential. The capabilities approach offers us a more complete and aspirational way of thinking about justice. Finally, I consider needs as a complement to Martha Nussbaum's capabilities approach, which naturally foregrounds capabilities as a fundamental way of understanding our responsibilities, entitlements, and the things that make a life go well. While capabilities offers a holistic approach, making sense of a full spectrum of things that make our lives go well, basic needs aim at a limited, urgent subset: the things we need for our lives to continue. If we think of needs as a complement to the capabilities approach, we are able to make use of the normative force behind needs appeals, and yet we can show a full appreciation for the broader spectrum of things that make a life go well.

Building on Sirkku Hellsten's account, I will understand basic needs to be necessary 'means of promoting human capabilities and functionings.'[4] Encouragingly, this understanding avoids establishing an undesirable hierarchy of capabilities according to their alignment with basic needs, and yet it maintains the salience of appeals to basic needs for the capabilities approach.

One challenge for this account is the problem of discordant goals: while basic needs aim at quite minimal goals, and should be seen as insufficient for securing even minimal justice, the capabilities approach is considerably more demanding and ambitious. I will suggest that while these goals have a history of political friction, that friction need not be a problem at the conceptual level.


[1] Reader, S. (2006). Does a basic needs approach need capabilities? Journal of Political Philosophy, 14(3), 337-350.

[2] For example: Miller, D. (1992). Distributive justice: What people think. Ethics, 102, 555-593 (p. 577); Scott et al. (2001). Just deserts: An experimental study of distributive justice norms. American Journal of Political Sciences, 45(4), 740-767.

[3] Brock, G. (2005). Needs and global justice. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 57, 51-72.

[4] Hellsten, S. (1995). Needs, capabilities, and distributive justice. Social Philosophy Today, 11, 189-206 (p. 189).