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Needs, Rights, and Wants in moral deliberation

  1. Jun 13, 2003 #1
    I've thought of a general framework that seems to me to be a good process or perspective for looking at moral delimmas and situations, and making judgements as to what should or shouldn't happen or be done in a given situation. However, I'm not sure if it's entirely original so please feel free to let me know if some other philosopher has come up with this or something very similar.

    Basically, In a situation where a moral delimma occurs, be it between 2 people, several, or even a nation, I make the distinction of three areas...

    1) Needs: Those things required for minimum survival and to avoid serious harm. (talking VERY minimal here)

    2) Rights/Responsibilities: Those things we should be guaranteed or held to for moral reasons.

    3) Wants: Those things which we simply desire.

    The first step in a given situation is that everyone's Needs should be met. When looking at Needs, all human beings are considered equal, so if there is an inability to meet everyone's needs, then limited resources are to be given out randomly or "first come first serve" where "coming" is equally easy.

    Note: some situations will not even need to address Needs, as in disputes between a few well-to-do individuals in a neighborhood.

    The second step is to look at Rights and Responsibilities. Who is obligated to do what, who has a right to what goods, information, position, etc. When looking at rights, people are generally equal, but rights vary according to situations. Not all people have a right to the same things, but all people have a right to the same opportunity to get those things. Rights, unlike Needs, can be prioritized. For example, the right to not be harmed physically exceeds the right to see yur medical records, should a momentary conflict between these rights happen.

    Only once Needs and Rights are taken care of can the third step be addressed, which is to look at Wants. Wants, like Needs, are also considered equal but instead of random distribution, wants are to be rewarded based on merrit and mutual negotiation.

    So, to sum up...

    1) Needs: distributed equally, with insufficiencies randomly allocated.

    2) Rights/Responsibilities: Ranked according to the significance of the Right and dealt with in that priority.

    3) Wants: dealt with according to merrit and mutual negotiation.

    By this ordering for example, if you have 3 guys stranded in the desert and one of them has enough water for all three to make it out, he would have to share with the others, rather than letting them die. Of course, he has a right to property, but you don't get to rights until or unless needs have been taken care of for everyone. If the man had water and wine, he would have to give up enough water to keep the others alive, but he would not have to give up his wine (although it would be nice of him to do so).

    On a society level, it means that you don't let people starve and die in the street if resources exist to save them - no matter if you have to take those resources by force from those who have them, and no matter how irresponsible or inept the needy person is. But beyond those basic needs, all other resources are to be awarded via capitalism, ingenuity, and so on (which automatically happens in a free-market society).

    I know some of you may be complete socialists or pure capitalists, but for those with more concern for practicality or decency (respectively), what do you think?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 13, 2003 #2
    It sounds good, but I believe there is going to be some controversy identifying the difference between Needs and Wants.

    You defined Need as a requirement for basic survival and to avoid serious harm. Food and Water are obviously a need. On the other hand Does basic survival include a home? How about a toilet? Most of us take this for granted, but really do we need such things for BASIC survival?

    Here's another thought: In California people suffering from pain may receive a prescription for marijuana (not in pill form necessarily--in fact most often not). First of all would relief from pain fall under a basic survival Need or Want? In some cases its both, in other cases it's just a want and I know a few people who take advantage of the law. How would these things be handle in your propositioned society?

    I think the same difficulties already exist in most current western systems.
  4. Jun 16, 2003 #3
    I totally agree Raven - the decision as to what is a need and what is a want can often be very subjective and difficult. However, my model is not meant to be a solution to such problems - it is only meant to be a method for reaching solutions. Therefore, if someone is even asking the question as to whether or not something is a need or want, then the model is already being applied successfully, regardless of what particular judgement is made in any given case.

    In making the judgement as to a need or want, I'd probably include things necessary to keep the person alive and avoiding unecessary suffering. For the medical marijuana (an excellent example by the way), I'd probably look at whether or not affordable alternatives were available first. But, if not, then I'm generally for it (but I'm for the decriminalization of all drugs anyway). However, this whole paragraph is just MY particular judgement as to these things - others may judge differently and yet still be using the general procedures outlined in the model I posted originally.
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