The Ethics of Human Rights (6): Human Rights and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Classic economic theory, based as it is on an inadequate theory of human motivation, could be revolutionized by accepting the reality of higher human needs, including the impulse to self actualization and the love for the highest values. Abraham Maslow

Economic theory is or was dominated by the assumption of the homo economicus, the human being as a rational, perfectly informed and self-interested actor who desires nothing but wealth and profit. It is certainly one of the achievements of Maslow that today we are all conscious of the variety and complexity of human motivation and human needs.

A human need is something that is essential to survive and to survive in a decent, happy and fulfilling manner. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often represented as a pyramid, with the lowest or most fundamental needs at the bottom. He distinguished 5 types of needs:

  1. Physiological needs such as food, water and sleep
  2. Safety needs such as security of the body, health and property
  3. Social needs such as friendship, family, belonging and identity
  4. Esteem needs such as recognition, self-esteem, confidence, justice and respect
  5. Growth or self-actualization needs such as creativity, problem solving, art, beauty, personal fulfilment and freedom.

The assumption of the hierarchy is that the lower needs have to be met first, and are preconditions for the realization of the higher needs, although a temporary insufficiency in the lower levels will not undo the aspirations of the higher levels. For example, a surgeon who normally has no problem satisfying his or her physiological or safety needs, and instead focuses on recognition, may be forced to concentrate temporally on his or her health without sacrificing the overriding importance of recognition.

Conversely, someone who normally has problems satisfying lower level needs, will not find the resources necessary to focus on higher level needs.

Criticism of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

The hierarchy is not strict or linear. Higher needs can sometimes become so strong that they override the lower needs: the need for recognition for example can overcome the need to survive (we’ll call this “courage”). And people do not always automatically move from one, satisfied need to a higher one. It’s not because someone’s physiological and safety needs are satisfied that he or she necessarily strives towards recognition or self-development. The latter needs are very weak for some people, just as they can be overriding for others.

Also, how do we determine that a particular need is “higher” than another? Doesn’t this imply subjective judgment? Why would hedonism for example be inferior to self-development? I agree it is, but that’s just my subjective preference. I have no way of proving to a hedonist that he or she is wrong.

Some needs can also become too important, at the expense of other needs. In the American culture for example one can observe that recognition (“fame”) is given way too much attention, and to a certain extent the physiological and safety needs are reduced to a matter of individual responsibility. In Islam, there is an exaggerated focus on respect and honor, and’a0too little attention’a0is given to’a0self-development and freedom.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and human rights

This indicates that a strict, universal hierarchy among human needs does not exist. But while it is certainly impossible to offer a fixed hierarchy or even classification of ever-changing needs in an ever-changing society, the model of Maslow offers some advantages. Especially its relationship to the issue of human rights is interesting.

First of all, one could claim that all human rights violations are caused by conflicts between human needs, between one type of need for one person and the same need for another person (e.g. food or safety), or between different types of needs for different persons (e.g. the needs of justice and the needs related to the safety of property).

This is not completely correct because many rights violations have other causes: outright evil, unintended consequences of actions, structural or institutional causes, self-inflicted causes etc. But it remains useful to see rights violations in the light of needs. However, one shouldn’t expect too many useful results from this approach. How to quantify which needs are causing which violations or conflicts? Or to quantify which needs would be met when respecting a particular human right?

Secondly, there is a hierarchy in the system of human rights that can be linked to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There are different types of human rights, and one can claim that respect for some types of rights is a precondition for respect for other types. In this post I outlined the argument that social and economic human rights, which are rights that give people the opportunity to fulfill their physiological and safety needs, are necessary prerequisites for the exercise of freedom rights, which are rights that are more focused on people’s social, esteem and growth needs (and some safety needs as well such as bodily integrity, property and life).

However, things are not as simple as that. Here I argued that freedom rights and even political rights can help to meet physiological and safety needs. Furthermore, it is far fetched to describe some of the purposes of some human rights as “needs”: is equality or justice a need? Or is it rather a “value”, something that is important in our lives but not quite a “need”?


5 thoughts on “The Ethics of Human Rights (6): Human Rights and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

  1. I agree with most of what you say , however I think you are trying to put a defination on something that doses not require a hard defination as man is omni directional

  2. Thanks for any other wonderful post. The place else may just anyone get that type of info in such a perfect manner of writing? I have a presentation subsequent week, and I’92m on the search for such information.

  3. The points raised in this post are very complex. However I still feel that it is very important to keep Maslow’92s Hierarchy of Needs in mind when dealing with Human Rights issues (especially the first bottom levels) as “a hungry man is more interested in four sandwiches than four freedoms.” Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.
    and “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”
    Franklin D. Roosevelt. From

  4. This was very helpful for my paper on the Globalization of Human Rights (Universal Rights) in correlation with Maslow’s Hierarchy. Thankyou!

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