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I'm not sure if needs and wants are two different things or interdependent cnocepts. For example: If I want a Rolls Royce, I could say that I need it for my happiness; however, I don't really "need" it in the sense that it is not necessary for my basic survival; I would still be alive without it and could purchase a more economical vehicle. The conventional understanding of needs and wants is that the former pertains to basic survival (e.g. you need food, water, and shelter), and the latter pertains to things that make you happy or fulfill a desire not crucial to your survival.

What is the difference between "needs" and "wants"? And, does a person's needs change when he/she becomes wealthier?

asked Jun 15 '13 at 16:19

user890's gravatar image


Sorry to dig up an old thread, but a question similar to this was recently answered by Diana Hsieh and it got me thinking. I have a slightly different perspective than hers, somewhat similar to the view of the person she quoted (Arthur I think?), but I felt like I had enough to add on the subject to make it worth providing my own answer here.

There are two separate issues here: (1) what do the concepts "a need" and "a want" mean, and (2) how are these concepts commonly used in current rhetoric.

The meaning of "Need" and "Want"

"A need" (noun) refers to that which is required to achieve some end. Whether something is "a need" or not will depend on (1) what the end in question is, and (2) the fact-of-the-matter regarding whether that thing really is causally required to achieve the end. Almost everything could be considered to be "a need" in one context but not "a need" in another context, depending on the end in question. Thus, you have to specify the context to talk meaningfully about whether or not something is "a need". For example, if short-term survival (on the order of weeks) is the end in question, then food is a need. On the other hand, if immediate survival is the end, food is usually not a need (food is not usually required this very moment in order to keep surviving, unless you are already at the point of starvation).

"Want" refers to that which a person desires. Whether something is "a want" or not depends entirely on whether or not someone does in fact desire it. Of course, people generally desire things because they believe the thing will further some end the person cares about, but the particular nature of the end does not determine whether the thing is a "want" or not.

A thing that is a "want" may also be a "need"--these are not mutually exclusive categories. If something is required to attain some end a person cares about (making it a need), then the person will often desire the thing precisely because it is a need (making the thing a want as well as a need). On the other hand, it is possible for something to be a want but not a need or a need but not a want: you might desire a thing that is not actually required to achieve any of your ends (perhaps because you are mistaken in identifying its causal relevance with regard to your ends), or you might not desire something even though it is required to achieve your ends (perhaps because you have not yet recognized that it is required).

"Need" and "want" differ at least in that "need" relates to identifications of causal relationships between means and ends (i.e., the identification of a particular means as being required to achieve an end), whereas "want" relates to identifications of a psychological state of a person (i.e., the identification of a thing as being the object of someone's desire).

The concepts of "need" and "want" are also related to, but distinguishable from, the concept "value".

The concept of "need" is related to the concept of "value" in that those things that are required in order to achieve our values are examples of "needs". Furthermore, something that is a value can also be a need, when it is required in order to achieve some end (e.g., when the attainment of one value is required in order to attain a higher value). However, the fact that something can be both a need and a value does not mean the concepts are synonymous--to identify something as both a "need" and a "value" is to focus on a different perspective of the same object: the perspective of the object as a causal requisite for an end (need) vs the perspective of the object as being something that is actively sought/preserved (value).

The concept of "want" is related to the concept of "value" in that those things that we desire ("wants") are very often also things that we will act to gain and/or keep (and hence are also values). Again, this does not mean that the concepts are synonymous--to identify something as both a "want" and a "value" is to focus on a different perspective of the same object: the perspective of the thing being an object of desire (want) vs the perspective of the object as being something that is actively sought/preserved (value).

Common Contemporary Misuses of "Need" and "Want"

(1) Frozen Concept---Some people try to "freeze" the concept of "need" to only cover those things that are required for only one particular end, which is usually short-term survival (e.g., water, food, shelter, lack of injury, etc.). On this view, things that are required to attain ends other than short-term survival are not truly "needs". This is a mistake, because it enshrines only one form of needs (short-term survival needs) as the only form of need. However, as noted above, there are many ends besides short-term survival that a person can consider (for example, long-term thriving), and the concept of "need" should apply to these ends as well. (Of course, there may be some ends that are significant enough that narrower concepts may be used to refer to their particular needs (e.g. "survival needs", "basic needs"), and this would not be an example of a frozen concept. Such narrower concepts may be perfectly permissible. What is a mistake, however, is trying to supplant the broader concept "need" with the narrower one.)

(2) Conflating "Want" with "Object that is Unworthy of Pursuit"---People often treat "needs" as acceptable things to pursue but denigrate the pursuit of "wants". Indeed, the only time that people seem to bring up a "needs/wants" distinction is when they are trying to persuade someone not to pursue some thing by labeling the thing a "want". The denigration can range from merely considering "wants" as being "less important" than "needs", all the way up to considering the pursuit of "wants" to be immoral (at least until the "needs" of everyone else are first satisfied!). This tendency to denigrate "wants" often comes from an altruistic world view in which a person's selfish wants are the source of all evil (of course, your "needs" are also selfish, but this contradiction is either ignored, or explained away by saying that you have to satisfy your "needs", and thus you have to accept need-satisfaction as a necessary evil).

(3) Conflating "Want" with "Not-a-Need"---Some people use "want" to refer to anything that is not a need. When combined with the error from (2) above, this manifests as labeling anything you approve of as a "need" and everything else as a "want". This error is also commonly combined with the frozen abstraction error--people often consider a very narrow category of things to be "needs" (e.g., short-term survival needs), and then label everything else that does not fall into this narrow category as a mere "want".

Now of course, it is true that some things that are "wants" are also "not needs". The problem with the error discussed above is that not all "wants" are "not needs"--just because something is a want does not mean it is not a need.

(4) Conflating "Want" with "Optional"---As touched on by Diana, want is not the same thing as optional. While some things that you want might be optional (i.e., not required to attain any of you ends), it is also possible for a "want" to be a "need" (which means it is not optional with respect to the end in question).

(5) Failing to Consider Long Term Flourishing---People often use "need" to refer only to short-term survival needs, and ignore what is required to flourish in the long term. For example, while you might not need art to survive right this moment, art is a need when long term flourishing is considered as the end. This is a particular type of the frozen abstraction error mentioned above, but gets its own special mention here because it is particularly relevant to ethics.

(6) Materialism---people often consider physical/material things (such as food, shelter, etc.) to be "needs" but fail to consider things required for mental/spiritual health (e.g., art, sex, relaxation, etc.) as "needs".


I appreciate Ideas’ further elaboration, which made me think of a few extra points I wanted to add. We often refer to a concept as “a need”, rather than specific concretes. In such a case, what is meant is that at least one of the referents of the concept would be required to achieve the end, but any one of the referents would suffice. For example, food is clearly a need for the end of survival, since food is required in order to survive. However, what this means is that at least one referent of the concept “food” is required to survive (e.g., an apple, a steak, some bread, etc.), but that any one of these referents will suffice. The particular concrete referents, however, are not themselves a “need”, since any one of the other referents would serve just as well—we would not say that “steak” in particular is a need for survival. Similarly, studying is a need for the end of passing an exam, but a particular type of studying (group study, individual study, studying textbook, studying notes, etc.) is not necessarily a “need” for passing an exam; and an education is a need for obtaining a good job, but a particular type of education (apprenticeship, vocational school, college, self-study, home-school, on-the-job-training, etc.) is not a “need” for a good job.

From this you might notice that almost every possible “need” is in fact a concept, rather than a concrete. In fact, I am tempted to say that every “need” is a concept and not a concrete—in other words, that none of the concretes that anyone pursues are needs qua concrete. Think about it: as long as there is at least one other concrete besides the one that you are pursuing that could serve as a means to the end in question, then the concrete you are pursuing is not required to reach the end, and hence is not a need for that end.

Thus, what identifying a “need” does for you is delimits a set of concretes (the referents of the concept that was identified as a need) that would be acceptable for satisfying the requirement to achieving the end in question, allowing you to select one of those concretes based on secondary considerations. This frees your mind from the burden of having to apply those secondary considerations to all of those concretes that do not fall under the concept identified as a need. In other words, identifying a “need” narrows down your field of search for concretes to pursue. What it does not do for you is tell you which particular concrete to select. For example, identifying “food” as a need for survival allows you to eliminate all non-food concretes from your consideration as you decide which concrete examples of food to select based on secondary considerations such as taste, dietary guidelines, cost, etc.

An interesting question is whether there is a concept (or whether we need a concept) to refer to concretes that are sufficient to (but not necessary to) satisfy a need. For example, as noted above I would not say “steak” is “a need” for survival, but it does satisfy a need for survival in a way that other non-food concretes (e.g., vacuum cleaner) do not. Thus, it seems like it would be useful to have a concept that differentiates concretes that satisfy a given need (e.g., “steak”) from concretes that do not (e.g., vacuum cleaner). The descriptions “concrete that satisfies a need” or “concretes that are sufficient to (but not necessary to) satisfy a need” are a little too unwieldy, and since we are regularly identifying needs and selecting concretes to pursue based on these identifications, it seems like a concept would be useful here.

answered Jun 15 '15 at 17:16

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

edited Jun 16 '15 at 11:20

Doesn't the opening paragraph in the Update answer the question in the ending paragraph?

(a) "I am tempted to say that every “need” is a concept and not a concrete—in other words, that none of the concretes that anyone pursues are needs qua concrete."

(b) "An interesting question is whether there is a concept (or whether we need a concept) to refer to concretes that are sufficient to (but not necessary to) satisfy a need."

If (a) is true, what would a new concept proposed in (b) be differentiated from? What would be a counter example to (a)?

(Jun 17 '15 at 01:04) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Lets use my example in which the concept "food" is identified as a need for short term survival. I would say that the concrete of a steak, which is a concrete referent of "food", is not a need, since other forms of food beside the steak would be equally valid means to my end of short-term survival. However, the concrete of the steak is different in kind from some other random concrete that does not fall under the concept "food". While steak is not a "need" in this context, it does satisfy the need in a way that some other random concrete does not. Thus, the new concept I am asking about

(Aug 13 '15 at 17:37) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

would differentiate concretes that are valid means to satisfying a given need in a given context from concretes that are not. Thus, if short-term survival is the context, "food" is a need, steak is a blah, and vacuum cleaner is neither a need nor a blah (where "blah" represents the new concept).

The concept could be described as "a need-satisfying concrete that is not, in the given context, itself a need" or "a concrete that serves as a sufficient means to an given end, but is not a necessary means to the given end".

(Aug 13 '15 at 17:40) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

My closing question is simply whether a concept is justified to replace these unwieldy descriptions, or whether mere description is good enough.

(Aug 13 '15 at 17:45) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image
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To understand the concepts of 'need' and 'want' we have to identify the base concept from which they both derive, which is the concept of 'value'. 'Need' and 'want' are concepts representing how intensely we value something, i.e. to 'need' something is to value an object with a greater intensity than something that you 'want'.

As an example: Most people value food and water above hunger and thirst. However, a rational person may also value their children's life over that of their own; if there was a limited supply of food, they will 'want' to eat but they 'need' their children to survive.

answered Jun 20 '13 at 11:05

empiric's gravatar image

empiric ♦

edited Jun 20 '13 at 11:06

To amplify just a bit on Eric's very thorough list of popular misconceptions about "need" and "want," another closely related popular assumption is that an objective standard of value can justify only "needs" (along with "wants" that are also "needs"). But there can also be "wants" that, by themselves, are not needs, such as needing something, but not necessarily one particular thing among a group of two or more that can each help to meet one's needs. Man needs food, for example, but there are many valid choices of foods that can satisfy man's need for nourishment and enjoyment of living. Man doesn't need gourmet meals to survive, but (as Eric implies) such meals can certainly help him to flourish and be happy (although the long-term success of such meals depends on their nutritional soundness as well as their taste, texture and appearance).

This is where the concept of value is so important to understand. Objectivism identifies man's life qua man as the only objective standard of value for man, with all of man's values tied to that standard. Objectivism says to man: identify your needs by the objective standard of man's life qua man, and choose your wants by that same standard, as well. (Objectivism advocates rationality in cognition and action-choices.) Even if a value is not a need per se, it may still benefit (strengthen) man's life qua man in some objectively identifiable way, which makes it an objective value for man by the standard of man's life qua man.

As Eric and empiric both point out, "need" and "want" are harmoniously integrated in a rational approach; they are not clashing elements, like a form of mind-body split.

answered Jun 16 '15 at 00:37

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

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Asked: Jun 15 '13 at 16:19

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Last updated: Aug 13 '15 at 17:45