Needs, Wants, Interests, Motives

by Dr. Jan Garrett

This page was last revised February 10, 2004.

The purpose of this page is to clarify the meaning, for ethical purposes, of the term "needs" and other terms that are importantly related to it (like wants, interests, and motive) or sometimes confused with these terms.

A secondary purpose is to discuss the way in which individual human needs and interests give rise to the interests of organized groups. It is argued that our evaluation of the actions performed by groups in pursuit of their "interests" should depend in part on the quality of those interests and their roots in the interests of individuals.

A. Human Needs, Wants, Interests
     1. Preliminary Definitions
     2. Human Needs
     3. Needs and Wants
     4. Needs and Interests
     5. Human Interests
     6. Healthy and Unhealthy Human Interests
     7. Human Motive
     8. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
B. Interest at the Level of Organized Groups
     1. The Primacy of Natural Persons
     2. Interests of Organized Groups
     3. Apparent and Real Interests
     4. Elite vs. Egalitarian Interests
     5. Group Motive
     6. Profit Motive: Is There Such a Thing?
C. Bibliography

A. Human Needs, Wants, Interests

Preliminary Definitions

To give focus to what follows, let me start with some definitions, which will be elaborated and expanded in the discussion that follows:

(human) need. A human need, or, more accurately, the object of a human need is something which a human being must have in order to live a recognizably human life.

an interest. An interest, or, more accurately, the object of a human interest, is a thing that is either a (direct) object of human need or else it is related to a direct object of human need as a reliable means is to an end. Thus, if health is something that one needs, medicine that helps one regain one's health if sick is something in which one has a interest. (I am using the term "interest" in the sense in which we sometimes speak of real interests or healthy interests.")

a want. A want, or more accurately, the object of a want, is something which one desires to have, whether or not one needs it or has an interest in it in the preceding sense. Akin to the notion of want is the notion of preference. To have a preference for something is to prefer to have it, or that it be so, over not having it, or indifference to its being so.

Understood in this way, we sometimes want, or have wants for, things in which we have no interest (in the above sense), because we want things that are not related reliably to what we need. I grant that ordinary English does not always make this distinction. Indeed we often speak of someone having an interest, i.e., an unhealthy interest, in something contrary to what they need.

motive. A motive corresponds to a want or a preference that is sufficiently strong that it moves us to action or deliberate inaction. There can be a motive get acquire or consume things in which we have no genuine or healthy interest (in the special sense of interest defined above.)

deficiency needs. This term, coined by A. H. Maslow, refers to needs for things like food, clothing, shelter, love, respect, and self-respect.

being needs. This term, also coined by Maslow, refers to needs characteristic of the "self-actualized" person. Such a person is no longer dominated by the deficiency needs but instead needs "ongoing actualization of potentials, capacities, and talents, as fulfillment of fuller knowledge of and acceptance of the person's intrinsic nature." Objects of being needs include Justice, Integrity, Beauty, Completion, and the like.

Human Needs: The Basic Idea

"No effective substitute for the concept of needs in personal life or in public policy has come forward. Attempts to found policy choices on preferences alone have forfeited the moral concern that other people's needs awaken, much more powerfully than other people's preferences" (David Braybrooke 1992, 896).

For a start, let us define an (object of) human need as that which a human being must have to live a recognizably human life. An object of need is that which, if a human being is deprived of it by the intentional act or omission of other humans, is presumptively (apart from certain cases of forfeit) an injustice, and that which, if a human being is deprived of it by the accidents of nature or an unavoidable accidental conjunction of human events, is presumptively a tragedy.

As uncontroversial examples of human need, David Braybrooke mentions the human need for water and the need for an environment cooler than 150 degrees F. (p. 896)

David Wiggins says that:

for someone to vitally need an object, call it x, three things need to hold: the deprivation, or lack, of x would harm that person's very functioning in life as a human being; 2) there are no acceptable substitutes for x available to that person; and 3) x is integral to that person's having a life of minimal value. (paraphrased in Orend 2002, 63-64)
On the basis of Wiggins' definition, Brian Orend lists five general objects of vital human needs: "personal security, material subsistence, elemental equality, personal freedom, and recognition as a member of the human community." (Orend, 64) According to Orend, these five are the general objects to which human beings have rights; other rights, he says, are specifications of these basic five.

Needs and Wants

We all recognize that people sometimes want things that they do not need. (The word "prefer" is sometimes used here in place of "want"; see Braybrooke 1992.) Indeed, they sometimes want things that they should not be permitted to have. On the other hand, to establish that something is an object of genuine need for a person seems to be a pretty good reason to permit him or her to have it. By "pretty good reason" I do not mean it is decisive in all cases, to be sure.

By contrast with "wants," "needs" suggest a degree of urgency. When needs are not met, a person either will die or gradually lose health (moving toward death) or else in some way or another atrophy: without certain activities, our physical and mental and emotional capacities may "wither on the vine," so to speak, and we become in some real sense less than we would otherwise have been. By contrast with needs, mere wants ("mere" is often used) are things that are optional or trivial or inessential.

It is hard to draw the line precisely between wants and needs. There might be a biological minimum rooted in human nature, but there is a second minimum that varies to a significant extent with culture. In some cultures, it is almost impossible to receive respect if one does not wear a shirt or one cannot read. In other cultures (especially at other, earlier times) one could get by without a shirt (at least in warm weather) and inability to read was not noticed since nobody could.

Even if we grant that some of the things required to meet our needs (such as social needs) are culturally shaped and cannot be understood in strict biological terms, we can still distinguish between needs and mere wants.

Needs and Interests

Whereas "needs" most refer to the sorts of things we tend to desire as ends, and at least in the most obvious cases, our well-being depends on having them, "interests" seems to refer not only to objects of human needs but also to the things that seem reliably related to them as means to ends (Braybrooke, 894). Thus we have an interest in transportation even if transportation is not desirable as an end (because, let us suppose, all by itself it does not meet a vital human need) but because as a means it enables us better to achieve our ends or fulfill our vital needs. Thus, it seems, interests are related to needs, but "interests" names a more inclusive class insofar as they include not only the things that directly fulfill our human needs but also means to the things that fulfill our basic human needs.

If we have a right to the objects of our vital human needs, then we also have a right to at least some means that could enable us to satisfy our human needs.

Human Interests

Individual human interests are in some ways constant, in some ways variable. Certainly they vary with changes in the health, strength, knowledge, and moral development of the individual. Healthy people have a smaller interest in medical care than those who are chronically ill. Stronger people have a smaller interest in assistance in moving furniture than weaker people. Those with greater knowledge can solve problems and relate new facts to preexisting information better than those with less. Arguably, persons in the last years of their probable lifespan have an interest that is less pressing in younger people in reflecting on their lives as a whole and asking about how their lives relate to the ongoing stream of generations.

There are changes in interests across the generations because technological changes, and ecological problems depending on them, bring different problems to the fore for different generations. Nevertheless, human interests, although diverse, have a remarkably constant range down the ages.

Unhealthy Human "Interests"?

Most people will agree that there is a difference between what one can take a healthy interest in, and what one could call a perverse or unhealthy interest. It is clear that not everyone will agree where we should draw the line, but most people will want to draw the line somewhere. For most of us, an "interest" in pedophilia would be on the unhealthy side of the line, as would an "interest" in amassing all the world's resources in one's hands so that everybody else would have to grovel before one in order to receive barely enough for survival. These unhealthy preferences correspond pretty closely to what is known as moral vice, bad habits associated with inappropriate desires and, in most if not all cases, associated with an inability to respect one's fellow human beings as persons.

Having a human need for X is a presumptive reason for having possession or the use of X. Having a healthy interest in X is indirectly related to such a need as a means to an end, and thus provides a partial presumptive reason for having possession or the use of X. Having an unhealthy "interest" in or preference for X does not.

Although we sometimes use the term "interest" to cover preferences, regardless of whether those preferences are healthy or related to genuine needs, it may serve the cause of clarify if we stipulate here that interests do not include what are sometimes called (unhealthy) interests. In what follows, if I must refer to preferences that may be unhealthy as interests, I shall use the term followed by an asterisk, thus: interests*.


When a desire or wish is effective in moving us to action, it is possible to say that we are motivated by it. To say that a person is motivated by revenge is to say that he desires to injure another person or social group whom he perceives as having injured him or persons or groups with whom he identifies. Motive appears to be little more than a renaming of desire or wish in those cases in which desire or wish is effective in moving us to act.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

So far the needs of which we have been speaking have been understood as minimal. Twentieth-century humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow addresses these needs but goes beyond them.

According to Maslow, human needs can be arranged in a hierarchy or scale. At the bottom, corresponding to the needs that are most urgent early in life and continue to be urgent when they are not satisfied up to a certain point, are certain basic needs. These relate directly to biological survival such as needs for food, clothing, and shelter, and, at the next level, security, i.e., some sense of assurance that the previous needs will be met. What Maslow calls basic needs are probably the most and "self-evident" of human needs.

Next in the hierarchy of needs, a step up from the basic and obviously biologically grounded needs, are what we might call social needs, i.e., needs first for love, then for respect from others, and finally for self-respect.

Maslow sometimes calls the two classes of needs we have discussed so far "deficiency needs" or "maintenance needs."

Clearly we recognize that the maintenance needs provide motives for human action in many, many cases. Citing them often explains why people act as they do.

Once the maintenance needs are met to a certain degree, according to Maslow, other needs become active. He calls this final class of needs self-actualizing needs or "being" needs. These include needs for beauty, justice, consistency, integrity, knowledge, autonomy, and creativity. A person who experiences these needs wants beauty in her life, desires to be just and consistent in her choices and prefers knowledge to ignorance. Knowledge and justice, etc., are regarded by her as desirable in their own right, and not merely as a means to a realization of other needs.

According to Maslow, people who are radically lacking in the satisfaction of the maintenance needs are not going to experience the being needs at all. People who are radically lacking in the satisfaction of the most basic survival needs may not experience needs for love or respect, much less self-respect.

Maslow writes, "Healthy people have sufficiently gratified their basic needs of safety, belongingness, love and self-esteem so that they are motivated primarily by trends to self-actualization (defined as ongoing actualization of potentials, capacities and talents, as fulfillment of mission (or call, fate, destiny or vocation), as a fuller knowledge of, and acceptance of, the person's own intrinsic nature, as an unceasing trend toward unity, integration or synergy within the person)." (Maslow 1968, 25)

A person who has being needs pursues justice and knowledge, at least in large part for its own sake, whereas somebody who has only or primarily deficiency needs wants justice only to secure the material things or the love that she or seeks and to which he or she may claim a right, and wants knowledge because of the power it brings to get the objects of his deficiency needs.

Maslow's account of human needs is similar to the account of human needs already implicit in the writings of ancient and medieval philosophers. While it is not the only current theory of human needs, it is a widely respected one and it is supported by a considerable amount of empirical psychological research.

John Finnis (1980) argues that there are a number of irreducible human goods, several of which seem to correspond to Maslow's being needs. Finnis' list includes life, friendship, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, practical reasonableness, and religion. While life seems to correspond to the most basic of Maslow's deficiency needs and friendship (sometimes "sociability") in Finnis roughly corresponds to the deficiency needs for love, respect, and self-esteem, the remaining five roughly correspond to Maslow's Being needs.

B. Interest and Groups

The Primacy of Natural Persons

In the relationship between organized groups and individual human beings (roughly identical to the class of "natural persons"), the latter should be given priority in at least two ways:

First, we are to understand the creation and maintenance of organized groups in terms of the desires and actions of individual human beings. Organized groups do not pop into existence without the cooperation of human individuals, nor do they continue to function without that cooperation.

Second, we are to morally evaluate the decisions, actions, and omissions of the organized groups in terms of their relationships to individual human beings and in terms of their consequences for human beings. Organizations do not have any justification for existence apart from their ability to answer to human needs and genuine interests.

Far be it from me to say or even hint that organizations do not have "needs," or things that must be attended to if the organization is to survive or function smoothly. We can speak in this sense of good internal communication and a conscientious, alert management team as a "need" of an organization. But these "needs" are needs in a sense that is secondary to the needs of individual humans. There would be no justification for human organizations to exist were it not for the existence of human needs.

It is one of the key tasks of ethics to constantly remind us of this fact.

Interests of Organized Groups

It is not clear that organized groups have desires, at least in the same way human beings have desires. But we do commonly say, rightly or not, that they have "interests." In the vast majority of cases, what we call group interests will derive from a mix of real, healthy interests of individual humans and merely apparent, unhealthy, or perverse interests* of other individuals. So it will not be possible, much of the time, to sharply distinguish healthy group interests from unhealthy group interests. In what follows I shall continue to speak of interests*, adding an asterisk (as I did above) to indicate that we are talking about group interests that have perverse or unhealthy components.

It seems that these interests* emerge from the preferences or desires of the members of the group but are often not merely the sum of those preferences or desires. In specialist groups, only some of the interests* of individuals factor into the interest* of the group. For instance, a group that represents opthamologists will not normally factor in the interests* of opthamologists as Catholics or Muslims or Hindus. Those interests* would figure into the interests* instead of religious organizations. An exception might be in the case of a professional group whose members were overwhelmingly Catholics or Muslims or members of the top one-percent of income earners.

Another way in which the interests* of groups are not merely the sum of the interests* of its members reflects the power differentials within the groups. In corporations, the stockholders who have large quantities of stock have greater influence on the election of the board than stockholders who have a few shares each. But also individuals close to the power center of organizations have disproportionately more input into the interest* of the organization, although this may be diluted by the political mechanisms that control selection of those individuals.

The interests* of a group functioning within a nation state are affected by constraints under which it must operate. For instance, if it is in danger of being heavily fined or taken over by the government if it does not obey various laws, then it has an externally-generated interest* in toeing the line on those laws. Likewise the interest* of a nation-state is affected by international constraints under which it must operate. If it is threatened by an invasion of another, much stronger military power on the condition that it crosses a line set by that stronger power, then it has an interest* in not crossing that line.

Thus, there are numerous ways in which the interest* of a group is shaped by internal political relationships and external constraints. As these change the interests* of a group change, but the basic human needs--indeed, the genuine or healthy interests (no asterisk)-- of the human participants in these groups remain remarkably constant.

Group interests* have greater variability than human interests* because what groups can do (because they tend to be more powerful than individuals) admits of a wider range than what individuals can do. Both of these types of interest* admit of a wider range than healthy or real human interests, because the latter are closely tied to human needs, the basic set of which is remarkably constant over time and from society to society.

Healthy and Unhealthy Group Interests

Just as it is possible for individuals to have unhealthy interests*, it is also possible for groups to have them. Germany, at least under the Nazi regime, had an unhealthy interest* in political expansion, in dominating its neighbors, and ultimately in what we now call ethnic cleansing. The KKK and similar organizations had and continue to have an unhealthy interest* in denying African Americans and various religious groups the equal protection of the law. Arguably, in the nineteenth century the Euro-American dominated United States had an unhealthy interest* in the radical depopulation of Native Americans whose societies occupied a large part of North America west of the Appalachians, north of the Rio Grande, and south of the Canadian border.

Generally speaking, groups with unhealthy interests* are so structured, and its leading members so motivated, that the organization is likely to engage in activities that, from an impartial perspective, violate the basic principles of just treatment of persons or, as we might be inclined to say, their human rights.

So, to say that an organization has a business interest* in doing something in no way guarantees that this is a (healthy) interest. It might be, but it also might not.

Apparent and Real Interests

It is frequently said that individuals and groups tend to act in terms of their apparent interests*, i.e., what seems good to them. But their apparent interests* may be quite distinct from their real, genuine, or healthy interests. One country may think it is in its own interest* to conquer another country so as to secure access to the resources located in that second country, but the conquest may make it so many enemies that the conqueror country will be worse off than if it merely paid somewhat higher prices to secure the second country's resources by means of trade or restructured its economy so that it did not have a motive to seize those resources. Thus, what seemed to be in the country's best interest turned out not to be so.

Elite vs. Democratic Interests*

Frequently what are taken to be the national interests* of a country are largely the interests* of the wealthier and more politically connected citizens of the country, while the interests* of the less well-heeled majority and politically less connected citizens count for very little in the mix. This is especially the case when the less affluent citizens are so worn out from laboring long hours or so discouraged from past failed attempts to reform the political system that they absent themselves from the political process. Thus political analysts estimate the national interest* by trying to guess the interests* being expressed at the Presidential or Congressional level, and these are largely the interests* of the elites.

But sometimes what we have in mind when we talk about the national interest* is something like a vector-sum of the interests of the individual citizens of a society, giving them equal weight.

By vector-sum, I have in mind that diverse individuals have different motivations and the result of combining them in ways that express both motivations must turn out to be different from what would happen if they acted independently. (If A wants to travel East and B wants to travel north, they also want to travel together, and their desires are of equal intensity, then, in a vector-sum analysis they would travel northeast.) This example is one in which the individuals are given equal weight. If A's preference were given much more weight than B's, the pair would travel more East than North. Similarly, if a society follows democratic weighting, the resultant national interest* would be quite different from a national interest* that expresses chiefly the interests* of the elites.

It seems possible, even if unlikely, that the actions and policies taken in the name of a nation-state could express the (genuine) interests (no scare quotes) of the elites or the (genuine) interests of the citizens understood in a more or less democratic manner.

Group Motives

Just as a person's desires, or "interests" derived from desires, produces the person's motives, which in turn explain action, so an organization's interests,* derived by various means from and reflecting the interests* of individuals associated with the organization, seem to produce their motives.

Thus there is no doubt that Ford under Lee Iacocca had a motive to introduce the Ford Pinto and in fact to rush it into production in record time (insufficient time, apparently, to fix a design problem that led to numerous, essentially avoidable, car fires and painful deaths). There is also little doubt that Iacocca and other Ford managers had personal interests* that merged to produce what we might call the corporate motive. Certainly, Ford had an interest* in capturing a chunk of the subcompact market away from Volkswagen. If Ford lacked a sufficiently massive annual income, its stock value might decline, its managers might lose their jobs (of course its assembly line workers would too, but they did not make decisions at the top level), and Ford's executives might be replaced. Their spouses might divorce them, they might lose their expensive houses and cars, they might have to give up their country club memberships, and their children might have to go to the local community college instead of Yale. While the Ford executives were not likely to starve, they were likely to lose social status and public prestige. Fear of loss of status can be a powerful source of interest* for those used to receiving it.

Profit Motive

In all of this there is no hint of a profit motive. The reason for this is that "profit" is not a term that helpfully describes the interests* (healthy or not) that move individuals to act or to recommend or vote for a particular course of action.

Profit is an economist's term, meaningful chiefly within economic discussions. Profits are not identical to income: people who live off wages or salaries may in part be motivated to work effectively for wages or salaries that they can then spend or save for various purposes, but they do not work for profits. Managers, who get paid a salary, in working for the salary are not motivated by profits (although presence or lack of profits may determine whether they keep their job and thus their salary).

As Robert Solomon points out, profits are not what is left over at the end of a period of economic activity. When a craftsperson sells a product, what is left over when he deducts the cost of materials and the use of his workshop is not profit, but compensation for work well done. (Solomon, 40)

Profits are, roughly, the difference in a given period of time between total income and total expenditures on things like wages and salaries, rents, cost of raw materials consumed in production, and cost of machinery that has to be replaced because of wear and tear. Profits are, of course, a measure of the relationship between income and expenditures. They are one sign of how well a firm is doing in purely economic terms.

One can intend to produce a profit, but that fact does not make profit a motive. We do not say that people who work for a salary have a salary motive, or that people who rent buildings have a rent motive, or that folks who engage in bank jobs have a theft-motive.

Robert Solomon writes, "Profit is [in times fortunate for investors] a return on investment. Profit is not a reward for hard work or good ideas nor is it aimed at public prosperity or even self-satisfaction. It is a technical economic term, not a social or psychological concept." (Solomon, 41)

There is therefore little sense in talk about a profit motive.

There is even less sense in the view that a business merits profits just because it is in business, as if a profit were to a business as nutritious food is to a human being. It is not justifiable to make a profit "by any means necessary," if that includes violating basic moral principles. Even if the laws that make it wrong for corporate executives to be extremely careless with the capital allegedly entrusted to them by shareholders are morally justified, it does not follow that corporate managers in every business that cannot make a profit are moral failures. The possibility, in fact the likelihood, of a number of business failures is built into an economy involving business competition.


Braybrooke, David, 1992. "Needs and Interests," pp. 894-97 in Lawrence C.
    and Charlotte B. Becker, eds., Encyclopedia of Ethics. Garland.

Finnis, John, 1980. Natural Law and Natural Rights. Oxford University Press.

Maslow, A. H., 1968. Toward a Psychology of Being. D. Van Nostrand.

Orend, Brian, 2002. Human Rights: Concept and Context. Broadview.

Solomon, Robert C., 1992. Ethics and Excellence. Oxford University Press.