Needs Anchor Morality


  • The injunctions of morality are valuable to guide one’s actions and settle conflicts with others.
  • While a subjective morality is personalized and doable, it cannot settle conflicts.
  • A universalist morality might be capable of resolving conflict, but it must prove convincing to oneself and others to succeed.
  • A major obstacle in objectivizing morality is the problem of specification of the concepts used to employ it.
  • The simplest means to overcome this problem is to employ an absolutist morality defined and warranted by an authority reliant on trust, but since authority cannot resolve challenges to trust that will erode it, it is unlikely to be revived as a viable moral warrant today.
  • The only other putatively objective options available are virtue ethics, duty ethics, and utilitarianism.
  • Of the three, only virtue ethics is a complete system, but it relies on the shaky foundation of the duty to satisfy universal human needs.
  • Its effort to catalogue those needs faces cultural opposition from psychology, cultural variance, and postmodernists jealous of individual agency and suspicious of imposition of values.
  • It also faces axiomatic opposition from premodernists seeking a revival of religious authority or traditional values.
  • The task of identifying human needs need not seek cultural consensus that resolves all opposition but must satisfy the definitional requirements of morality while also proving itself convincing to a dispassionate observer.
  • The first task must be to remind that observer of the deficiencies of the axioms of premodernism and postmodernism to make space for the positive argument to follow.
  • One can seek the existence of universal human needs in two kinds of investigation: an historical one focused on widely disparate eras and a comparative one of contemporary cultures focused on widely disparate lifestyles.
  • All adult human persons engage their freedoms to pursue whatever they consider good, making each of us a choice-making machine.
  • A key means to achieve a utility of furthest ends is to avoid having one’s preferences self-conflict or so conflict with others that the preferences are frustrated, and this requires a rationally directed pursuit of identified ends.
  • This implies that some desires are more worthy of pursuing than others, though that is difficult to see because of the variability of experience.
  • Though experience is unique, reasoning is potentially universal and can be made more competent by the act of severance that makes truth determinations prior to engaging preference.
  • The summum bonum of virtue ethics is human flourishing: the acquisition of those goods that are worthy ends of preference.
  • An illustrative example would be the species-specific human need for healthful nutrition: with very minor variations for gender, the countless cultural variances of selection, preparation, and consumption of food all service the single end of healthful nutrition, and so they can be judged by their service to that end.
  • These kinds of health needs are instinctually knowable and pressing, yet the same rational process that mediates them can discover other universal human practices served by an immense cultural variety such as the universal need for education.
  • One way to test these candidates is by their service as ends in themselves: good health and education are good for their own sakes.
  • As a catalogue of needs is constructed, it becomes apparent that these self-evident goods must be balanced and responsive to circumstance, though any failure to satisfy all of them diminishes flourishing.
  • Competent arbitration among true needs and gatekeeping them against the press of desire require plentiful experiences to be distilled by increasingly competent preference.
  • A few guideposts: needs are incommensurable, timeless, universal, and trans-cultural, and can be found by employing a golden mean between extremes.
  • One phrasing of needs might identify bodily, sharing, intellectual, character, and political needs.
  • Functional natural law theory enlarges virtue ethics to the political and communal sphere wherein justice rules; it regards human rights as products of radical respect for all persons’ preferential freedom and governs the just distributions of societal goods and their arbitration.
  • The development of good habits is essential to virtue ethics; this process is moral virtue (as opposed to the intellectual virtue of identifying needs) and its correct employment leads to wisdom.

Morality tells us what we ought to do (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?”). This is valuable to guide our own preferences and, if the moral system is a good one, to resolve conflicts with others willing to engage the system’s axioms of commitment (See “The Axioms of Moral Systems“). That “ought” may rest upon either of two axioms common to our preferences. We may take it to be subjective (coherentist): what I should do need not be what you should do in the same circumstance. Or we may see it as objective (correspondentist)  we are both bound by the same moral obligations. A subjective morality offers the advantage of moral flexibility — each person or culture uses experience to determine “shoulds” — but it suffers from an inability to resolve conflicting interpretations since no moral standard may be judged superior to a differing valuation. An objective morality that obliges all persons without regard to their own values resolves that problem but at the expense of having to justify why what you think moral must also apply to me.

And that is very hard. But since morality, if it is to be of any use at all, must offer a means to resolve disagreements, thinkers have tried to make it objective. In this, they face among many other issues the problem of specification, since the goodness of any moral choice is a judgment not rooted in a common perception. Their efforts may be divided into two broad categories. For most of human history, people relied on an absolutist moral system that applied the same standard of conduct to all. The warrant for all such systems has been authority, almost always the authority of divine command (see “Religion and Truth”). Since the seventeenth century, that arrangement has been fractured by the peculiar inability of authority to resolve challenges to its truth and goodness claims on its own terms (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority.”) Thinkers found themselves forced to appeal to a different kind of justification for moral truth: reason grounded in experience. That kind of justification is called moral universalism. It assumes that human reason is a shared capability that allows persons to think through necessary moral rules for living. Three differing moral systems have emerged to claim universal rational assent. They are virtue ethics, duty ethics, and utilitarianism (see “Three Moral Systems.) I support virtue ethics as the best universalist system (see “A Virtue Ethics Primer), but my acceptance of that theory forces me to confront its maddening reliance on human needs as the cornerstone of morality. The subject is frequently (and accurately) condemned as an absurdly generic one. Opponents argue that an examination of needs adequate to explain psychological reality would be so broad as to render it useless for individuals’ moral direction, and that any effort to limit it sufficiently to make it a real arbiter of choice would run afoul of individual and cultural variability.

Such an effort is particularly difficult in the current cultural climate because it occupies a narrow lane between two dominant moral positions that have been contending against each other for a century. The winds of our age blow strongly toward the postmodern notion of subjectivism and a resulting suspicion of claims to an objective moral knowledge that would be required to justify any universalist catalogue of needs. Such an effort would be regarded as a self-interested exercise of power and subjugation in a cultural climate that values moral autonomy and individual choice above all. A much older tradition of religious absolutism condemns this view as godless relativism because it lacks a religious teleology that would see our moral striving as ordered by some absolute command. Existentialism is the dominant moral argument today, and it elevates a radical subjectivism in the face of nihilism as the only defensible moral position (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist). That view is a source of frustration for rearguard defenders of religious authority (see “Tao and the Myth of Religious Return”) as much as it is for my defense of virtue ethics. They can cling to their dogma and reject postmodern claims, but my effort can hardly get off the ground if it cannot establish a position opposing both religious absolutism and postmodern subjectivism while pitching a moral universalism appealing to the reasoning of a disinterested observer as a sort of “utility of furthest ends” whose valuation appeals to reason. My task involves threading a narrow needle. I will attempt it in this essay.

My argument depends on the existence of objective and common human needs that are definable by the application of reason to experience. My position need not achieve universal assent any more than would the correct answer to an algebra problem. Of course, that comparison implies that those who disagree are getting it wrong and that would be a blow to subjectivist and absolutist alike. My argument must do more than demonstrate their error. It must also advance a consistent system that  both acknowledges their advantages to any moral agent and resolves their inadequacies.  And that means for my argument to be successful, it must prove convincing to a reasonable person with an open mind. I should note that this is the same standard used in civil courtroom proceedings, not “true beyond a reasonable doubt” but “true by a preponderance of the evidence.” While that level of proof leaves room for doubt, it strikes me as a defensible standard for arguments over morality since moral goodness relies on rational intersubjectivity rather than any concrete and objective truth.

This standard leads me to reject the two contemporary warrants for morality that contend for our assent, subjectivism and divine command, and for a single reason: neither is able to resolve conflict among persons or cultures. Their failure is an issue of warrant.

Postmodern subjectivism is surely dominant in most persons’ minds as a feature of our age. It values tolerance, personal freedom, and variety. In practice, it tends toward personal, cultural, and political pragmatism based on a pretty primitive form of utilitarianism. I have addressed this position’s weakness both as a personal (see “The Problem of Moral Pragmatism”) and as a political strategy (see Two Senses of the Common Good) and so feel comfortable that any thoughtful adult would find it equally unsatisfactory upon reflection.

Those who reject subjectivism frequently consider the traditional system it replaced to be the only tenable moral position. They embrace a moral absolutism that resolves the flaccid and self-contradictory dictates of subjectivism in favor of a very confident assertion of divine command applicable to all moral agents. They find the certainty of religion’s moral claims to be a powerful corrective to the “whatever” perspective of postmodernism, but they face exactly the same problem in attempting to impose their beliefs on others. The authority they consider binding on all moral agents may be and often is easily rejected by those accepting some competing authority requiring different moral duties or by postmodernists who heap scorn upon their traditionalism (see Authority, Trust, and Knowledge“).  Their total adherence to a moral code contradictory to that followed by other religionists places them in an identical position to the subjectivists they despise. Their moral arsenal contains no weapon powerful enough to convince dissenters. While postmodernists must shrug and embrace tolerance as a condition of their morality, religious absolutists find themselves only shouting louder to those who respect different authority or none at all, particularly since suspicion of authority is a hallmark of our culture and itself a product of past religious warfare. Their frustration notwithstanding, they too lack the ability to convince dissenters, even those of good will. The inability of either position to resolve conflict characterizes our culture and frustrates good-faith efforts even to define issues, much less resolve them. That crippling defect alone should send us out in search of something better. So let us do that.

Rather than start with the assumption that moral truth comes from culture, preference, or heaven, I prefer to begin with simple observation. Let us start with the is of life, rather than the ought.  We are a single species, homo sapiens. In what can only be called the conquest of our material environment, we have found generation after generation that certain patterns of living characterize our species. Some of these patterns reflect our physical nature. We are weak individually compared to other animals, but we have found strength in cooperation. Our young have relatively long spans of total dependency compared to other animals, so in the various cultures we build, we have established social organizations to deal with our physical deficiencies and our need to shelter our young. We develop language to coordinate our interactions, something humanity does to far greater extent than other species, though our use of it clearly grows from the same natural source as the communications of other social animals. Since our social organizations grow increasingly complex as populations increase and specialize in the applications of skill, human societies always find it necessary to standardize some means of inculcation, and so education enters the mix.

Both in individual effort and as social participants, persons find a wider range of choices facing them in their daily lives than other beings. This variety is matched to an interesting attenuation of instinct. We are guided by genetic dictates in only the most obvious of our choices. We don’t have to think too hard to know when to satisfy our desire for food, drink, or sleep. But a surprising number of human choices seem to pit some instinctual drives against others or against the most dominant human trait of all: our natural freedom to apply our reasoning to the reality we face and deduce possible options (see Our Freedom Fetish). Precisely because our instincts are so weakened, we are forced to face reality with open eyes, forced to assess the truths it presents to us, and forced to choose those that we think best (see What Do We Mean By ‘Good’?). If you doubt this as the defining feature of our species, try not recognizing choice for even two minutes. We are choice-making machines, programmed to seek out the options our reality gives us and by whatever means available choose those that satisfy our desires (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance).  And the means to accomplish that can be nothing other than rational because it involves teasing out both the complexities we face and the choices they imply (see The Tyranny of Rationality).

I will happily accede to the truth that the preceding paragraph is banal in the extreme. What could be more obvious? Yet hidden in plain sight in this most generic appraisal of human potential is, I think, all I will need to convince you of the truth of virtue ethics.

While reality presents us with a constant flood of options, identified through universal human reasoning, our instinct does not identify for us which choice is to be preferred at any one moment. So preferential freedom evaluates and directs our moral options. Which choice is better? How should we choose? Emerging neurological science answers that our identification of choice may be a kind of delusion. Certainly, the moral freedom to choose one option over another is challenged by the very determinism that makes science possible. I recognize that but respond that the human tendency to identify and prefer choices is so deeply ingrained in our nature that we cannot reject it (see The Determinism Problem”). We may accept determinism as a concept, but we will never surrender our sense of preferential freedom to accommodate it. This stubborn insistence only attests to preferential freedom as a core concept of our common human identity and to an implicit recognition of the importance of morality to our sense of self (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument). Because we must recognize preference even when think we may lack the capacity to act on our choices, we are directed to examine the nature of preference. So let’s do that now.

Our will is moved by our desires. Our normal path to preference begins with a determination of the reality we face, a judgment that calls for an unbiased grasp of our situation to whatever degree are are capable of in that task. Just as our brains are hardwired to convert sense data into the categories of experience that we then naively call “reality,” we are also programmed by nature to open options, lay out choices for preference, based upon the reality we think we know. Given the options laid out before us by this natural freedom, we quickly move on to  method of evaluation we subscribe to and will one desire over the others for each singular moment in our experience. Obviously, this happens thousands of times daily for every person living on our planet and for every one who ever has. The essence of objective, correspondentist morality is to say that some desires are preferable to others, meaning preferable to everyone, and the essence of objective morality is to say that if you were in my place, you should choose to satisfy the same desire that I should, or at least that a different choice would be indicated by the same mode of reasoning. We call that choosing a good, though we have not yet agreed on what that would be. So let’s do that next.

It seems true that this determination relies on a few ground rules. For instance, I would find it immensely frustrating if the reasoning I used to determine a to be good would in similar circumstance later find a to be not good. Granted, situations change, but the principle of non-contradiction obligates me to apply similar judgment to similar circumstances so as not to toggle aimlessly and uselessly from choice to choice.  That same logic also compels me to examine choosing b in light of my prior choice of a. If the conditions that led me to call a good at the moment of choosing appertain in a similar way to a later choice, consistency would obligate me to accord a similar evaluation to my choice of b. Of course, should the situation present me with new considerations or should the results of choosing a move me to regret my preference, I should reevaluate before choosing, and that cumulative evaluation then move me to choose “not a” or “not b.” The error of all subjectivist systems is to view choices as discrete and disconnected rather than as causally connected by a long-term utility of furthest ends (see “THe Utility of Furthest Ends.”) This is particularly true of the current culture’s favorite mode, pragmatism, which sees each choice as isolated from all others. Defenders regard this an advantage in a fast-paced world, but it is actually a defensive response to a predecessor theory that attempted to look beyond immediate consequences, to rationalize the secondary results of our choices so as to choose more thoughtfully. A moment’s thought should reveal the problem with this “utilitarian calculus”: our choices ripple out in endless and unpredictible patterns of consequence far beyond reason’s ability to predict or calculate. But does it really seem that the proper result ought to be to turn a blind eye to any but the most obvious and immediate ones? That is like turning off your headlights so you can better see your dashboard.  It is this flightiness that moved Kant to try to anchor his deontological ethics in a strict adherence to duty in our intentions regardless of consequence, though his prescription does little to motivate a consistent commitment to that duty. Absolutist religious systems, of course, provide both long-term direction and a powerful incentive to follow their dictates in addition to a picture of order and purpose that grounds proper behavior, though their warrant also discourages the rational activity that is the hallmark of preferential freedom in favor of duties imposed from above. Their certainty is appealing, at least to their adherents, despite their utter inability to resolve conflicts with other authorities, but their means of accomplishing it accosts the moral freedom that is constitutive of human nature. Rather than see that choice-making machinery as the essence of the human person, religious absolutists see it as proof of a fallen and defective moral state. All of these moral systems fail in some way, either to long-term moral consistency, to motivation, or to respecting moral autonomy, and these quite apart from their general inability to resolve conflicting moral viewpoints, or to reconcile intention and consequence. A successful universal system must resolve these failures.

If you agree, I think you are ready to consider the bases of virtue ethics.

First, it acknowledges that our reasoning about choice is bound by rules of consistency imperfectly applied to experience and by the principle of non-contradiction. The first acknowledgment moves us to recognize the variability of experience. No two choices can ever appeal to a static reasoning. We live each moment anew and the reasoning we bring to each moment of choice must acknowledge that it presents us with an altered reality to which we must apply our reasoning and choosing. So consistency only takes us so far.  I acknowledge the variability of experience that structures each preferential choice differently, but that very randomness argues in favor of some rule of conduct flexible enough to bend to context yet strong enough to impart a skeletal strength to our moral lives. We are not born with this ability and are not guaranteed it by experience. But our reasoning is up to the task of constantly examining experience to tease out its components and examine them in light of previous experience so as to make ever more informed choices. Intentions matter and so do consequence, but what matters more than either is that we examine both over time so as to form habits of choice that conduce to better preference (see What Counts as Justification?“).  We can get better at it as we go along and for two reasons. First, we have an ever-increasing file of past experiences to compare to current quandaries, though that catalogue is tinged by imperfections of memory and particularity. Second, we think more clearly about it. Our reasoning about our experience can grow ever more subtle and less coarse. Consider for a moment the proof of this truth in the way children view experience as a train of particularities and novelties without theme or direction. Over a single lifetime, we can come close to transforming our efforts from the weakest kind of warrant for truth and goodness, unexamined experience, to one of the strongest, expertise.  I say we can “come close” to that improvement as a concession to the continuing variability of experience that always challenges us with the unexpected. I say “can” come close because potentiality need not produce actuality. Either we don’t live long enough or don’t reason well enough ever to become true experts at the simple act of living life well. But wouldn’t we like to? Shouldn’t our aim at the truly good grow sharper with thoughtful experience? Virtue ethics claims that goal as the summum bonum, the greatest good, of human existence. We all aim to flourish as human persons. Contrary to contemporary thinking on that score, we can say something meaningful about flourishing as a desideratum of human living and grow in competence to meet it. That requires we focus on our needs.

Let us begin that effort by taking some of the preferences we all can agree on, what might be called the most instinctive of human desires. Only a perversion of the word “good” would allow one to say that eating healthily is not a universal good, for instance. While cultures have laid out a buffet of means to satisfy this good based on local supplies and customs, all of these wonderful options are merely variations on the theme of sufficiency required for nutrition. The human body has very specific needs in this regard, and the needs are the same from Chile to China. It is interesting that a surfeit is as detrimental to this need as an insufficiency. We grow ill from too much and from too little. A median, a midpoint, seems to be the sweet spot for satisfaction of our food needs. We see exactly the same relationship in nearly all of our health needs, allowing for minor genetic variations. We could do the same analysis on our need for sleep, for instance, or for water. Too little is baneful. Too much is toxic. A rational examination of our need for health informs us of a consistent truth: regardless of what we desire, these instinctual needs demand satisfaction. As ironbound as our needs are, we still may find manifold means to satisfy them. We may choose when to sleep or where, whether to bike or run or walk, to play computer games or watch television or throw the ball with the kids. But we should not be blinded by the means we as individuals or cultures choose to satisfy these instinctual needs. Humans are highly inventive and cultures highly variant in this effort, but the immense richness of our experience should not deceive us. Every human who has ever lived has shared the same fundamental health needs, and to the degree that every one of them has discovered through experience how best to satisfy them, they have flourished through their satisfaction and suffered diminishment of the human experience through their frustration.

Wouldn’t it be pleasant to think that all of our needs could be satisfied so instinctually? We have to take it up a notch to examine other needs that derive from our universal modes of living. I acknowledge that this set of less obvious needs requires a bit more thoughtfulness to tease out of the welter of cultural variety that time and place have shown us, yet we see an identical set of properties in these slightly higher needs. They have always been present to human experience. They arise naturally as a means to life fully human lives. Their satisfaction lies at a median point between too much and too little. Let us consider two examples: education and skill.

For humans, biological evolution was superseded by cultural evolution long before the last ice age. Our instincts are weak, yet we live complicated lives that require the transmission of lots of information. Our big brains and the reasoning they must do to process experience in the pursuit of flourishing push us to transfer reams of information from each generation to the next. Of course, language grew out of this need as a means to make vicarious experience profitable. So did education. Every person who has ever lived has experienced the very same process of inculcation of previous experience to present one. The means are so diverse that the purpose might be obscured to the casual observer, but if we look, we can see various means to satisfy the same need. Education is a means to living well. From tending flocks to reading Locke, it is all the same. And just as we must find the right proportion of food, neither too much nor too little, so we must find the right amount and the right kind of education.

But note how this level of reasoning about our needs leads us into some difficulty. Caloric needs are narrow. Educational ones seem much wider. It was fine for Aristotle to say that the philosophical life makes for the best one, but most folks are happier if they don’t spend a lifetime on esoteric pursuits, preferring a practical education to an extended one. This brings in a related need: skill.

Food is a means to the end of health. Education is the means to the end of skill. To that end, we continue to learn for a lifetime. Now that learning may be in the academy or in the field. The need to flourish forces the active human mind into the pursuit of ever-increasing opportunities to perfect skills. One person chooses to accomplish that task in the laboratory, the next on the golf course, the next in the kitchen, and so on. I may think it a waste that you devote your life to making money and you can’t see why I do origami. But we should both see these as continuing our education so as to develop skill. The only person worth condemning on this score is the one who quits learning, quits developing skill. All the passions, pursuits, and professionalism only demonstrate how central this need is. For some of us, it overlaps with a need for health. We pursue our hobbies  as a form of healthful recreation. Adult coloring books seem popular at this moment in time. For some, what begins as a healthy need becomes something like an obsession. An insatiable thirst for knowledge. An all-consuming hunger for wealth. These excesses are to education and skill what obesity is to our need for food. Too much, like too little, hinders health.

And that brings us to a crucial understanding if we are to think about needs as a basis for a moral system. Critics of virtue ethics find any conception of needs far too mushy a foundation for any directive moral system. They object in this fashion: you say we should develop our skill through lifelong education and then say not too much or too little. But how do you know where the median is? What directs you to say, “just this much and no more”? Where in this measured valuation can one find the passion that drives the artist or the tolerance that embraces difference?

First, we must distinguish flourishing from happiness. I use flourishing to mean the satisfaction of true human needs rather than the more diffuse term happiness, which implies an emotional contentment. Everyone says they seek happiness, yet life is marked by active seeking rather than passive contentment, for all the Buddhist admonitions to avoid desire. We seek a heaven we cannot describe because we are made for seeking, not for heaven, made for striving more than for having. Virtue ethics regards contentment as a terminal emotion. The virtuous person is content at the moment of death, perhaps, but up until then she seeks to add by wise preferential choosing to her store of happiness by one more choice. She seeks to flourish so long as she chooses what is truly good for her at each moment. I think most of us cannot imagine heaven for just this reason. It is in our nature to seek goodness. What would we do with ourselves if we ever had enough of it?

Secondly, this seeking after the totality of goods brings us into conflicts of preferential freedom. One involves choosing among desires. Virtue ethics stakes its definitions of good and evil on choosing real goods– those that satisfy needs– over merely apparent ones. We cannot trust our desires, even our instinctual ones, to make that distinction. That is why reasoning about their nature is essential. The more difficult task involves apportioning needs. How do we choose among seemingly conflicting needs? How many times have we cried out in frustration because we need to do a yet also need to do b?

The spine of virtue ethics is this: needs are incommensurable. This means that they all require satisfaction and none is more important than any other, though at any one moment we are sure to think differently as we pursue their satisfaction. Some, like our need for sleep, cry out for our attention. Others only whisper and are easily overlooked in the tsunami of demands life throws at us. Reason must remind us of their presence for instinct will fail to. For that reason alone, a rational acceptance of virtue ethics requires persistent reinforcement, for desires always clamor for our attention. If the summum bonum of human life is flourishing, the means to that goal must be an accumulation of all the goods that come from the satisfaction of our needs. The highest good of flourishing derives from the total good of satisfying all of our human needs. To the degree that some are unsatisfied, we flourish less. Another way of saying that is to say we are less fully human. It is likely that no one who has ever lived has become completely and fully human, but we are fated to make the effort.

I argue in opposition to religious claims that as sinful creatures we cannot pursue the good without divine intervention the counterclaim that indeed we can generally satisfy our needs, all of them, but not at the same time. If religionists wish to see this function of reason as divine, they join an illustrious legion of theologians who saw God’s voice in human reasoning. We must first learn intellectual virtue, the ability to tease out true needs from mere desires. But that is not enough. Even knowing the good will not guarantee consistently choosing it. That is the job of moral virtue, the development of the habitual disposition to choose real goods and choose them in proportion to circumstance. We learn that through the cycle of intention and consequence, desire and need, and arbitration among needs. Attention is required, then courage and temperance in preference, and then review and renewal of focus until what was impossible becomes only hard and then easier. For instance, education/skill is certainly a need, but the businessman who trades profits for his need for health is lacking in moral virtue. Remember that all of our needs resemble our need for food, neither too much nor too little and of the right proportions. If intellectual virtue is identifying the need in the flux of the moment, moral virtue is exercising the temperance to refrain from overindulgence, the courage to pursue the satisfaction of the need when difficult, and the prudence to juggle our efforts so as to maximize their total satisfaction and avoid momentary frustration.

Intellectual virtue is made difficult by the immense variability of a consumerist economy, a democratic culture that arbitrates desires by majority interest, and a cultural bias that mistakes the instantiation of needs for the needs themselves. I think it is possible to enunciate a simple listing of needs whose total satisfaction may be sought in the welter of modern life. We know them by finding what is common to the human experience in all cultures and through all ages. They can be identified by their nature: they are the ends of choosing. When we seek reasons for preferring them, the only answer we can find is that they nurture our flourishing. We do not satisfy them as a means to some other goal, but rather see them as valuable for their own sake. Their universality should be obvious. They fundamentally oppose the nihilism that underscores the conflicting pragmatic pursuits so common today.

Any catalogue of human needs can be fairly easily constructed but deserves to be critically scrutinized because the needs that guide it can be combined or enumerated by similar terms. I have been asked to construct a representative model. It is surprisingly brief.

Bodily needs: health (and all the ways it is maintained)

Sharing Needs: love for family and friends, awe (expressed both in religion and art)

Intellectual Needs: knowledge, skill, judgment (the goods of intellectual virtue)

Character Needs: temperance, courage, prudence, justice to individual strangers (the goods of moral virtue)

Political needs: justice in polities (the goods of public morality)

I find it useful to consider bodily goods as the entrée to the rest. Because they are instinctual in their manifestation and satisfaction, we can observe in their operation a template for our other needs. For instance, moderation in health is comparable to moderation in wealth. The evils of too little money are all too obvious, but in a materialist culture the evils of too much may be less so. Temptations to avarice, suspicion of the motivations of others, fear of theft or ransoming of loved ones, guilt in the face of widespread poverty, arrogance, temptations of overindulgence in sensual pleasures are a few dangers of excess wealth that come readily to mind. The list of needs may be faulted for minimizing familial love as merely one need among many, but I hasten to point out that love orders our relationships with intimates in the same way that justice orders it with strangers and awe with divinity (see “Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights“). I have written extensively on issues of civil order and justice  (see “Justice Is Almost Everything“). I will only add here that justice occupies a median between liberty and equality (see “The Riddle of Equality”), further reinforcing the concept Aristotle called the golden mean, which assists us in identifying the degree to which some needs may be appropriately satisfied without slighting others. Intellectual goods are necessary to instill intellectual virtue over a lifetime of thinking about experience. Since knowing the good is chronologically prior to choosing it, I list the means to intellectual virtue first. But it is also important to remember that choosing the good is the whole point of morality, so the listed character goods are the means to moral virtue and the keystone of virtue ethics in general.

A good moral system arbitrates personal choice. A great one avoids distortion as it magnifies scale, using the same principles to prescribe social and political morality and resolve conflicts among polities and cultures that individuals use to guide their personal behavior (see “Natural and Political Rights“). Functional natural law theory provides just this kind of telescopic focus to virtue ethics. It is built on the same foundation of human needs as the source not only of good cultures but of good political life. The more one thinks about this advantage, the more impressive it becomes. All kinds of private morality must be accepted as the price of our moral agency and preferential freedom, but only one moral system operates upon the same principles from personal to familial to social to political morality, from natural rights to international law. No other moral system simply scales its moral requirements from the moral agent to all of humanity without adaptation or adjustment, meaning that none is as capable as resolving the conflicts that arise in our experience.

Like all modernist theories, it is built on the foundation of reason applied to experience (see “Modernism and Its Discontents). In its original incarnation, the theory was frequently used to support a divine command form of absolutist morality, finding its support in authority and God’s plan for man, but no such teleological appeals to divine purpose are necessary and have been replaced by biological and neurological operations of species-specific human behavior. Today’s natural rights theory replaces purpose with function. If this is teleological, it is the teleology of cosmology rather than creationism.

Additionally, functional natural law theory provides a clear articulation of human rights as the elemental goal of a just society. I have explored the enlargement of scope from individual to society in regard to natural law theory before (see “Needs and Rights”) and find compelling reasons to champion it as the only  theory of law that makes a case for human rights (see “Where Do Rights Originate?”). If personal morality grows from our needs and if one of those needs is for political participation rooted in justice, then it is possible to view natural rights theory as merely the political arm of virtue ethics or, alternatively, to view virtue ethics as the only personal ethical system consistent with human rights. That enlargement of scale depends on building a warrant for natural rights upon a virtue ethics foundation. Because that is a heavy lift in contemporary life, it is also possible to isolate public goods from private ones based upon the distinction between justice and love. This allows persons to practice a private morality rooted in any definition of love they admire for their intimate relationships while still holding them to a public morality founded upon justice in their interactions in the public square, justice to individual strangers and to strangers-writ-large as government.  Functional natural law theory regards the pursuits of political goods as a cooperative rather than a competitive effort based upon a commonality of needs arbitrated by an intersubjective rationality that makes them known. This can be and has been obscured, most strongly by the collapse of authority that made modernism itself possible and by a contractarian basis for government that upholds a strict neutrality of moral pursuits subject to majority interest. The religious warfare that forced the birth of modernism distorted the essentially common concerns that move persons in communities to pursue their needs, seeing interests as existing in perpetual conflict.  I concede that cooperation fails when governments cannot pursue a truly common good in times of societal failure: a plague, environmental disaster, war, or economic depression. Delay in the satisfaction of needs does nothing to minimize their necessity, though, which is why cultures strive to restore a healthy polity after such disruptions. But the cultural winds nowadays blow against the presumption that human life is more cooperative than competitive. The roots of a rejection of that point of view are too complex to tease out here (see “Alienation of Civic Affection”). Even if the natural rights orientation is viewed with suspicion in this climate, we are forced to challenge even more strongly the alternatives. We live in a world culture today torn by logical inconsistencies, one of which is an increasing commitment to human rights with absolutely no consensus on the nature or source of such rights and with no theoretical foundation for establishing such a basis (see Why Invent a Social Contract?”). This radical disconnect between a majoritarian political environment and the common good is simply irreconcilable without appeal to a functional natural rights theory of political life, and that theory is merely an enlargement of virtue ethics.

I argued earlier that our life is a seemingly endless parade of choices. Given the exhausting responsibility to choose a thousand times a day, we might be tempted to embrace the dominant pragmatism that seems to guide so many lives today with its resultant valuation of subjective goods and its failures to direct long-term choosing.  Alternatively, we might be drawn to a more consistent moral system, one built on duties that can be followed reflexively, one chosen by accident of birthplace and parentage and built on authority. But either choice involves a forfeiture of responsibility to our own duties to morality and non-contradiction, for our autonomy demands that we be held as the authors of our own behavior, a position enshrined both in custom and law. Virtue ethics adds even more weight to that responsibility, for it sees momentary choices that we might think disconnected and even random as conducing to a certain kind of character. Even innocuous choices that have no moral content lead in time to habits of behavior that impact morality. We are always forming, strengthening, or breaking habits: of thought, of choice, and of character. We may hope to correctly parse our manifold choices as we grow in experience, facilitating them by developing the habits of mind and character that make choosing true goods, meaning satisfying real needs, as we grow in experience. The proper name for that process of developing moral virtue is wisdom, a word we rarely have the temerity to use in the froth of contemporary life. So we can think of virtue ethics as making a moral life much harder because it adds moral heft to every choice so far as each strengthens moral integrity. But that very weight ultimately lightens the load as we intentionally build habits that develop good character. That is why the character needs listed above are non-negotiable. They are special skills, not applied to any single human need but necessary for the satisfaction of them all.