From “Is” to “Ought” Beyond the State and Capitalism

From “Is” to “Ought” Beyond the State and Capitalism: Exploring Needs in Ethics, Justice, and Political Philosophy

Convenor: Andrew Fassett (University of Hamburg)

Needs have long been a cornerstone of political thought. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was the slogan that Karl Marx used to galvanise an entire movement to change their political and economic landscape. Peter Kropotkin wrote in Mutual Aid about the essential needs that human beings have in common with the animal world, and how the sharing of needs forms the basis of social and hence economic and political cooperation. US President Franklin D Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented four terms during crises and war, because he ran and won on a platform of setting the government to fulfil the needs of the nation that companies would not. More recently, Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen laid out capabilities approaches to economic theory (resonating Marx) that sees to the varying circumstances and needs of individuals, while John Rawls included the adequate satisfaction of basic needs in his argument for the difference principle, a knowledge of basic social needs being a condition of his original position. Other considerations about needs have us seriously questioning the role and feasibility of egalitarianism on the one hand and the justice of unlimited economic growth on the other. Current civil unrest, the “rise of the right”, and struggles for economic and social justice have be pinned to liberalism’s and neoliberalism’s inability to provide for the vital needs of society, and it is considered a deep moral, negligent failure of Western democracy and its institutions that we have turned out those – among us and from afar – most in need.

Need is both an objective and subjective reality, which makes it unique (though not alone) among other philosophical concepts for occupying positions of both “is” and “ought”. Yet, at least in economics and politics, we often refer merely to a packet or list of basic needs, which someone or some institution such as the state or capitalist markets provides, without question of how these needs are formed and why they vary across individuals and society. And, consequently, without knowing how these two institutions in turn feed into the formation of needs. An adequate understanding of how needs are formed, their biological, social, and ecological underpinnings, seems essential not only to figuring out their normative force, but also to getting at which social institutions and orderings might be best suited to fulfil our needs. This workshop proposes exploring needs in ethics and justice without taking two common assumptions in economics and political philosophy for granted: That a minimum state is necessary for a stable society and that capitalism is necessary as the most and sole rational economic ordering. In so doing we can take a fresh look at needs, since while the state and capitalism are today’s “is” realities, other institutions and systems are capable of fulfilling our needs. The reality of needs occupies a more fundamental level in society than these institutions and systems, and should be examined accordingly.