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Meeting Need


This article considers the question ‘How should institutions enable people to meet their needs in situations where there is no guarantee that all needs can be met?’ After considering and rejecting several simple principles for meeting needs, it suggests a new effectiveness principle that (1) gives greater weight to the needs of the less well off and (2) gives weight to enabling a greater number of people to meet their needs. The effectiveness principle has some advantage over the main competitors including a principle suggested by David Miller in Principles of Social Justice. Miller argues that his principle accounts for the existing data on individuals' intuitions about meeting needs. The effectiveness principle better accounts for this data. Furthermore, this article presents a new experiment on intuitions about meeting need that is consistent with the effectiveness principle but not Miller's principle.

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1 See: Baron J. and Greene J., ‘Intuitions about Declining Marginal Utility’, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 14 (2000), pp. 243–55. Also see: Griffith T., ‘Progressive Taxation and Happiness’, Boston College Law Review 45 (2004), pp. 136. Finally, see: Frey B. and Stutzer A., ‘Can Economists Learn from Happiness Research?’, Journal of Economic Literature 40 (2002), pp. 402–35.

2 This is most plausible if utility is understood as preference satisfaction and people just need what satisfies their most important preferences.

3 For this argument to go through, we must be able to make meaningful comparisons of need fulfillment between persons. We have simply assumed for the purposes of this article that this is possible. For one way of doing this see: Hare R. M., Moral Thinking (Oxford, 1981). Recent work on theory of mind may add to Hare's account by helping to explicate the process by which such comparisons are made. See: Goldman Alvin, ‘The Psychology of Folk Psychology’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 16 (1993), pp. 1528. Also see: Gopnik A. and Wellman H., ‘Why the Child's Theory of Mind Really is a Theory’, Folk Psychology, ed. Davies M. and Stone T. (Oxford, 1995).

4 On this also see: Nagel T., Equality and Partiality (Oxford, 2001).

5 Griffith, ‘Progressive Taxation and Happiness’; Frey and Stutzer, ‘Can Economists Learn from Happiness Research?’.

6 Miller D., Principles of Social Justice (Cambridge, Mass., 1999).

7 Miller justified this policy in a slightly different way. He said that it is unjust if some are avoidably left worse off than others. If this is the sole method of justifying the intuition, this response leads to a strange consequence: whom we should help can change when new people are added to a situation even if the new people can already meet their needs. This problem will be discussed below.

8 Accepting this kind of justification does not preclude other moral concerns (e.g. for groups as well as individuals).

9 Especially if these rules must recognize the equal value of all institutional subjects and treat them appropriately. Though I cannot pursue this line of thought further here, this may help account for Miller's concern for equality.

10 If more weight is given to the needs of the less well off than would be granted by taking into account the effects of diminishing marginal utility, this part of the principle may be equivalent to what Miller calls a weighted priority principle. No matter how it is cashed out, however, Miller's concern about weighted priority principles applies equally to the effectiveness principle – it does not take into account inequality. This article will address this concern below.

11 The ratings can be weighted as well.

12 Certainly questions about how the relative weights should be set and issues of procedural justice must be addressed to make the principle fully precise but I will not provide this level of precision here. In the abstract, it may be impossible to be more precise. All principles are indeterminate in some ways; no principle can overcome the need for judgment. Other principles may also come into play.

13 Rawls J., A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA,, 1971). Also see: Braybrooke D., Meeting Needs (Princeton, 1987).

14 Further consideration is necessary to account for changes in population levels and life spans. The effectiveness principle can still give us a bit of guidance, however, when we do not have enough information about particular individuals to know how long they will live.

15 See discussion below for alternative ways of construing Miller's principle.

16 Miller D., Principles of Social Justice (Harvard University Press, 1999). p. 217.

17 Miller, Principles of Social Justice.

18 Miller also adds a concern for procedural justice to his theory in hopes of avoiding this sort of problem. Unfortunately, in the examples he gives where procedural justice comes into play it does nothing to help fix the problem.

19 Please contact the author for further information. Also see: Temkin L., Inequality (Oxford, 1993).

20 Miller, Principles of Social Justice, p. 219.

21 Though a good principle for need fulfillment does not need to be egalitarian, it would be good if one who cares about equality could at least accept the principle. This is important since many of those who believe that there is an obligation to enable people to meet their needs hold egalitarian theories. See, for instance: Caney S., ‘Cosmopolitan Justice and Equalizing Opportunities’, Metaphilosophy 32 (2001), pp. 113–34. Also see: D. Moellendorf, Cosmopolitan Justice (Boulder, CO, 2002). One way to reconcile the effectiveness principle with a concern for equality is to give lexical priority to enabling people to meet their needs effectively over reducing inequality.

22 Miller, Principles of Social Justice.

23 Miller, Principles of Social Justice, p. 74.

24 Kamm F., Intricate Ethics: Rights, Responsibilities, and Permissible Harm (Oxford, 2007).

25 Knobe J. and Nichols S., ‘An Experimental Philosophy Manifesto’, Experimental Philosophy (Oxford, 2008).

26 Miller, Principles of Social Justice, p. 74.

27 Miller, Principles of Social Justice.

28 Miller, Principles of Social Justice, pp. 79–81. Also see: Frohlich N. and Oppenheimer J., Choosing Justice: An Experimental Approach to Ethical Theory (Berkeley, 1992).

29 On the other hand, it is not clear that people actually needed anything in the experiment. The participants were not told that people would not be able to meet their needs if they did not get some money. So, I doubt that this experiment tells us much about distribution according to need. In any case, different potential motivating factors were not sufficiently well isolated.

30 Miller, Principles of Social Justice, p. 74.

31 Brock G., ‘Needs and Global Justice‘, Philosophy 57 (2005), pp. 5172.

32 This experiment was conducted at the University of Arizona with Yali Corea-Levy. For more information on the details of this experiment please contact the author.

33 We can use a binomial test to show that this is not significant. Supposing that some null hypothesis is true the p value is the probability of getting data as extreme or more extreme than the actual data. When the p value is greater than alpha we do not have a reason to reject the null hypothesis. In this case the null hypothesis is that all rankings are equally likely. The result we are testing is that 3 out of 33 people chose Miller's preferred ordering. So, we want to know if we can reject the hypothesis that 3 out of 33 people chose Miller's preferred ordering purely based on chance. The p value is greater than alpha when 1, 2, 3, or 4 people pick a ranking. So, the fact that 5 out of 33 people chose this ranking is significant. We can reject the hypothesis that it was the result of chance. The author would like to thank J. Neil Bearden for help with these statistics.

34 See n. 31.

35 See n. 31.

36 This was determined by assigning a score of 4 to the first place option, 3 to the second place option, 2 to the third placed option, and 1 to the last place option, and summing the scores of each option. Option 4 (which embodied the strict priority principle) ranked first with a score of 97, Option 2 (which gave everyone an equal amount of vitamin) ranked second with a score of 86, Option 1 (which gave everything to the person who was originally least well off) ranked third with a score of 79, and Option 3 (which embodied a utilitarian principle) was last with a score of 59. This ranking system is equivalent to finding the average number of times people put each option in each place in the ranking.

37 Option 4 can be ranked ahead of Option 1 only six different ways (4, 1, 2, 3, or 4, 1, 3, 2, or 4, 3, 2, 1, or 4, 2, 3, 1, or 4, 2, 1, 3, or 4, 3, 1, 2).

38 The author would like to thank Thomas Christiano, Gillian Brock, Michael Gill, Jerry Gaus, Josh Knobe, Ben Fraser, Adam Cureton, Adam Arico, J. Neil Bearden, and especially Yali Corea-Levy with whom she conducted the experiment on how people think about meeting needs in this article. She would also like to thank the dissertation reading group at the University of Arizona, Shaun Nichols, and Larry Temkin for helpful discussion. She apologizes to anyone she has so carelessly forgotten to mention. Finally, she is terribly grateful for the support she received from the American Association of University Women and the Earhart Foundation during the course of the project.

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