If there is a moral foundation for our perilous age, it is the bedrock idea of “unalienable” human rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, according to our Declaration of Independence (property rights were included in philosopher John Locke’s original formulation). This noble ideal has been expanded and invoked in many other contexts over the years, notably including the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. (These rights have all too often been violated, of course, and sometimes even rejected altogether.)
The problem with this moral framework is that it takes for granted an absolutely indispensable prerequisite – our basic biological survival needs. Whatever may be our aspirations, or our illusions, or our station in life, the satisfaction of our basic needs is a fundamental, continuing and inescapable problem for every one of us. It is the material foundation for our moral foundation.
As detailed in my 2011 book, The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice, there are at least 14 distinct domains, or categories of basic human needs. These include a number of obvious categories, like adequate nutrition, fresh water, waste elimination, physical safety, physical health, and mental health, as well as some items that we may take for granted, like maintaining our body temperature, or “thermoregulation” (which can depend on various technologies, from clothing to blankets, fire wood, heating oil, and air conditioning). Our basic needs even include adequate sleep (about one-third of our lives), mobility, and healthy respiration, which can’t always be assured these days. Perhaps least obvious but most important are the requirements for reproducing and nurturing the next generation. In other words, our basic biological needs cut a very broad swath through our economy and our society. It is first and foremost a “collective survival enterprise.”
As we go forward into an ever more challenging and dangerous future, the time has come to give our basic needs the priority they deserve. Our basic needs should also be treated as a human right. Accordingly, in my new book Superorganism: A New Social Contract for Our Endangered Species, I propose that there should be a formal commitment to a “universal basic needs guarantee” in every society, and for our global society as a whole, This proposal is grounded in four key propositions: (1) our basic needs are increasingly well-understood and documented; (2) although our individual needs vary somewhat, in general they are equally shared by all of us; (3) we are dependent upon many others, and increasingly our global economy as a whole, for the satisfaction of these needs; and (4) severe harm may result if any of these needs is not satisfied. Equally important, satisfying our basic needs is a requisite for achieving the voluntary “consent” of the governed and a “legitimate”, sustainable society. It is the essential antidote to anarchy and authoritarianism alike – not to mention the growing problem of climate refugees. It lies at the very core of what we mean by the “common good.”
The idea of providing everyone with a basic needs guarantee may seem very radical – a utopian moral aspiration, or perhaps warmed-over Marxism. However, it’s important to stress that this would not entail an open-ended commitment. And it’s emphatically not about an equal share of the wealth. It refers specifically to the 14 domains of basic needs that were cited above. They constitute a concrete but limited agenda, with measurable indicators for evaluating outcomes.
The idea of a basic needs guarantee also has strong public support. For instance, a famous series of social experiments first conducted by political scientists Norman Frohlich and Joe Oppenheimer in the 1990s and subsequently replicated (and confirmed) many more times in various countries, found that 78% of the participants overall favored providing a basic economic “floor” for everyone. Likewise, a recent public survey by researchers at Harvard University showed that 47% of young people in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 29 agree with the proposition that our basic needs should be treated as “a right that government should provide to those who are unable to afford them.” And a 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that 89% of Democrats and 67% of Republicans supported either the same or increased public spending for needy people. There is also growing interest these days in the convergent idea of providing everyone with a “universal minimum income.” This is an old idea that has enlisted many prominent advocates over the years, although it would not be sufficient by itself.
The case for a basic needs guarantee is also consistent with the “right to life” principle. If the right to life is widely recognized as a self-evident moral precept (even though it’s often dishonored in practice), it certainly does not end at birth; it extends throughout our lives. The right to life necessarily also implies a right to the means for life – the wherewithal. Otherwise this right is meaningless. And because almost all of us are dependent upon others to obtain the goods and services required for satisfying our personal needs, the right to life imposes upon society and its members a mutual obligation -- an implicit contractual obligation. In this basic respect, we are all indeed created equal.
One obvious objection to creating a basic needs guarantee is that it may seem like a give-away; it would invite “free-riding.” Where’s the fairness in that? The answer is that social justice has at least three distinct aspects. Our basic needs take priority, but it is important to recognize the differences in merit among us and to reward (or punish) them accordingly. The principle of “just deserts” (or equity) also plays a major role in our social relationships. Equally important, there must be reciprocity – an unequivocal commitment on the part of all of us (with some obvious exceptions like young children, the aged, and infirm) to help support our collective survival enterprise. We must all contribute a fair share toward balancing the scale of benefits and costs. We must reciprocate for the benefits that we receive from society through such things as our labor, the taxes we pay, and public service – and “playing by the rules,” of course. As detailed in The Fair Society, these three social justice precepts (equality, equity, and reciprocity) are like a three-legged stool; all are necessary to achieve social justice and a fair society. However, our basic needs come first.
Going forward, a basic needs guarantee should become the top priority for every society – and for our emerging global superorganism as well. It provides specific content for the Golden Rule and a shopping list for the Good Samaritan. It reflects the fundamental purpose of the collective survival enterprise, and it represents perhaps our greatest ethical and political challenge. A basic needs guarantee is also an absolute prerequisite for achieving the level of social trust, harmony, and legitimacy that will be required to heal our deep social and political divisions (and conflicts) and respond effectively to our growing environmental crisis. Indeed, it is also the key to solving the spreading problem of civil turmoil and the recent surge in climate refugees. It is a goal that will obviously take many years to achieve, but we need to begin the task of building support for the idea now. To borrow a punch line from the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, “later will be too late.”