Hartley Dean, Understanding Human Need, second edition

Hartley Dean, Understanding Human Need, second edition, Policy Press, 2020, pbk, 1 4473 4198 7, xxi + 209 pp, £25.99

In the preface to this second edition of Hartley Dean’s Understanding Human Need, the author describes the difference between the first and second editions like this:

[In the second edition] … I want to make a more explicit theoretical contribution regarding the essential nature of human need. I want to re-address questions concerning ‘humanity’ and need; regarding the constitutive essence of the human species and the essential normative or ethical principles associated with human being. To do this, I have had to restructure the book quite significantly. As human beings we struggle to define our needs but the suggestion with which this book now concludes is that it is by our needs that human beings are defined and define themselves. In this sense, we are what we need. Though it retains elements of the first edition, this is now a very different and, I hope, more interesting book. And, while it has been written partly with social policy students in mind, it now has a relevance, I believe, to a much wider audience (p. xxi).

There has been plenty of restructuring. Most of the chapters are completely rewritten and reorganised, and even in the four chapters with similar titles and structures to those in the first edition – ‘the thin and the thick of human need and needing’, ‘human need and social policy’, ‘articulating needs as rights’, and ‘the politics of human need’ – there is much rewriting and restructuring.

The reader will need to start with the glossary, and particularly with the two concepts ‘thick need’ and ‘thin need’: concepts as important in the second edition as in the first.

Thick need: This term has been accorded particular significance for the purposes of this book and is used to refer to needs that are optimally defined and that include the things that may be necessary for a person truly to flourish and to share a good life.

Thin need: This term has been accorded particular significance for the purposes of this book and is used to refer to needs that are minimally defined but which include the things that are necessary for a person, with dignity, to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. (pp. xvii–xviii)

Chapter 1, an introductory chapter, explores the diversity of meanings of need, sets the book’s agenda by arguing that need ‘represents a pivotally important idea and, arguably, the single most important organising principle not only for social policy but in human history and for our understanding of humanity’ (p. 2), and also argues that the distinction between absolute and relative needs can be understood either in terms of the thin/thick distinction quoted above, or in terms of the needs that we might theorise on the basis of someone being a human being, and the expressed felt needs of individuals. Chapter 2 takes a historical approach, explores a diversity of humanisms, and understands human beings in terms of individuals’ consciousness, their engagement in work, their social interdependence, and their self-conscious historical development. Chapter 3 builds on the definitions of thin and thick needs given above, relates utilitarianism and abstract welfarism to the former, and an understanding of a solidaristic ‘good life’ to the latter, and adds a new section on dignity and caring to this rewritten chapter of the first edition. Chapter 4 outlines a number of theories of need: first of all such classical individualistic theories as ‘the [utilitarian] economic actor’, ‘the psychological being’, as epitomised by Maslow’s hierarchy of need, and ‘the autonomous individual’, in which Dean includes Sen’s capabilities approach; and secondly such social policy perspectives as the recognition that market failure requires a welfare state, and that a set of basic needs can be satisfied by a range of institutions. Finally the individual human being is understood as constituted by a common humanity and so needs whatever makes that individual a ‘conscious, social, creative and historically self-determining being’ (p. 67). Chapter 5 understands our experienced needs as socially constructed, social norms as constituting customary needs, and needs constructed by capitalism as illusory, and discusses people’s ability and inability to define their own needs. Chapter 6 is another rewritten first edition chapter, offering a taxonomy of needs-based approaches: particular needs, circumstantial needs, common needs, and universal needs, along with their related welfare regimes: liberalism (represented by means-testing), asocial conservatism (represented by the workhouse), social conservatism (relying on families and the local community), and social democracy (represented by social insurance): although there would be an argument for social insurance representing circumstantial needs, and universal benefits representing universal needs. Chapter 7 discusses poverty and inequality, how they might be measured, and to what extent inequality might be tolerable; the difference between social exclusion, social disadvantage, and poverty; and the concepts of misrecognition, alienation, oppression, and exploitation. Chapter 8, ‘articulating needs as rights’, is another rewritten first edition chapter. It offers a history of rights, and a taxonomy of rights (personal, conditional, protective, and citizenship rights); distinguishes between thin/formal and thick/substantive rights; and understands social citizenship as a component of the welfare citizenship found in social democratic states, and social rights as expressions of human need. A new section draws a distinction between justice and humanity as bases for social rights. The final chapter, chapter 9, is again a rewritten first edition chapter. It distinguishes a fading positive politics of the welfare state from a more recent understanding of ‘welfare’ as to some extent pejorative; outlines a number of possible responses to the welfare state and to welfare; and offers Dean’s own proposal: a needs-first ethic that serves our humanity understood as consciousness, work, sociality and historical development, as discussed in chapter 2. The book ends with a summary of the proposal:

A needs-first ethic would prioritise:

  • The nourishment of human consciousness; requiring an expanded and democratised understanding of social learning processes and education;
  • The facilitation of purposeful, caring and creative human activity; requiring an expanded understanding of what constitutes ‘work’;
  • The validation of the essential interdependence or ‘sociality’ of human beings; requiring an expanded understanding of caring and sharing;
  • The enablement of historical development; requiring an expanded and expanding understanding of what constitutes conscious, active and social human progress. (pp. 169–70)

Dean suggests that ‘to espouse a needs-first ethic does not necessarily require us to prescribe the social policies of the future, but to prioritise that which is required for the realisation of the constitutive characteristics of humanity’ (p. 160). But doesn’t that require at least some indication of what the social policies of the future might look like, and how they might promote the listed requirements of a needs-first ethic? Hartley Dean is on the point of retiring as Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics, and might be tempted to regard this second edition of Understanding Human Need as his swansong. This reviewer hopes that it might not be, and that he might follow it up with a detailed discussion of the social policies that would best serve the ethic that he describes, and in particular with an assessment of whether or not a Citizen’s Basic Income would do that.

Having said that, if this book really is Dean’s final book, then it will be a fitting close to a distinguished academic career, in particular because it will have established the study of human need as the foundation of social policy.