Maybe Maslow just had a different view?

A few years ago I was doing some work with a diverse group of academics who wanted to conduct interdisciplinary research to underpin the ‘paradigm shift’ they believed was heralded by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This imagined a transition from an individuated, atomistic concept of personhood and autonomy towards ideas of ‘shared personhood’ and ‘relational autonomy’. I spent a pleasant few days holed up in an old monastery by Lake Geneva discussing it with them and how we could pitch the funding application. There have been worse jobs. I almost felt I had self-actualised.

I’ve always remembered one of them saying that there was no such thing as ‘independence’ for humans, only ‘negotiated dependency’.

This came to mind when various people shared a blogpost recently that suggests ‘Maslow got it wrong’ in his (supposed) articulation of a hierarchy of needs. The blogpost appears to lay blame at Maslow’s door for normalising egocentric cultural and political norms such as the ‘American dream’ while marginalising sociocentric norms such as those practiced by the Blackfoot Nation with who Maslow had engaged with. These are said to place ‘community actualisation and perpetuity’ above ‘self actualisation’.

The article suggests that Maslow plagiarised the Blackfoot Nations ideas but that he ‘got it wrong’. This is an odd argument on a number of fronts. Firstly, while Maslow met elders from the Blackfoot Nation and learned from them there is no evidence he stole his ideas from them, not least because as people are pointing out, his ideas do not appear to correspond with theirs. Second, Maslow distilled many ideas into his theories of human motivation and may reasonably have come to a different viewpoint, one that reflected a diversity of human values and cultures. Third, he made clear that it was only a starting point that research should build upon. For example, in later work, just before his death, Maslow added ‘self-transendence’ – the capacity to show concern for ‘larger than self’ issues, such as concern for others. Maslow wrote that:

“The goal of identity [self-actualization] seems to be simultaneously an end-goal in itself, and also a transitional goal, a rite of passage, a step along the path to the transcendence of identity. … If our goal is the Eastern one of ego-transcendence and obliteration, of leaving behind self-consciousness and self-observation, … then it looks as if the best path to this goal for most people is via achieving identity, a strong real self, and via basic-need-gratification.”

And finally, Maslow was trying to describe human needs and motivations, not prescribe the social organisation necessary to accommodate or address them, though clearly they have had such an influence (including for example on social care, as I wrote here).

As for Maslow’s most famous theory, the first and most important thing to note is that while Maslow talked of some needs being ‘pre-potent’ – such as food, shelter and safety – he did not present needs and motivations as a hierarchal pyramid or as always sequential, but as having the potential to be interdependent and concurrent. This is a good piece by Complex Wales explaining how it is often interpretations of Maslow that have got it wrong, not the man himself. Nevertheless, his argument that as humans we are motivated to satisfy our base physiological needs as a priority above other needs seems fairly incontrovertible. As the anti-apartheid campaigner and judge Justice Albie Sachs has said of the inclusion of social and economic rights in the South African constitution ‘it would have been ironical indeed had the struggle against Apartheid resulted only in the right of citizens to curse the government freely with their last breath.’ Similarly, a community that places its perpetuity above the immediate safety and survival of its members is unlikely to be one that achieves perpetuity, other than through oppression or force.

Nevertheless, I think it’s valuable to nail the myth that ‘every human is an island’. Everyone’s freedom and ability to pursue his or her life goals rests on the strength of human cooperation. Indeed, one might contend that it is in the pursuit of them that human cooperation (and cooperation among other living organisms) has evolved. We are interdependent beings – in states of negotiated dependence. As people have pointed out, we rely on our ‘community’ (in the widest sense of our fellow humans and the planet) to ensure our survival and safety. There is no ‘self actualisation’ without the support of ‘community’. I don’t think Maslow contested that idea at all.

It is with respect to supposedly ‘higher order’ needs and motivations around which there appears to be most argument. In particular that Maslow is considered to have placed ‘self actualisation’ as the end point (though as I say in the introduction he latterly talked of ‘self transcendance’ as a later stage), while it is argued that the Blackfoot Nation believe people to be born ‘self actualised’ ‘as a spark of divinity, with a great purpose embedded in us’ Yet I’m struck that such a belief is not far removed from that expressed in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when it says that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ This is a principle drawn from and reflected in almost every world religion. That is to say, there is no real conflict between Maslow’s account of human needs and motivations and a belief that all human beings are born equal in dignity and worth – or with a ‘spark of divinity with great purpose embedded in us.’ That great purpose is still to be realised, and can only be realised if certain needs and motivations – or ‘substantive freedoms’ in the a theory of Amartya Sen – can be achieved.

The question then appears to centre on means and ends. That is, on what form of social and economic organisation is preferable for humans and for the planet and to what ends that ‘great purpose’ is committed. Is it to the ‘actualisation’ of the individual, or to that of his or her community and its ‘perpetuity’?

Whether our journey in life – or the purpose towards which we commit our great purpose – is towards ‘community actualisation’ or its ‘perpetuity’ or towards our own individual ends seems to me a question not of human psychology, but of morality and politics. That is to say, isn’t this really about competing stories and myths and how they shape our world for good or ill?

It also very much depends on what is meant by the loosely thrown around term ‘community.’ Do we mean the perpetuity of humankind and the planet? Do we mean our our fellow citizens in a country, or a town, or a hyper local neighbourhood? Do we mean people with who we share ancestry or ethnicity or traditions? Or do we just mean that we want people to behave less selfishly, acting on extrinsic pro-social values more than they do intrinsic pro-self values, with concern for others, the planet and future generations guiding their decisions and actions? And if we do, is that what we mean by ‘community actualisation and perpetuity’? Could it refer to the manner via which individuals self-actualise, pursuing their own life goals, but to the benefit of and without detriment to their fellow humans and to the planetary ecosystem? Article 1 of the UNDHR continues: ‘They (human beings) are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’ Is this what we mean, or something more – self transcendence existing beyond self-actualisation, but dependent on it having been realised? Or do we just want self actualisation taken out of the equation altogether?

If we are elevating the actualisation and perpetuity of ‘the community’ where do we as individuals fit, especially if the community excludes or oppresses us? If the communities in which we are born are oppressive towards women, or disabled people, or towards ‘outsiders’ from other cultures, can this be justified in the name of ‘perpetuity’? How does a community perpetuate itself if it has experienced high levels of inward migration, bringing other stories and desires to perpetuate them? What if communities act in ways that place tradition above progress, or myths above science and empiricism to secure their perpetuity? How is power shared within them? What if they have been secured by force, or perpetuated through fear?

Where does individual freedom fit with this analysis? Is it derived through community, or subordinated to it? Does it exist at all? Does it even matter?

And what if a person just wants a different life, lying beyond the community into which they were born, through which they can fully become who they were destined to be?

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