Can Utilitarianism Ground Human Rights?

4. Human Rights and Human Needs

Book cover: Meaning and Value in a Secular Age: Why Eupraxsophy Matters by Nathan Bupp - Editor

From the previous sections, I concluded that human rights are grounded in the fundamental needs of human beings. Our national and international declarations and covenants specify in various ways the fundamental obligations that a state has to its citizens and that we have to each other that must be satisfied if people's basic human needs are to be met. It is the satisfaction of these needs that guarantees that a person will lead a happy, contented and satisfying life. Or at least to the maximum extent possible within the reach of any state's governors and institutions.[7] No state can guarantee that an earthquake, meteor strike, flood or other such natural calamity will not impact its citizens. However, by recognizing citizens' basic rights and acting on them, a state can do all that is possible to minimize the suffering of its citizens in such catastrophic circumstances.

To be clear, this utilitarian justification for human rights is not claiming that acting in accord with human rights will guarantee that all citizens will be maximally happy. It only suggests that states satisfying human rights will increase the happiness of its citizens and decrease their misery to the maximum extent possible under the circumstances they find themselves.[8] My claim here is that no further justification for human rights is required or can be given over and above the desire to maximize the well-being of citizens.

I've linked the happiness of people to the satisfaction of their fundamental human needs. But what are these fundamental human needs that require satisfaction and that acting on human rights can help with? There are two sources of credible information on what these basic human needs are that require satisfaction. These are, firstly, long-standing psychological research on human needs and, secondly, world-wide happiness surveys. I shall explore each in turn.

4.1 Psychological Research

Robust psychological models can assist us in determining basic human needs. I'll refer to three prominent models coming out of decades of research in this area: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Alderfer's ERG Theory and Carl Rogers' Humanistic Theory of Personality Development.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow [1943] proposed that human beings are motivated by a hierarchy of needs, with those at the lowest levels requiring satisfaction before a human being strives to satisfy the need at the next level up. Maslow classified the various needs into two major categories: deficiency needs and growth needs. The diagram below shows where each type of need is located in the hierarchy and gives examples of each kind.

Diagram 1 – Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: physiological needs, safety needs, social needs, self-esteem needs, self-actualization

Image attribution: Nmilligan, CC BY-SA 4.0
<>, via Wikimedia Commons

Following later research, Maslow's model was modified to reflect the finding that the levels overlap to some extent. In reality, people pursue satisfaction at the higher levels before having their needs at the lower levels completely satisfied. (See, for example, Tay and Diener [2011: 355].) Other influences on happiness are genetics via temperament and culture, where a culture might emphasize some needs more than others [362]. None the less, the correlation between the satisfaction of needs and happiness is fairly uniform across cultures [358].

Alderfer's ERG Theory

An alternative theory of motivation to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs model is Clayton Alderfer's ERG Theory. It is both a simplification in some respects and a refinement of Maslow's model. Alderfer [1969] proposed that human beings are motivated by three different kinds of needs, Existence (E), Relatedness (R) and Growth (G), as illustrated in the diagram below.

Diagram 2 – Alderfer's ERG Theory

Alderfer's ERG Theory: relatedness needs, existence needs, growth needs

Image attribution: උපුල් vectorized by Sushant savla, CC BY-SA 4.0
<>, via Wikimedia Commons

The needs identified by Maslow can be mapped onto Alderfer's model. In addition, according to Alderfer's model, once a person's needs at a lower level are satisfied, they then expend more effort on satisfying the needs at the higher level. Conversely, if satisfaction at a higher level is thwarted, the individual will invest more effort at the lower level.

Carl Rogers' Theory of Personality Development

Another prominent theory of motivation based on needs is that of humanist psychologist, Carl Rogers. His Humanistic Theory of Personality Development emphasized how a person's growth in self-actualizing requires an environment in which the person is treated with genuineness, acceptance and empathy. Building on Maslow, Rogers [1959, 1961] considered the basic needs driving human behaviour are safety, belongingness, self-esteem and freedom.

For the purposes of this essay and for the sake of simplicity, I will draw on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to show how the fundamental human needs he identified map neatly to the basic human rights advocated in our various human rights covenants and instruments.


  1. [7] In fact, states have a special obligation here. As Tay and Diener [2011: 363] report from their analysis of the world wide data on happiness, 'Country-level need fulfillment, especially country basic need fulfillment, had a sizeable association with life evaluations'. In other words, at least basic needs require to be satisfied by governments at the societal level before individuals achieve higher life satisfaction.
  2. [8] As Tay and Diener's [2011: 359] analysis of the Gallup World Poll data shows, satisfying all needs is a necessary requirement for a high life evaluation, but not a sufficient condition.

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