What Do People Want?


I want to talk about purpose.

Why are we here? What are we doing? What do we want?

I talk about Ends and Means a lot here, and lately, I’ve been trying to figure out the Ultimate End. What is the one thing that every person wants (aside from what Rawls refers to as “primary goods,” which in A Theory of Justice he defines as “things which it is supposed a rational man wants whatever else he wants,” and specifically “natural primary goods,” which would be life-sustaining things like health and wellness, food, etc. Get comfortable with Rawls, he’s gonna be with us a lot today). So we have values, fundamental freedoms, and the like, but all of these are tools. They help us get what we want. So what do we want? What’s the Ultimate End?


Just for a second, let’s say that everyone wants to make the world a better place. But what’s “better”? Better how? For whom? Is “better” defined by absence of pain? No (or less) hunger or sickness? Is there a thing you can ADD to life to make it “good,” or is “good” just the lack of “bad”? And isn’t that what freedom is? Freedom from want, freedom from need. Food security is just freedom from hunger, right? Pain and privations are constraints on what we want to do.

But that’s important, because there are things we can be free from and things we can be free to do. Bear with me:

A person can be in a coma, where they’re fed, cleaned, and cared for.They have no pain, no hunger, no fear, no burdens of any kind. But I think we’d all agree that they aren’t free to do anything. On the other hand, somebody running around in a Mad Max-style dystopia can do whatever they want, but they are subject to all kinds of sufferings. So there are two types of Freedom we’re working with: Freedom From (which we’ll call Safety) and Freedom To (which we’ll call Liberty).

Maybe (and I’m just running this up the flagpole now), what everyone really wants is a balance between Safety and Liberty, or rather a maximization of the two. You want to be a safe as possible while still being as free as possible. The absolute BEST world would be one in which Safety and Liberty were absolutely maxed out. So we work towards that, right? We try to get the two freedoms as expansive as possible.

But that still doesn’t answer the question of Ends. Liberty to do what? How about this: Every person has something that contributes to their personal abundance. By definition, this is unique, and cannot be defined.

Here’s what John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, has to say about that:

Thus while the parties have roughly similar needs and interests, or needs and interests in various ways complimentary, so that mutually advantageous cooperation among them is possible, they nevertheless have their own plans of life. These plans, or conceptions of the good, lead them to have different ends and purposes, and to make conflicting claims on the natural and social resources available.

Every person has his or her own purpose, the achievement of which leads to spiritual fulfillment, emotional abundance, and self-actualization. The goal of every person is achievement of the maximum actualized self, actualization in the presence of limited resources and competing agents.

That’s where the State (what Rawls calls society) comes in:

 Although a society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, it is typically marked by conflict as well as an identity of interests. There is an identity of interests since social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to try to live solely by his own efforts. There is a conflict of interests since men are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed, for in order to pursue their ends they each prefer a larger to a lesser share…there are the objective circumstances which make human cooperation both possible and necessary. Thus, many individuals coexist together at the same time on a definite geographical territory. These individuals are roughly similar in physical and mental powers; or at any rate, their capacities are comparable in that no one among them can dominate the rest. They are vulnerable to attack, and all are subject to having their plans blocked by the united force of others. Finally, there is the condition of moderate scarcity understood to cover a wide range of situations. Natural and other resources are not so abundant that schemes of cooperation become superfluous, nor are conditions so harsh that fruitful ventures must inevitably break down. While mutually advantageous arrangements are feasible, the benefits they yield fall short of the demands men put forward. 

Cooperation is in our best interests, and even when it’s not, balance must be maintained. The role of the State is to arrange freedoms and resources in such a way that allows actual progress (which, again, is defined as an increase in the two freedoms. Hmm–I need to explore the idea that it’s only progress when both types of freedom increase. We’ll save that for later).

Categories: Dispatch

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1 reply


  1. Podhoretz and the Freedom of Healthcare – The Georgia Wonk

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