Friday, May 18, 2012

What Maslow gets wrong

I argued in the last post that Maslow does not devote enough attention to what purposes people actually have in reality. In fact, he rejects too much focus on purpose and striving altogether, in favor of "being" or self-expression.

Western culture generally rests on the Judaic-Christian theology. The United States particularly is dominated by the Puritan and pragmatic spirit, which stresses work, struggle and striving, soberness and earnestness, and above all, purposefulness. Like any other social institution, science in general and psychology are not exempt from these cultural climate and atmosphere effects. American psychology, by participation is overpragmatic, over-Puritan, and over-purposeful. p62-3

Sunny view of Human Nature


Instead, he takes a sunny view of human nature. There is little need to develop self-discipline or character, he believes , because people have a natural tendency to want higher needs. Their instincts are basically good.

If our noblest instincts are seen not as checkreins on the horses, but themselves horses, and if our animal needs are seen to be of the same nature as our highest needs, how can a sharp dichotomy between them be sustained? How can we continue to believe that they could come from different sources? Furthermore, if we clearly and fully recognize that these noble and good impulses come into existence and grow potent primarily as a consequence of the prior gratification of the more demanding animal needs, we should certainly speak less exclusively of self-control, inhibition , discipline, and so on and more frequently of spontaneity, gratification and self-choice. There seems to be less opposition than we thought between the stern voice of duty and the gay call to pleasure. At the highest level of living (i.e. of Being) duty is pleasure, one's "work" is loved, and there is no difference between working and vacationing. p60

Indeed, "lower" needs are weak and no threat to fulfilment of higher needs:

In the human being the preponderance of the evidence indicates that there are biological and heriditary determinants, but that in most individuals they are quite weak and easily overwhelmed by learned cultural forces. p90

There is no conflict or puzzles or cultural difficulties with our best impulses, either. Higher needs are innate and observable:

The recognition that humanity's best impulses are appreciably intrinsic, rather than fortuitous and relative, must have tremendous implications for value theory. It means, for one thing that it is no longer either necessary or desirable to deduce values by logic or to try to read them off from authorities or revelations. All we need to do, apparently, is to observe and research. Human nature carries within itself the answer to the questions: How can I be good; how can I be happy; how can I be fruitful? The organism tells us what it needs (and therefore what it values) by sickening when deprived of these values and by growing when gratified. p60
In all these ways we are a long way from older conceptions of virtue or character.

But he thinks there is still development and change in human nature over time (which is a little hard to reconcile with his suggestion that the higher needs are intrinsic, or that all we need to do is simply observe human nature):

We may agree with Aristotle when he assumed that the good life consisted in living in accordance with the true nature of man, but we must add that he simply did not know enough about the true nature of the human being. All Aristotle could do in delineating this essential nature, or inherent design of human nature, was to look about him, to study people, to observe what they were like. But if one observes human beings only on the surface, which was all Aristotle could do, one must ultimately wind up with what amounts to a static conception of human nature. The only thing Aristotle could do was to build a picture of the good man in his own culture and in that particular period of time. You remember that in his conception of the good life, Aristotle accepted completely the fact of slavery and made the fatal mistake of assuming that just because a man was a slave that this was his essential nature and therefore it was good for him to be a slave. p115, footnote

Perhaps human nature just hasn't had the chance to fully express itself yet. Of course this is all very midcentury liberal as well.

People will need steadily less "coping" behavior and more "expressive" behavior, he says:

The distinction between the expressive (non-instrumental) and the coping (instrumental, adaptive, functional, purposive) components of behavior has not yet been properly exploited as a basis for value psychology. p61.

All trees need sunlight and all human beings need love, and yet, once satiated with these elementary necessities, each tree and each human being proceeds to develop in its own style, uniquely, using these universal necessities to its own private purposes. p66

Also, coping behavior tends to die out unless rewarded; expression often persists without reward or reinforcement. One is gratification-bent; the other is not. p67

In fact, self-actualization sounds in his view at least a little like Buddhist ideas about enlightenment.

In the good life lived by the healhy person, thinking, like perceiving, may be spontaneous and passive reception or production, an unmotivated, effortless, happy expression of the nature and existence of the organism, a letting things happen rather than making them happen, as much an example of being as the perfume of a flower or the apples on a tree. p72

This just seems too passive, although there is a lot to be said for spontaniety. And admittedly Keynes, in his Bloomsbury way, was also highly critical of over-purposefulness in the essay which we looked at right at the beginning of this blog.

Interestingly, this is not a left-right difference. Indeed, the left can be extremely purposive, with its sense of an arrow in history. And radicals can emphasize struggle over "being", Recall that Sarah Ahmed, in her book The Promise of Happinesswhich we discussed here, rejected happiness in favor of the struggle of reform of society, of the "perhaps".

Maslow believes people will always have some degree of dissatisfaction -an anticipation of what we would later call the hedonic treadmill:

Finally, we mention again the little-understood facts that human beings seem almost never to be permanently satisfied or content and - deeply connected with this - that people tend to get used to their blessings, to forget them, to take them for granted, even to cease to value them. For many people - we don't know how many - even the highest pleasures may grow stale and lose their newness, and it may be necessary to experience loss of their blessings in order to be able to appreciate them again. p40

He does not fully develop what this might mean for "self-actualization" or the good life.


The Good Life and Relationships


But there are some things I do like in Maslow's discussion of higher needs. Another way to think about the good life is through relationships:

Any ultimate analysis of human interpersonal relationships (e.g friendship, marriage, etc.) will show 1) that basic needs can be satisfied only interpersonally and 2) that the satisfactions of these needs are precisely those we have already spoken of as the basic therapeutic medicines, namely, the giving of safety, love, belongingness, feeling of worth, and self-esteem. p97

This in turn means that the good society is the one that has its institutional arrangements set up in such a way as to foster, encourage, reward, and produce a maximum of good human relationships and a minimum of bad human relationships. p105

But self-actualization is also about resisting social pressure and other people's expectations:

In trying to figure out why all this was so, it seemed to me that much boiled down to the relative absence of fear in my subjects. They were certainly less enculturated; that is, they seemed less afraid of what other people would say or demand or laugh at. It was this approval and acceptance of their deeper selves which made ir possible to perceive bravely the real nature of the world and also made their behavior more spontaneous (less controlled, less inhibited, less planned, less "willed" and designed.) They were less afraid of their own thoughts even when they were "nutty" or silly or crazy.They were less afraid of being laughed at or of being disapproved of. p162

And it is about being able to see the world afresh for oneself:

Very frequently, it appeared that an essential aspect of self-actualizing creativeness was a special kind of perceptiveness that is exemplified by the child in the fable who saw that the king had no clothes on. (This, too, contradicts the notion of creativity as products.) These people can see the fresh, the raw, the concrete, the ideographic, as well as the generic, the abstract, the rubricized, the categorized and classified. Consequently, they live far more in the real world of nature than in the verbalized world of concepts, abstractions, expectations, beliefs and stereotypes that most people confuse with the real world. This is well expressed in Roger's phrase "openness to experience." p 160

The interesting thing here is that although Maslow says people will become idiosyncratically more themselves, in many different ways, he still has a very definite idea of what people WILL become. There is an obvious tension here. He still believes in some kind of teleology - but cannot admit it.

And perhaps there is a deeper current of liberal thought that believes that once barriers and obstacles are removed, the innate goodness of human nature will reveal itself. And thus there is no real need to think more about purpose or the actual questions about how higher societies will be realized in practice.

It is the same kind of view that believed once the evils of capitalism are removed, real existing socialism will spring into being. Instead, of course, in most cases you got the terror and the show trials.

After all, some people's highest talents may be to invade Poland or mug people. We cannot assume that all desires for esteem or self-actualization are automatically, by definition, benign. We don't necessarily want everyone to self-realize in their own way. We do require some idea of more general human flourishing, and incentives to co-operate.

All the same, Maslow's assumptions (or confusion) about human nature should not detract from the validity of his basic idea, that of shfiting human values and demands as we rise up the hierarchy of needs. There is no necessary link between the idea of the hierarchy of needs and a specific positive view of human nature, or a specific liberal sensibility.

What we can stipulate, though, is that just satisfying basic needs is not enough to guarantee human nature will naturally incline towards utopia. But that only means we have to think even more critically about what needs actually are, and how to structure institutions to incentivize cooperation and happiness.


1 comment:

  1. Maslow was wrong. See SSRN article, See Nain, Bhavya, Nain’s Hierarchy of Needs: An Alternative to Maslow’s & ERG’s Hierarchy of Needs (June 14, 2013). Available at SSRN: