Guy Fletcher – Needing and Necessity

PTRG Write-up: December 7

In “Needing and Necessity,” Guy Fletcher argues that we can better understand thought and talk about ‘needs’ if we learn from recent work on modal terms ‘ought’ and ‘must.’ Further, once we understand what is going on in much of existing needs theory, we have reason to be skeptical of the added value of talking about ‘needs’ rather than the more fundamental moral concept of ‘harm.’ 

Fletcher’s thesis calls for upending familiar ways of understanding needs for even the most moderate of theorists, but it is most damning for ambitious theorists who take needs to be “fundamental, irreducible, and morally important.” He suggests that we see needs as modal claims, and argues for applying Angelika Kratzner’s analysis of ‘must’ to need claims. This means that ‘need,’ like must, has the same meaning across all possible need claims (such as “Hillary needs water” and “Hillary needs 2,383 delegates to win the nomination”) – it always “generates a proposition about what is required by some standard.” The difference between claims is the standard to which they appeal. Fletcher ultimately argues that a prudential standard offers the best chance to preserve moderate needs theory, but that such a standard is inevitably reducible to talk of ‘harm,’ and so cannot save the ambitious needs theorist.

Our seminar discussion exposed some of the ways that needs talk in the English language is idiosyncratic, differing in French, German, and Chinese. Some suggested alternative versions of moderate needs theory which are not reducible to harm, and were not considered in the paper. The distinctions between prudential and instrumental necessity, and between moderate and ambitious needs theorists, were questioned. The value of focusing on standards of necessity instead of states of affairs was also questioned. Finally, the aim of the project was interrogated, with some wondering whether the paper is an exercise in formal semantics or ordinary language philosophy.

Written by Christina Dineen


Guy Fletcher is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh