July 12, 2005

Thirty-five years after his death, Maslow's most popular theory has once again whispered its way into the public consciousness; or perhaps its popularity (or notoriety) in some circles has never truly waned. My sense is that its rise and fall in popular awareness parallels those aspects of the socioeconomic wheel which cycle between individualism/libertarianism and the social contract/deontology: for the same logic which suggests the pyramid of needs of the human organism also implicitly justifies rational self-interest in pursuit of these ends, especially the first and second. These are the necessities of life, after all. When it comes to the pursuit of one's own life, one's own safety (the two bedrocking all the rest): what means are not justified?

At some level it appeals to us, this simple pyramid structured on what seems the most logical of ladders: yet even Maslow himself recognised that for whatever reason, humans sometimes just don't seem to react logically. Various fixes have been suggested by Maslow and by those who followed him, ranging from a cross-axis along personality dimensions to the (Jungian) Myers-Briggs distinction of introversion/extroversion. Different psychologists have suggested alternate arrangements or additional needs:

Yet a disproportionate number of these theories seem to me to be continuing to try to explain how things should be, rather than how they are. Theories are beautiful things: but not one of these attempts takes account even of something as basic as the maternal instinct to protect her own child, where it means foregoing the bedrock necessities of her own life. According to every single theory which is intended to apply to adults, individual security of the body ought to come before all else ... and yet we know and accept that it often doesn't.

I suggest that the whole thing requires only a very simple fix. Maslow's pyramid and all its adapters and successors are intended to apply to the human organism. Why should that organism be individual?

Apply the same structure not to individuals, but to societies strong enough to have evolved an "us/them" orientation: and suddenly human behaviour fits, be the human organism as small as the nuclear family circle or (potentially) as large as all mankind ... so long as the social construct has the capacity to assign to itself an "us", and to all else a "them". After all, there must be some label to apply to those individual "cells" which don't accept this hierarchy of needs as interpreted through the perspective of the society, and which must therefore be cast out ...

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