There is a famous saying by Gandhi that the world has enough for our needs but not enough for our greed. But where is the line between the two? Given the great differences between countries and their national interests, as also between individuals within countries, there is not much agreement on the answer. We can all be certain that access to clean air and water are legitimate 'needs', but what about other things? Affordable public transport? Gucci bags? Nuclear weapons?

To address people's needs, we need to understand them first. Viewpoints change continuously so today's need was yesterday's greed. We know that social consciousness changes over time. Life in the fourteenth century might have been nasty, brutish and short, but medieval human beings had no inkling of the control exerted by the state and corporations on individual lives. Yet, that level of control is universal these days, for white-collar and blue collar workers alike. Given that greed and need are not definable in some universal and time independent manner, what is one to do?

The usual analysis of needs tries to fix the needs of a 'typical' citizen. One can think of four solutions to the problem of meeting the needs of an average person:

  1. Society accepts that needs are dynamic, but recognises that all of us share a basic set of needs. These are minimal rights everybody should have - for example, a universal human right to life, food, clothing and shelter. This is a reasonable starting point, but beyond this, however, things get murkier. The unfortunate truth is that the powerful can - and do - push aside the mass of humans. Given this fact, it is not clear to me how a platform based on 'common minimum needs' could ever achieve its goal.

  2. The second solution is to accept that human beings are inherently greedy, but that through a market or state mechanism, an individual's greed and self-interest will lead to the satisfaction of everyone's needs. In this view, if I want a widget and I am willing to pay for it and you want to make money and are willing to make the widget, everything is right with the world. This works even at the extreme. For example, if I pay for my gated community and its security guards at the going rate, why should someone else tell me if that's the right way to use my money?

    This approach works fine in theory, but it has certain serious drawbacks, such as - what do you do about those who do not have the capacity to offer something in return for their demands? In other words, what happens to the poor, the disabled and the entire non-human environment? They have their needs but they cannot voice their self-interest in this marketplace. Thus, their sole role in this system is as objects of exploitation. Further, what happens when a few people can buy everything? Do they have the right to everything?

  3. One way to stop the worst forms of exploitation is to argue that every being with needs should also have rights, which brings us to the third choice. The third system says that we have to do both (1) and (2) simultaneously. All humans as well as the environment deserve a minimal charter of rights. Further, we have to establish rules that prevent a few humans from trampling on these basic rights. In this scheme, greed is fine as long as it does not violate basic needs and rights of others. Many conceptions of socialist economies, as well as what we now call 'sustainable economics' fall under this solution.

    This is also extended, typically, in space and time. Thus, the greed of humans in one place at a given time should be restricted to protect the rights of humans and non-humans in other places as well as in the future. In other words, we must regulate local greed to promote global needs. This approach is clearly attractive, but it still defines human beings as mostly greedy creatures with regulation necessary to curb our natural greed.

  4. A closely related conception to (3) is the moral conception of greed as a sin, which is curbed by going to church or reading self-improvement manuals. In this moral scenario, we replace our innate greediness by our capacity to be moral and ethical beings. The Gandhian approach to economics is often understood this way, where we replace the greedy state of the average human being with a normative ideal of ascetic living. From the householder to the itinerant monk, various levels of transcendence of greed can be identified. Transcendence is great if you can achieve it, but most humans see this as a killjoy or an unachievable dream, more ideology than actual life.

These are the four dominant theories of human need, theories based on data from an 'average' individual. For example, we can say that on average humans are greedy but open to change when prompted. Unfortunately, average-case analyses are no longer correct in a world where technological changes have made some humans almost divine in power. At the high-end of the consumption spectrum, technology and globalisation have made both need and greed so outrageously out of proportion to ordinary human reality that they distort the needs of everyone else. I call this the law of small numbers, that is, the capacity of small groups of people to corner resources and hijack the social agenda to achieve their goals.

Technology and globalisation have made both need and greed so outrageously out of proportion to ordinary human reality that they distort the needs of everyone else.

 •  Vanishing moral commons
 •  Rerouting the call of the needy

I once read the twenty richest Indians have as much wealth as the bottom three hundred million. For example, the Ambani brothers are worth about 200,000 crores each. The poorest Indians are certainly not worth five lakhs. A simple calculation shows that the two brothers put together are worth at least as much as eight million Indians.

Average case scenarios are also no longer predictive of what will happen to humanity as a whole. Wherever one looks, we live in a world where a few human events can rapidly spread their effects to a large section of humanity. We need a better theory of human nature, one shifting from an average case scenario to a deep understanding of every individual human being. Such an understanding can only come from each one of us. Our self-understanding should shift from a theoretical account based on aggregate data to an experiential insight into our own nature.

Here too Gandhi might have something to teach us. Despite being a mass leader with a clear understanding of the average Indian, Gandhi was not enamoured with an average case analysis of human needs. In an article on Gandhi as a Thinker, Akeel Bilgrami said that Gandhi's most radical vision was his denial of a theoretical, abstract conception of truth for an experiential conception of truth, which is intrinsically moral. In the Gandhian framework, curbs on our greed emerge naturally from an authentic way of life.

One can disagree with Bilgrami's assessment of Gandhi. Perhaps Gandhi was not as radical as Bilgrami claims, but the underlying message remains: any experiential conception of human nature is different from a theoretical conception of what it is to be human.

Authentic living may seem as distant a dream as curbing our immorality, but we need a serious public debate on the good life. Without such a debate, and a pedagogical programme accompanying it, the dynamics of society will be dictated by a small coterie. The nature of technological change is such that the law of small numbers will inevitably succeed if there isn't a matching change in human self-understanding.

During the last century, the question that occupied the best Indian minds was the question of the 'just society'. Democracy, for all its flaws, has spread its wings in India because of this public questioning of society. Unlike political freedom, swaraj cannot be achieved at a collective level alone. With the law of small numbers threatening to take over, we need a public discussion of the good life, a search for truth done by individuals in association with others. In this spirit, I pose the question that was implicitly asked at the beginning of this article: what are our needs as individuals and as a society, and how can we know them?

One other thought, in closing. Any discussion of the 'good life' is necessarily a combination of the way things are and the way things should be. This article is primarily about the latter question, a question that lies at the intersection of ethics and economics. This article may appear prescriptive, especially considering that a good many of this publication's readers are already inclined towards the public good. My intent is not to tell others how to live their lives, but to raise questions about the nature of the good life.