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Justice and Needs

  • Gillian Brock (a1)


Is it somehow a requirement of justice that we meet people's needs? So, for instance, do people in need of certain goods necessary to sustain life deserve help from those not (similarly) in need because this is a requirement of justice?



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1 Wiggins, D., “Claims of Need,” in D. Wiggins, Needs, Values, Truth: Essays in Philosophy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), pp. 157.

2 Braybrooke, D., Meeting Needs (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987).

3 Wiggins, “Claims of Need,” p. 32.

4 Ibid., pp. 32-33.

5 Wiggins is particularly hard to understand in the matter of which needs exactly have this kind of status. According to Wiggins, the fact that people have certain needs grounds all sorts of minimal civic and legal rights, such as the right to make certain sorts of agreements with other individuals, to buy the necessities of life or sell the products of one's labour. We have these rights because, according to Wiggins, these are “the preconditions of someone's securing his own material survival in his own way… by his own efforts” (Ibid., p. 34). Wiggins also believes rights to education, legal aid and basic health care can be justified by a similar argument (Ibid., p. 36). It seems that rights to have several sorts of basic or vital needs met can also be justified by a similar argument, since having several sorts of basic or vital needs met are clearly also preconditions of the relevant kind.

6 Nozick, Robert is one libertarian who holds such a view (see Anarchy, State and Utopia [New York: Basic Books, 1977]).

7 Braybrooke, Meeting Needs, p. 157.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., p. 155.

13 Is there no way to bolster Braybrooke's position? Is it not true that some sort of principle of concern is a requirement, if not of justice, then, perhaps of morality? Certainly, any plausible moral view must embrace some principle according to which showing concern for others is required. But the question still remains: why should any plausible moral view embrace a principle of concern whereby people are required to meet others' needs? Indeed, on many sorts of moral theories (those that maintain that there is a distinction between perfect and imperfect duties, for instance), such acts would typically be regarded as paradigm cases of supererogatory rather than obligatory acts.

14 Of course, it might be objected that both Wiggins and Braybrooke are trying to do something more revisionary—that is, they are not trying to argue that any conception of justice whatsoever must recognize the requirement of meeting needs, but only that any adequate, plausible or reasonable conception of justice must recognize this. Even if we interpret Wiggins's and Braybrooke's projects as more revisionary, the criticisms still hold. Indeed, more must be said to those who would not go for the revisionism. In particular, it must be argued that conceptions of justice (such as libertarianism) which do not embrace a commitment to meeting needs are indeed implausible, inadequate, unreasonable and so forth. Neither Braybrooke nor Wiggins successfully argues this important thesis.

15 I am grateful to Michael Ferejohn, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord and anonymous reviewers from Dialogue for valuable comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

Justice and Needs

  • Gillian Brock (a1)


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