The way in which the benefits and burdens of society should be distributed is a widely discussed subject within political philosophy. Different scholars have given their views on how, for example, income, wealth, opportunities, jobs and welfare should be allocated. The field of study that examines this is called distributive justice, which focusses on the question of how we should distribute resources. Should everyone have the same? Should only those people benefit who are worse-off? Or should everyone simply have enough? (1).

The distributive principle of egalitarianism relates to the first question, as this theory claims that people should either receive the same, be treated the same or be treated as equals. The moral idea behind this theory is that all human beings are fundamentally equal in what they are worth (2).

The principle of prioritarianism relates to the second question, as this view does not take equality as such into account, but rather aims to benefit the persons who are worse off. Although this theory tends towards egalitarianist thoughts, prioritarians do not consider social, economic or other differences as intrinsically bad (3).

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt (1929) has offered an objection to egalitarianism with his idea of sufficientarianism, which relates to the last question. He argued that the emphasis should not be on everyone having the same, but rather on everyone having enough. Furthermore, from a moral point of view, Frankfurt claimed that the very idea of equality cannot be neutral and rather creates ‘envy’, and at the same time causes ‘moral shallowness’ because of its lack of interest in determining what is enough. According to Frankfurt, ‘it is whether people have good lives, and not how their lives compare with the lives of others’ (4).

The theory of sufficientarianism is based on a positive and a negative thesis. This means that when one individual finds her- or himself below the threshold of sufficiency, while someone else is above the threshold, the priority should be given to the first individual in order to put her or him above the threshold. This is the positive thesis. However, when both individuals are above the threshold, the position of the less well-of does not matter; this being the negative thesis. The goal of sufficientarianism is to use all available resources to give as many people as possible enough (5).

Frankfurt and his theory have been criticised and several scholars tried to improve it. Nonetheless, the underlying idea of sufficientarianism can be used as valid argument to support those in need and was of great influence in the emergence of welfare states (6), as the providence of some minimum sufficient living standard is widely accepted in several countries around the world, including the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Norway and Sweden (7).

However, while the basic idea of sufficiency has been applied in several countries, the specific determination of a minimum threshold for having enough is a much more difficult challenge. This is especially the case when we want to use Frankfurt’s theory on a global level, rather than just using it to improve living conditions in ‘the West’. After all, when we consider the positive thesis and the world as a whole, and if we assume that priority should be given to the least well-off, we should not only focus on for instance establishing a basic income in Sweden, but also ask ourselves how people in other parts of the world can have enough. Therefore, in this paper, I aim to offer the groundwork for a global sufficiency threshold by combining Frankfurt’s idea of sufficiency with Manfred Max-Neef’s ‘Theory of Needs’. The latter is a theory that tries to, as the name suggests, determine the most valued needs of human beings. By using this theory, I will try to offer a framework from which we could establish this global sufficiency threshold.

While the better known ‘Pyramid of Needs’ by Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) gave a linear progression of what human beings need the most in life, aimed at psychological needs, security, love, esteem and self-actualization, the model of Chilean economic scholar Manfred Max-Neef (1932) is non-hierarchal and includes needs that are equally important (8). While the first theory is considered to be focussed on economic preferences of humans, developed from a Western perspective, the second is focussed on the few, finite and classifiable needs that are constant across history and all human cultures. According to Max-Neef’s theory, the only thing that changes over time and through cultures is the way by which the needs are satisfied (9).

After extensive research on development strategies, Max-Neef and his colleagues have determined nine fundamental human needs: Subsistence, Protection, Affection, Understanding, Participation, Leisure, Creation, Identity and Freedom. They further defined these nine fundamental needs by existential categories of being, having, doing and interacting, leading to a 36-cell matrix, which is shown here. An important aspect of the theory is that Max-Neef made a distinction between ‘needs’ and ‘satisfiers’ that meet those needs, as for example food and shelter are not seen as needs but as the satisfiers of the fundamental need for Subsistence. The same goes for education, investigation, meditation and study, which are the satisfiers to the need for Understanding (9).

Another important aspect and more related to the sufficiency threshold is the theory’s emphasis on ‘poverties’, in which these poverties differ from the traditional and economistic concept of poverty. The Theory of Needs claims that poverties exist when the fundamental human needs are not satisfied. For example, poverty of Protection can mean that there is insufficient income, food or shelter, and poverty of Affection can be found when there is authoritarianism, oppression or ‘exploitative relations with the natural environment’ (9).

To translate the above to the sufficiency theory, to have enough, i.e. to have your fundamental needs fulfilled, you need to be able to receive the opportunity to reach the satisfiers that Max-Neef has listed. The priority should be given to those who are suffering from the poverties that withhold them from satisfying their fundamental needs. Within this concept, the threshold for having enough can be determined by using the 36-cell matrix as some sort of ‘checklist’. On the one hand, if one receives all satisfiers and therefore is fulfilled in her or his fundamental needs, she or he is then above the sufficiency threshold. On the other hand, when one for example does not receive equal rights (having one’s fundamental need for Freedom suppressed) or does not have access to social security (having one’s fundamental need for Protection suppressed), priority must be given to this person to allow her or him to reach the satisfiers that can erase these poverties.

However, if this concept wants to be pragmatic and usable on a global scale, some satisfiers may need to be crossed of the list, or at least in the first instance. It would simply not be realistic to focus on allowing all human-beings to express their creativity while simultaneously trying to decrease the poverties that withheld people from education or having enough food.  This means that, against the purpose of the Theory of Needs, some hierarchy or priority needs to be assigned to certain satisfiers that governments, NGO’s and local communities can focus on. For example, we might say that Subsistence and Protection are necessary needs for people to reach some sort of minimum threshold of being able to live without constant suppression or deprivation. Again, this is clearly not the purpose of the original Theory of Needs, so therefore, as mentioned earlier, this concept needs to be merely considered as a framework to think about global sufficiency thresholds that are actually usable at this moment, no matter how much we would prefer to immediately have all human-beings satisfied in all their fundamental needs.

To do so, I suggest not only to prioritize people below a certain threshold, but also to determine multiple thresholds and to prioritize these. To give an idea of this, I want to suggest the following thresholds based on the Theory of Needs:

Threshold I: Bare Sufficiency

Physical and mental health are existential necessities and without them no one will be able to reach higher thresholds. Therefore, to reach this threshold, the fundamental needs of Subsistence and Protection need to be met, meaning that people need to have access to food, health care and social protection.

Threshold II: Liveable Sufficiency

To have some sort of liveable, humane life, some level of self-respect and privacy is needed. Therefore, to reach this threshold, the fundamental needs of Affection and Freedom also need to be met, meaning that people should not only be able to interact with family, friends and other relatives, but also to set limits on how people interfere with their lives.

Threshold III: Ability Sufficiency

To be able to develop critical thinking and allow curiosity to grow, freedom of learning and developing is required. Therefore, to reach this threshold, the fundamental needs of Participation and Understanding also need to be met, meaning that people can take part in education and can, for example, join churches, parties or other associations.

Threshold IV: Ultimate Sufficiency

To be completely satisfied in all fundamental needs, one should have all nine needs fulfilled. Therefore, to reach this threshold, all needs, including the fundamental needs of Leisure, Creation and Identity, need to be met; the last three meaning that people can take time to explore their creativity or work the job they really want.

Where common groundworks for development work are often created from a Western Perspective, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an approach based on Max-Neef can be accepted and applied by various cultures and within different political situations. By giving guidance to what sufficiency is, based on the Theory of Needs, the kind of specific thresholds proposed above allow for humane, pragmatic and plausible human development on a global scale. If we were to prioritize the ‘Bare Sufficiency’ threshold, the focus of development work should be on water and food access, environmental hazards, quality of health care systems and other factors that are relevant to the fundamental needs of Subsistence and Protection. Simultaneously, we should be much more critical of poverties such as war, inequality, climate change or dictatorship that withheld people from the satisfiers to their fundamental needs. The final goal should be to reach the ‘Ultimate Sufficiency’ threshold for all human-beings, as in the end, all fundamental needs are equally important for the well-being of humans.


  1. Lamont, and Favor, . Distributive Justice. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [Online] 22 September 1996.
  2. Arneson, . Egalitarianism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [Online] 16 August 2002.
  3. Meyer, . Intergenerational Justice. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [Online] 3 April 2003.
  4. Equality as a Moral Ideal. Frankfurt, . 1987, Ethics.
  5. Why Sufficiency Is Not Enough. Casal, . 2007, Ethics, pp. 296-300.
  6. Studebaker, . Why the Welfare State? Benjamin Studebaker. [Online] 20 November 2012.
  7. McIntyre, . Which countries are the most (and least) committed to reducing inequality? The Guardian. [Online] 17 July 2017.
  8. Khandelwal, . Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs vs. The Max Neef Model of Human Scale development. Medium. [Online] 2 February 2016.
  9. Max-Neef, Manfred A., Elizalde, and Hopenhayn, . Human scale development: conception, application and further reflections. New York : s.n., 1989.
  10. Fisher, . Max-Neef on Human Needs and Human-scale Development. Rainforest Info. [Online] n.d.
Categories: Long Reads


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *