The satisfaction of needs emerged as a dominant principle within debates on distributive justice. Philosopher Harry Frankfurt notes that what is “morally objectionable in circumstances of economic inequality is not that some of the individuals in those circumstances have less money than others. Rather, it is the fact that those with less have too little.” In a similar vein, Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum posit that, to realize human dignity, certain thresholds of basic “functionings” must be satisfied. In both accounts, the satisfaction of needs is prioritized over other principles of distributive justice.

The most basic conceptualization of needs refers to physical survival and personal autonomy, but the interpretation of what this autonomy means varies across societies. Moreover, individual needs are heterogeneous. Therefore, other than equity or equality, need-based justice cannot be established by a simple decision rule for the distribution of resources. Some philosophers, such as Gillian Brock, posit that the only relevant community for the satisfaction of needs can be humanity in its entirety. Others, like David Miller, argue that the scope may reasonably be restricted by borders between societies.

Because needs are subjective, they must be articulated by the person in need and substantiated by reasons that can be recognized by others. In order to qualify as a need that should be covered through the transfer of resources from others, individual claims must refer to a situation of deprivation. In consequence, the process of need recognition is inherently social, and both the definition of what counts as needs and the criteria for their satisfaction are subject to deliberation.

If need recognition is a social process and people differentiate needs, it is pertinent to understand which factors affect the recognition of individual need claims. A recent series of laboratory experiments addressed this question, with a focus on the satisfaction of need claims in three-player networks. This kind of experiment allows for a more precise examination of causal relations by carving out the social mechanisms hypothesized to be at work in the recognition of needs, and isolating them from intervening factors.

The basic experiment consists of two stages. In stage 1, the three players obtain a common endowment of 24 points to be distributed among them. Points can only be distributed if two of the three players agree on how to allocate them. Players are assigned heterogeneous thresholds that define a minimum number of points needed to proceed to stage 2, in which they can earn additional income by solving a series of tasks on the computer. If players’ allocations do not reach at least their thresholds, they are given the same tasks without the possibility to earn income. This design translates the conception of need in terms of capabilities and thresholds into conditions that can be implemented in a social science laboratory.

We use this research design to test hypotheses about the size of needs, the transparency of need claims, and the scope of need recognition, by manipulating the need thresholds given to players, the information available for them to make decisions, and the composition of the network.

According to inequality aversion theory, distributions should gravitate toward satisfaction of all three players’ thresholds, but the satisfaction of needs should decline with the threshold level. Thresholds above the equal distribution (8—8—8) should activate ‘disadvantaged inequality aversion’ and substantially lower the probability of need satisfaction. This reasoning particularly applies to the player who is excluded from the deciding dyad. In Figure 1, the proportion of satisfied thresholds for this “third player” is given for various thresholds. The general pattern follows the theory premise: with rising thresholds, the need satisfaction rate declines, with a steep step downwards between thresholds 5 and 9.

Transparency of needs is a crucial condition for their recognition, because claimants have an incentive to overstate their needs if they cannot be verified by others. In turn, others may take this incentive into account when deciding about the allocation of resources. Thus, we can expect that large thresholds are more likely satisfied if the other players know that a claim is true. This effect is also shown in Figure 1. For claims above the equal allocation of 8 points per player, the need satisfaction rate is close to zero when the need level is unknown to others.


Figure 1

Figure 1. Need satisfaction by threshold of third player

Note: Whiskers represent 95% confidence intervals. Source: Kittel, Neuhofer and Schwaninger 2021



Needs are most likely invoked as a principle of distributive justice in solidary communities. This means that, the smaller the social distance between players, the more likely are their needs satisfied. A crucial source of solidarity is a common identity. Following the minimal group paradigm, in our experiment social distance within groups was reduced and social distance between groups was raised by means of a cooperative game prior to stage 1. Then either three players from different groups (T1), all three group members (T3), or two members of one group and one member of another group (T2), whereby the outsider has a low (T2L), medium (T2M) or high (T2H) threshold, are matched into a network in stage 1 and compared to a treatment group in which no player has been exposed to the identity formation game (T0).

Figure 2 shows that the between-treatment effect of social distance is small. Nevertheless, the difference between T0 and T1 suggests that the joint experience in the cooperative game seems to raise within-group solidarity. Moreover, a more detailed analysis of the threshold of the outsider in T2 reveals that low thresholds are substantially more likely to be satisfied than high thresholds.


Figure 2

Figure 2. Effects of social distance and threshold
Note: NSR-G = Need satisfaction rate at group level. The variable’s value is 0.67 if the thresholds of two players are satisfied. Whiskers represent 95% confidence intervals. Source: Kittel, Schwaninger and SzendrĹ‘ 2022



In sum, the experiments support the hypotheses advanced earlier. First, as suggested by the inequality aversion theory, we find that distributions gravitate toward satisfaction of all players, but the satisfaction of needs declines with the size of the need. Second, individual needs are more likely satisfied if the others know that their need claims are true. Third, within-group solidarity (for instance, based upon a shared identity) is an important factor in the likelihood of needs satisfaction.

The laboratory experiments certainly do not capture the urgency of life-threatening needs that people may encounter in their lives. But they do show how participants understand situations in terms of needs, and how they respond to different conditions (or, in the experiment, treatments). The reported results suggest that needs are a relevant criterium of distributive decisions, and that the recognition of need claims depends on their size and transparency, most notably when decisions are taken for outsiders.



The DFG research group FOR2104 “Need-based Justice and Distributive Procedures” studied the identification and recognition of needs as well as the sustainability of need-based distributions.
The research was funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), grants I1888-G11 and I3804-G27.

Header photo by by Jeremy Yap - Unsplash