Virtues and needs

Maslow's hierarchy, as depicted by Factoryjoe.
Maslow’s hierarchy, as depicted by Factoryjoe.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a popular framework for depicting the elements of a healthy, integrated personality, and the way in which the different “needs” of such a personality depend on one another.

It’s not one that commands universal support. This reworking of it as “Maslow’s plughole of narcissism” may be harsh, but it makes an important point: namely, that Maslow’s hierarchy can function in a rather individualistic way, moving “from shared need and social support to personal thoughts and individual wants” (even if it is arguable that this was not Maslow’s intention, as set out in his original paper on the subject).

When I linked to that “plughole” image the other day on Twitter, I was upbraided by someone asking “Why is it narcissistic to want to be a good person?” That, of course, rather begs the question: the criticism being made of the hierarchy is precisely that it can encourage a mistaken view of what a “good person” (or a “good life”) looks like.

This then got me thinking of an alternative framework for understanding “the good life”: namely, the traditional framework of the “cardinal virtues”. These are summarised quite effectively in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

  • Prudence:the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.”
  • Justice: “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbour.”
  • Fortitude: “the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.”
  • Temperance: “the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods.”

The important thing to remember is that, while these have become traditionally associated with Christian moral teaching, they are not specifically Christian (or even necessarily religious) in either origin or content. They are the “human virtues”, which are “acquired by human effort”. They are:

firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good. (CCC 1804)

As such, the human virtues have as their aim a similar outcome to that of Maslow’s hierarchy: the development of a life characterised by “integrated wholeness”. So I thought it would be useful to sketch out some ideas on how the human virtues relate to Maslow’s hierarchy, fulfilling what is useful and helpful in his scheme while correcting some of its defects.

  • Physiological and Safety: the fulfilment of these needs relies, first of all, not on one’s own possession of virtues, but on their possession by others. Justice, prudence and temperance in our society’s government and economic institutions, and the prudence and temperance of our parents, guardians and family members. Not for nothing did Luther list “good government” among the things we pray for in the petition “give us this day our daily bread”. As we become older, our own prudence and temperance become more important in helping us fulfil these needs for ourselves and our own dependents.
  • Love/belonging: again, the virtues of prudence and temperance are needed here, but we also need the virtue of fortitude, in order to stick with our friends and families and maintain good relationships with them through thick and thin (as the marriage vows recognise).
  • Esteem: what do we most esteem in others? Usually it will be qualities such as loyalty, fairness, good sense, good judgment, and so on; in other words, qualities that are closely related to all four human virtues. So to meet our own need for “self-esteem”, we need to be developing similar qualities, similar virtues, in ourselves – and to live within a society and milieu that also recognises those qualities.

In each of these, the four cardinal virtues can be seen at work, “the complete consort dancing together”, to fulfil these needs in ourselves and others, in a way that always emphasises our mutual dependency and support for one another, and without any risk of disappearing down the plughole of narcissistic individualism.

Which brings us to Self-actualisation. This is, I think, an unfortunate term. It tends to imply (in popular usage) a rather self-centred, “Planet Me” approach to life. Maslow’s original meaning is better than this:

It refers to the desire for self-fulfilment, namely, to the tendency for [a person] to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.

This includes becoming what you are capable of becoming in the service of others (“the desire to be an ideal mother” is Maslow’s example), as well as in the service of oneself. Again, this can perhaps be more helpfully expressed in the description we saw earlier of the outcome of the human virtues:

ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life.

But at this point, I would say that more is needed. For us to “become everything that one is capable of becoming” must include, for a Christian, more than merely the achievement of the “human virtues”. This brings us to the “theological virtues”, which again are usefully defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

  • Faith: “the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us.”
  • Hope: “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.”
  • Charity:  “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbour as ourselves for the love of God.”

These virtues “are the foundation of Christian moral activity”. They “animate it and give it its special character”, and they “inform and give life to all the moral virtues”. Above all, charity is the virtue which “binds everything together in perfect harmony”, and the other virtues are “animated and inspired by charity”. “Charity upholds and purifies our human ability to love, and raises it to the supernatural perfection of divine love,” giving to the Christian “the spiritual freedom of the children of God”:

The fruits of charity are joy, peace, and mercy; charity demands beneficence and fraternal correction; it is benevolence; it fosters reciprocity and remains disinterested and generous; it is friendship and communion: Love is itself the fulfilment of all our works. There is the goal; that is why we run: we run toward it, and once we reach it, in it we shall find rest.

And that is the true “actualisation” of (not by) our selves, one that is completely incompatible with self-absorption or self-centredness.


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