Basic material needs of human beings : food, shelter, clothing, health care
Migrations and refugees

What Are the Basic Material Needs of Human Beings?

You may have already heard about the basic needs of human beings, notably through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is a subject that can be found in the fields of psychology and personal development. It is indeed important to become aware of one’s basic needs in order to develop oneself.

But before we thrive, we must satisfy our basic material needs: food, shelter, clothing and health care.

But are these needs fundamental rights?

That’s all we are going to see in this article!



Basic needs, from personal growth to human rights


What is a need?


A need is a total or partial lack of something fundamental to a person’s survival and well-being. Its satisfaction is necessary.

In psychology, a need is defined as a state resulting from internal tensions and concerning particular satisfactions (hunger, thirst, etc.). This definition comes from the Dictionary of Psychiatry published by the CILF.


Need is different from desire.

Desire is linked to emotions. It is an instinctive aspiration of the individual to fill the feeling of a lack, of incompleteness.

Unlike a need, its satisfaction is not necessary (for survival, for example). Desires differ from one culture to another and are infinite: as soon as one desire is satisfied, others appear.

The brain sometimes plays tricks on us and it can be difficult to distinguish between a need and a desire, for example when it comes to food. Eating because you feel physiologically hungry is a need. Feeling like eating something sweet is a desire.



Becoming aware of our privileges: a little law student anecdote


In this article, I want to address the issue of basic human material needs from two perspectives: psychology/personal development and human rights.


Why material needs specifically?


I was very fortunate, like some of you, to be born and raised in an environment where I lacked nothing, especially from a material point of view. I always had food, in sufficient quantity and quality, medicines when I was sick, etc. Today, this is still the case. I am aware that I am privileged. I hope that all those who are also privileged will realize this.


This reflection is based on an anecdote I experienced when I was a law student. A teacher asked us what the four basic material needs of human beings were. The answer came naturally to me, but I didn’t react immediately because I was curious to hear the answers of the other students.

I was stunned: no one knew how to answer.

It hit me. We, the students in this class, were all part of the privileged group who did not have to worry about these basic needs. We all had a smartphone and a computer, sometimes even a car. Being privileged is not a problem, it’s luck. What is, in my opinion, a problem, however, is not being aware of it. Even worse: these law students, who had studied human rights and were destined to become lawyers, judges, etc., did not know what the basic needs were. They had certainly studied their lessons well, but had not thought about this essential question. I don’t blame them: life probably didn’t give them the opportunity to do so. These students had simply not yet become aware of certain realities.

End of the story? I raised my hand and replied. I’m not saying that I was better than these students. I was simply already aware of my privileged position.


Before I present these four basic material needs in more detail, I invite you to ask yourself about them.

These material needs are included in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.



Maslow’s hierarchy of needs


Abraham Harold Maslow was an American humanistic psychologist of the 20th century. He is known for his explanation of motivation through the hierarchy of human needs. This hierarchy is materialized by a pyramid.

Maslow distinguished five levels of needs. Each level must be satisfied before we can think about satisfying the needs of the next level. The first four levels are considered to be “indispensable”. Not satisfying them leads to deep unhappiness. The fifth level is the self-actualization. Unlike the others, this need does not come from a lack. It is the icing on the cake: only when we have stability and security can we think about self- actualization and realizing our dreams. This is the very purpose of personal growth.

Note that needs are first focused on the self (physiological, security needs) before gradually opening up to others (social, esteem needs). We also move from material needs (food, housing, etc.) to immaterial needs (love, respect, esteem, etc.).


Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
©Yolanda Squatpump, Flickr



1 Physiological needs


Physiological needs are vital: their satisfaction is important, even necessary, for survival.

They are: food, water, excretion, homeostasis (through clothing among others), breathing, shelter, sleep, sexuality.


2 Safety-related needs


The second level of the pyramid concerns needs related to safety, both physical and psychological. This basic need is met when we have a stable and predictable social, family and work environment, free of anxiety and crisis.

This includes: physical integrity, stability, stable work and income, good health.


3 The need for belonging and love


This is the need related to our social dimension. Human beings are social animals. We need to feel accepted and loved by the groups to which we belong (couple, family, friends, colleagues, associations, etc.). This is the first need that is turned towards others.

The need for belonging and love translates into: integration into a group, love and affection, obtaining social status, interacting with others, being part of a team, being informed, etc.


4 The need for esteem


At this level of Maslow’s pyramid, we also find needs with a social dimension. Human beings need to be valued and appreciated by their peers.

This is also the need for self-esteem.

The need for esteem involves: recognition and appreciation by others, dignity, prestige, autonomy and individualization within a group, self-confidence.


5 The need for self-actualization


The need for fulfilment, or self-actualization, is at the top of Maslow’s pyramid. This need for self-fulfillment drives us to want to contribute, however modestly, to the betterment of the world through our skills and talents.

In personal development, several concepts translate the need for self-actualization: ikigai, mission in life, etc.

Here is how this need can be satisfied: learning, living according to one’s values, developing one’s creativity, having an inner life.



The four basic material needs of the human being


The four basic material needs of the human being correspond to the first two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

These needs are food, shelter, clothing and health care.


The 4 basic material needs: food, shelter, clothing, health care
The 4 basic material needs: food, shelter, clothing, health care.


Basic needs satisfied by money


What is a material need? It means that money is needed to meet them. Unfortunately, we live in a world where, unless we are completely self-sufficient, we need money to satisfy many of our most basic needs. We need money to buy food, accommodation, health care and clothes.



Are these basic material needs fundamental rights?


As I studied law, I find it interesting to ask whether basic material needs are fundamental rights. Is there, for example, a right to housing?


  • A right to housing?

The need for housing includes the need to have a roof over one’s head, a stable and healthy place to live.

Is it a right?

The right to housing is recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, Article 25), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, Article 12), as well as by the European Social Charter (Article 31). The problem is that these texts do not allow the concrete implementation of a right to housing.

In France (since I studied French law), the DALO (Droit au logement opposable) law of 5 March 2007 recognizes that a homeless person is entitled to demand from the authorities the application of the constitutional right to housing (included in the preamble of the 1946 Constitution, which has constitutional value).


  • A right to health?

As we have seen, good health is a fundamental need.

The right to health appears in the UDHR (Article 25) and in the ICESCR (Article 12). It does not exist as such in French law. Only the protection of public health is recognized in France (preamble to the 1946 Constitution, Article 11), which is reflected in the establishment of a social security system. Many countries in the world have a social protection system.


  • A right to food?

Food is a basic need. But is it a right? If you don’t have enough to eat, does the government have an obligation to give you food?

Such a right would imply that everyone has access to sufficient food that meets their nutritional needs.

The UDHR (Article 25) and the ICESCR (Article 11) recognize the right to food in a general way. But in practice, this right does not really exist! Governments are not obliged to distribute food to people who want it. There is no right to be fed by the state.


  • A right to clothing?

Clothing is the fourth basic material need. I am talking about having clothes, to cover ourselves and protect us from the cold for example.

Is there a right to clothing?

The UDHR (Article 25) and the ICESCR (Article 11), once again, recognize this right. It is about having an adequate standard of living to afford clothing. I have not found anything like this in French law.

Note that I am not talking about the freedom to dress as we wish, which is another debate.


You may ask me: why are the four basic material needs not really recognized as fundamental rights, even though they are fundamental?

These needs are legally translated into economic and social rights. They are rights based on the concepts of equality and social justice.

The problem is that these rights are considered to be claim rights, i.e. rights that require state intervention to be effective. In other words, their implementation requires state intervention. For example, for the right to housing to be truly effective, the state would have to build and finance housing for everyone (our society is governed by money, remember?). If such a right was effective, it would be enforceable against the state, i.e. we could go to court to get free housing. This would simply not be possible, unless we live in an ideal world



How can we become aware of these basic material needs?


As I said earlier, when we are in a privileged situation, we are often not aware of our basic material needs. Unfortunately, we only become aware of them once they are no longer satisfied.

This is what happens to refugees, for example. Refugees usually lose ‘everything’. Their basic material needs are suddenly unmet, as is their need for security. Many refugees had previously had these needs met, probably like you who are reading me (because if you are reading me from a mobile, a tablet or a computer, it is because your basic material needs are normally met: you have a roof over your head, food…).


So how can we become aware of our basic material needs?


  • Feeling grateful for having our basic needs met.

It’s a simple thing, but it’s still the basis.

  • Doing some voluntary work or an internship in an association or NGO.

It helps to become aware of realities and, in the process, to realize how lucky we are to be privileged, to not worry about whether we have enough money to meet our basic needs, to have the luxury of asking ourselves what we want to satisfy with our money. Volunteering is a way of becoming aware of our privileges and helping those who do not have them.

  • Donating to those who don’t have enough money to pay for accommodation, food…
  • On a global level: reducing inequalities.

I hope the governments and the powerful people of this world read me…


I hope this article has allowed you to reflect on your basic material needs and to become aware of the immense privilege that we have when they are satisfied!





My legal expertise



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