“On Relationality, Need, and Power”
Sarah Miller, associate professor of philosophy, bioethics, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and spring 2023 Humanities Institute faculty scholar in residence
What is the significance of relationality for human needs? Philosophers have generally thought of need as a matter of individual vulnerability to harm. On this account, needs arise in one person to be responded to by other people. While there is limited relationality in such forms of ethical responsibility, we must ask what this approach occludes. The individualized view fails to perceive the multiple relational dimensions of the concept of need. For example, some needs can only be met in the locus of specific kinds of relationships. Some needs may be relationally constituted. Moreover, understanding needs individually tends to lose sight of the significance of power: how power relations shape the way needs emerge socially, whether the normative weight of any given need is legible and receives proper uptake, and how such needs are met, if they are to be met at all. Reconceptualizing needs relationally in these ways offers a key insight into what relational ethics as a distinctive moral theory could be.