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  • Writer's pictureJanika Byington

Debating Bertrand Russell

Updated: Sep 3, 2022

The Nobel Laureate outlined "The four desires driving all human behavior" in his landmark acceptance speech. Let's see how the Four Needs Theory agrees and conflicts with Russell's acclaimed wisdom.

Russell believed the driving desires that explained everything everyone does are: Acquisitiveness, rivalry, vanity, and (especially) love of power. Vice is implicit in each of these supposed driving forces. Like most philosophers, he tries to make sense of the discomfort and error of the human experience. Observation of history and the world we live in, makes it easy to conclude that it is in our nature to have harmful desires that are barely kept in check by individual and group "self-interest."

Four Needs Theory starkly contrasts historical and contemporary philosophy. I believe that all human desire is driven by fundamental needs which are, at worst, neutral. Because they are fundamental needs, to label them as evil is to assume humanity to be fundamentally evil. I reject that premise.

Social Corruption of Individual Goodness

The needs that drive us are not evil. Human individuals are intrinsically good. The "evils" of humanity are social corruptions of our innately good desires.

We cannot deny that the world is full of conflict and injustice. When you put people in groups they start displaying greed, competition, and imposing their will on others. But everyone in every group does not react that way. Therefore, we can't conclude that these vices are innate human nature. However, the more people display them, the more the vices manifest. When one person displays greedy hording, it incites competition in others who now feel the need to acquire more than others. Not because of a need, but because of a fear of scarcity.

Russell was correct in noting the how the chronic deprivation of necessity creates an insatiable compulsion for acquisition. But he believed that the psychology of origin did not matter. Rather, he believed that the desire for acquisition was the fundamental drive.

No indeed. The fundamental drive is for physical needs such as sustenance (food, water, air), protection (clothing and shelter from the elements, tools, weapons, and strategies to protect against predators) and procreation. What humans have, unlike other animals, is the ability to distort their needs.


Only when we distort our needs do they become insatiable. Why? Because when we are not properly addressing an actual need, there is no way for it to be satisfied. Humans tend to substitute needs. We misdirect our emotional need for love and social belonging by "proving our worth," or worthiness for love with physical prowess, or accumulated goods that represent "security" to the person who would love us, or in the group we wish to belong to.

However, love that requires proof or worthiness violates our need to be loved for our intrinsic worth. Therefore, the substitution undermines our ability to be emotionally satisfied.

Likewise, every desire that Russell claimed to be fundamental, can better be identified as a need distortion. Rivalry is social needs gone wrong. Love, belonging, and acceptance become comparative--"us versus them." Vanity, likewise distorts social acceptance with shallow, appearance-based comparison. The "need for attention" comes from emotional neglect.

The Love of Power

Power is a spiritual concept related to the spiritual need for meaning, purpose, and moral correctness or idealism.

There is no power struggle without an ideological conflict. All modern wars begin with an ideal. We do not fight for land and resources. We fight for freedom, justice, national pride, or jihad.

We find meaning in the universality of truth. We become convinced that the truth we have discovered must be universally applied in order to achieve the "perfect world." When we become convinced of our moral correctness, we feel we have a right to impose our faith, belief, purpose, ideology, politics, or cause onto others by force because "the ends justify the means."

But purpose is an intrinsically individual pursuit. Further, our intellectual need for inquiry, discovery, and independence makes us fundamentally resist coercion and force. Therefore, the false idea that "utopia" can be enforced nullifies the spiritual satisfaction of meaning and purpose because their is no freedom for individual pursuit. Ironically, the more "morally correct" we insist we are, the more willing we are to commit violence against dissent.

The only real satisfaction for spiritual needs is absolutely personal and profound affirmation of personal purpose while allowing others the exact same opportunity, even if it contradicts your own beliefs. Would it change the world if people accepted and believed that? Would we be able to resist the rise of power? Or would we continue to attach to powerful belief systems for fear of not belonging? Either way, it is not our intrinsic nature that drives a love of power. It is our distorted social and spiritual needs that cause a desire to control others instead of being content with controlling ourselves.

Wound Up

Bertrand's philosophy was still deeply influenced by mechanistic thinking--the analogy that you could predict human behavior by knowing what wound it up. He did better than the behaviorists by suggesting deeper motives than food and sex. But he wanted to understand human behavior so he could create a "better society." To be fair, all good people do. But when we think we can control people by understanding them better, we are the origin of vice, not the corrector.

Is vice our inescapable nativity? Is it the driving force for everything we do? Those who believe it is, are just looking for a justification to exert power over others. If we are just confused and looking in the wrong places for answers, we do not need to be controlled. We need freedom to discover, explore, and share the answers we find.

What if we are not a bunch of gears and cogs? What if we are an entire ecosystem of complexity and diversity? Could we find natural harmony by truly understanding our actual needs and allowing others the same?

I hope and believe so. That is why I wrote The Four Needs.

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