Defining Needs: A Hierarchy

In the previous article, we defined exploitation as: one person dominating another person by taking advantage of their vulnerabilities, which must be derived from needs. In this article, we’ll discuss what those needs are.

A robust way to conceptualize needs is through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943). As shown in the graphic below, needs are arranged in a pyramid structure, with higher order needs (such as self-fulfilment and psychological needs) placed on top of more fundamental, basic needs (such as needs required for survival and safety). In general, lower order needs must be satisfied in order to meet higher order needs. Any need can be exploited, but some are exploited more commonly than others (Maslow).

Source: J. Finkelstein

However, by separating psychological needs from basic needs, Maslow makes the assumption that the two are distinct from each other. As the field of neuroscience advances, it becomes clearer that this mind-body dualist view of psychology as separate from physiology is flawed. Now, fields such as brain decoding indicate that eventually, human thoughts will be able to directly translate to biology, and that mental disorders are no different from physical disorders (Gendle). With respect to Maslow’s hierarchy, the presence (or absence) of love and belonging can, in fact, deeply affect physical health.

When discussing economic systems, the bottom three strata—physiological needs, safety needs, and love and belonging—are most commonly exploited. For example, during times of economic downturn and high unemployment, workers are often offered lower wages than during times of economic prosperity. This is not because their work has decreased in value, but rather because there are more workers who are desperate for a job and financial security so they can meet their safety and physiological needs. Thus, employers can exploit this rampant desperation by reducing wages and gaining a greater profit.

The need for love and belonging can also be exploited, such as with gangs (Sullivan and Bunker). In many communities, there are isolated youth who lack a strong family structure. These youth are vulnerable because their needs for love and belonging are not met. Gangs take advantage of their unfulfilled needs, using the lull of community to recruit such youth as low-level, new gang members.

In drug-selling gangs, these low-level gang members are exploited, doing work for high-level gang members without getting equal pay. According to John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker (2002), “high-level gang members [earn] far more than their legitimate market alternative” whereas low-level gang members “appear to earn roughly the minimum wage.” This happens despite the dangers of drug selling, where the chance of dying is 7% (Sullivan and Bunker). In comparison, logging, which is currently considered the “most dangerous job,” has a fatality rate of 111 per 100,000 workers, which is 0.11% (“Top 25”).

In summary, exploitation occurs when Party A takes advantage of Party B’s vulnerabilities, which can stem from a wide variety of needs. High-level gang members exploit low-level gang members’ lack of and need for love and belonging when they recruit and pay them unequally. Employers exploit workers’ lack of and need for economic security when they take advantage of economic downturn and pay them less than during prosperous times. People who use waterboarding as a torture method exploit the torturee’s lack of and physiological need for air.

Even the need for self-esteem can be exploited. We see this when the fashion industry promotes messages that make people feel like they are not beautiful enough, while simultaneously marketing products that are supposed to fulfill that need. Needs are broad, but Maslow’s hierarchy provides a comprehensive organization.


Work Cited

  1. Gendle, Mathew H. "The problem of dualism in modern western medicine." Mens sana monographs 14.1, 2016, p. 141.

  2. Maslow, Abraham Harold. "A theory of human motivation." Psychological review 50.4, 1943, p. 370.

  3. Sullivan, John P., and Robert J. Bunker. "Drug cartels, street gangs, and warlords." Small Wars and Insurgencies 13.2, 2002, pp. 40-53.

  4. “Top 25 Most Dangerous Jobs in the United States.” ISHN RSS, ISHN, 5 Nov. 2020,

Last Fact Checked on May 22nd, 2021.