For a half a century now Abraham Masolw‘s, Hierarchy of Needs has been revered by the non-theists as the highest formulation of human aspiration. Self-actualization was considered to be the highest form of attainment for individuals. For decades I have felt that formulation to be grievously short-sighted and more akin to what a sociopath might consider to be his highest goals. Of course there is a positive spin put to Maslow’s list of aspirations, but at the core they are purely selfish and self-serving. That self centeredness is expressed in the choice of title for the highest form of being – Self Actualization. The very term implies self-blinkered self-inflation. There is a better way forward to higher states of human actualization, which have always been available and many people have moved along those paths.
The first few steps of Maslow’s hierarchy, copied here from Wikipedia, are reasonable enough. Step 1. Physiological – Breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, and excretion. 2. Safety – security of: body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, property. 3. Love/belonging – friendship, family, sexual intimacy. 4. Esteem – self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by other. 5. Self-actualization – morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts.
The first three steps are essentially animal needs. In step 2 the term employment sounds human but it isn’t; every animal is employed in exploiting his environment of its resources to maintain themselves and their family, health and property. Step 3 is common to all social animals. It is only in step 4 where the term achievement stands out as a possible human trait, but even here male Bower birds express personal achievement and worthiness in the construction of their bowers. It is only at level five in Maslow’s system, the principle of morality, that he even approaches some traits that might be thought of as exclusively human. Even here the term morality only applies within our own species. For example, we wantonly kill cattle and eat their flesh but the cattle themselves exhibit morality toward their own kind and only defensive hostility towards us. And how can he claim that squirrels are not creative, spontaneous and problem solving when they so obviously exhibit these traits in abundance? When it comes to lack of prejudice in the self-actualizing individual it become a puzzle as to what is meant. Does a squirrel have prejudice? Is prejudice built into their DNA? And, if squirrels have that trait built in don’t all humans have it too, if any of them do?
Supposedly the self-actualizing individual has an unquenchable desire “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” This is obvious nonsense, because it is impossible to be everything one is capable of being. You may choose the path you are on, but once along that path you can not go back and go along another one because time and opportunities have passed and moved on. That is the simple time flow of reality and it applies equally to matter, squirrels and self-actualizing individuals. Perhaps back in the 1950s this theory helped some people live better lives but we now have better models for productive behavior.