Rousseau includes an analysis of human need as one element in his comparison of modern society and the state of nature. According to Rousseau, “needs” result from the passions, which make people desire an object or activity. In the state of nature, human needs are strictly limited to those things that ensure survival and reproduction, including food, sleep, and sex. By contrast, as cooperation and division of labor develop in modern society, the needs of men multiply to include many nonessential things, such as friends, entertainment, and luxury goods. As time goes by and these sorts of needs increasingly become a part of everyday life, they become necessities. Although many of these needs are initially pleasurable and even good for human beings, men in modern society eventually become slaves to these superfluous needs, and the whole of society is bound together and shaped by their pursuit. As such, unnecessary needs are the foundation of modern “moral inequality,” in that the pursuit of needs inevitably means that some will be forced to work to fulfill the needs of others and some will dominate their fellows when in a position to do so.
Rousseau’s conception of need, and especially the more artificial types that dominate modern society, are a particularly applicable element of his philosophy for the present time. Given the immense wealth that exists in a country such as the United States and the extent to which consumerism is the driving force behind its economy, Rousseau’s insights should provoke reflection for anyone concerned about the ways the American culture nurtures a population of people increasingly enslaved by artificial needs.