The human purpose
By td /
May 11, 2014

One cannot choose wisely for a life unless he dares to listen to himself, his own self, at each moment in life (Maslow)

In order to discern what a/the human purpose is/ought to be, lets recap what a human is. A human being is: a complex, ambiguous, meaning-makingunderstanding, and feeling creature that has a unique biologically rooted, intangible mental life; ..a human is as a whole in process; his ‘minding’ processes are simultaneous functions, not discrete compartments (Humans are not machines, 2014).

The human purpose

If what a man can be he must become, then, he must be able to use his human character as a whole (psychic, emotional and moral dimensions) to his best in the pursuit of whatever he may find as having potential for fulfilling him (Maslov, 1987; Postman, 1992 p.118).

Put another way, the human purpose involves the voluntary participation in phenomena that may have potential for the most pleasurable, satisfying, and meaningful emotional state one can experience. This voluntary participation is characterized by freedom, firstly, to withdrawal from phenomenon that may harbor harmful experiences and secondly, to engage in phenomenon that may result to pleasurable, satisfying and meaningful experiences (Design for voluntary participation, 2014).

When this freedom is suppressed or restricted for whatever reason, the human purpose - the becoming what one can be, of having pleasurable, satisfying and meaningful experiences - becomes an impossibility for the affected individual. If man, for whatever reason, must not become what he can be, then whatever else he must become or must do, denies him his essence; it dehumanizes him.

The human purpose is a quest, a mystery, a leap of faith (Lanier, 2010). No one knows what they will become or what will make them happy. To take the leap of faith, or to undertake the quest, one has to daringly use all his human characteristics and abilities to listen to and determine for himself, his own self, at each moment in life (Maslov, 1987)

Human purpose and the hierarchy of needs 

The hierarchy of needs (Maslow, 1987 p. 15-60) provides a basis for exploring the various motivations that determine the human purpose. Even though the hierarchy of needs is classically visualized as a hierarchy, such a visualization should be negated as it suggests a mechanical division of the various needs or motivations within the being, of which none exists. Fundamentally because no one need is absolutely isolable from another - the body is the unified experience of the environmental, physiological and psychological health (Maslow, 1987 p. 3-8; Mate: When the body says no).

With human needs, any need can easily have dynamic and complex relationships with almost every other need (Maslow, 1987 p. 3-4, 8). In addition, the human is at all times integrated, organized and acting as a whole; when he is thinking, he is at the same time also acting, emotioning, spiritualizing, livering and so on (Maslow, 1987 p.3; Postman, 2009).

Nothing records the effects of life so completely, so graphically as the human body - Gabor Mate

Essentially too, the environmental, psychological and physiological health (that on an equal basis constitute an individual) are inseparable. While it is important to focus on the individual, we must not forget that he is the collective experience of the three integral healths. In contrast to Maslow's (1987 p. 57) claim - deprivation of higher needs do not produce so desperately a defense and emergency reaction as is produced by lower deprivations - we now acknowledge the deprivation of higher needs as contributing factors for chronic illnesses (Karasek & Theorell, 1992; Mate: When the body says no), a reaction that is as destructive to an individual's Physiological health as the deficient gratification of his Physiological needs.

Human needs as holistic for a being

If an individual is at all times integrated, organized and acting as a whole, then the individual is tending to all his needs simultaneously and according to his preference. The individual does not necessarily seek to gratify 'higher' needs because 'lower' ones have been satisfied but is gratifying all, even if pathologically.

A slave does not wait to to be free to self-actualize (e.g. to develop morality, or to solve a problem - resolve his situation) but rather self-actualizes either pathologically or  healthily during enslavement. Similarly, a starved person does not wait to eat to seek the gratification of other needs, neither does a prisoner or a soldier. These individuals are at all times being (driven and seeking gratification) of their human needs healthily or otherwise.

Perhaps a visualization such as the one below can be used to communicate the wholeness rather than separatedness of human needs. The visualization also implies that the needs are of equal importance to the whole being - a deficiency in one affects the individual as a whole not just a part of him.

Human needs as composites rather than isolable, indipendent and hierarchical units.

Human needs as holistic

One implications for considering human needs as composites of a being is that we cannot design a society in which some human needs or motivations are not accommodated or whose accommodation is delayed. Indeed, a humanistic society must afford the pursuit and fulfillment of all human needs - it must contain the conditions for self actualization - for all its members at all times (Maslow, 1987 p. 120). An individual in such a society can be said to be tending to all needs simultaneously or according to his preference as there is no constraint placed on him by his environment or living condition. The individual can then be said to be at potential for self actualization as his freedom to do so is not withheld from him (Maslow, 1987 p. 120).

The consideration of human needs strictly as a hierarchy may only be characteristic in a deficient and dysfunctional society, in which the engagement in the human purpose is restricted e.g. through the lack of freedom, food, safety, etc.

Of course such humanistic societies are yet to be realized, with the mechanical societies of today, at best, only a few individuals can engage in the human purpose, a vast majority are dehumanized (Humans are not machines, 2014). It should be noted that with the ingenuity of the human species and the current advancement of technology there is nothing that may inhibit the realization of a humanistic society, other than humans themselves. As J. F. Kennedy (1961) argued in his inaugural speech man now possesses the ability to address all forms of human needs.

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life.
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life.
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life.
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life.

Hypothetical relations and magnitude of needs

Even though impossible in any realistic sense, if we were to draw the relations of one group of needs to others such as in the sketch below, we would find that the strengths and even relations would be different for each individual. (Keep in mind that a need or motivation may not always be identifiable to the individual on whom it acts upon). Henceforth, we can acknowledge the differences in individuals, and have an appreciation and respect for their originality in their essence and human purpose.

Hypothetical relation & magnitude of dependence for Physiological needs to other needs

Hierarchy of needs - possible dependencies

And what profound implications this would have on all aspects of human life; we would seize all efforts to control and mechanize individuals for there would never be a single way to do so while respecting the human purpose. Each individual would be in control of their human purpose for only they can see and understand the complexity of their situation and how to best self actualize hence.

The human purpose is playful and not necessarily productive

If the human purpose strives for the most pleasurable, satisfying, and meaningful emotional state one can experience, then, it should be no surprise that it may not necessarily be directed towards productivity (How to measure motivation, 2013). As Maslow (1987 p. 176) argues, thinking is not always directed, organized, motivated, or goal-bent; it is also playful and engages in fantasy, dreaming, symbolism, unconscious thinking, infantile, emotional thinking, and psychoanalytic free association.

The human purpose is however, more favorable to productivity because it does not dehumanize individuals in the process of productive work (Design for voluntary participation, 2014; How to measure motivation, 2013; Humans are not machines, 2014). For if it is only through dehumanization that work can be done, what would be its value if it diminishes the quality of human life? (Gatto, 1992 p. 83).

Unfortunately, today, the society is obsessed with the praise of individuals whose efforts are productive, with the rest being undervalued, demeaned, belittled and even punishable. This notion is repugnant because it veils the true nature of being human; that none is necessarily productive but that productivity takes place (or ought to) as a side effect of their playful, creative nature.

For individuals engaged in the pursuit of the human purpose - what Maslow (1987) refers to as self-actualizing people - there is a unification of desire and reason: a harmonious and coherent reflection of the mental and moral structure of the individual, their desires and purposes into the imaginative and emotional outlook on life (Maslow, 1987 p.149; McDermott, 1973 p. 612). In other words, for self-actualizing people, work is play: it [work] is simultaneously an expression of one self, a striving for a higher self, a seeking for pleasure and happiness, and as a side effect productive in its own right (Maslow, 1987 p.149).

Here is where it gets interesting: Maslow (1987 p. 175-176) argues that self-actualizing people - those engaged in the human purpose - enjoy being productive, as it comes naturally for them; they do not have to be manipulated or coerced into it.

Maslow (1987 p.175-176): ... thinking also is often produced without effort, automatically, as the liver secrets bile. For people who do so, they enjoy being thinking animals, they do not have to be harassed into it.

Control of the human purpose results to dehumanization

Dehumanization is the antithesis of the human purpose. Dehumanization involves the detachment or restriction from an individual the human characteristics and abilities that consist the individual as a whole. This can be in various forms including the restriction of self expression, the detachment from the environment, the detachment of one's reason from his emotion, will, intellect, or reason. Such restrictions or detachments we can equate to mechanization; which unfortunately is dangerous because it destroys the delicate interconnectedness of the special human qualities (Postman, 1992 p73; McDermott, 1973 p. 612; Mate, When the body says no; Karasek & Theorell, 1992).

Even the open playfulness of children is exploited through organized athletic, artistic, and educational regimens as a means of preparing the young for serious adult competition - Carse.

in the struggle to see who can squeeze the highest test scores out of their kids, we are depriving them of sleep, freedom to play and explore; childhood - Gray

Inevitably, dehumanization reduces the human to one whose self expression, playful and artistic (unique personality and behavior) purposes are suppressed (Humans are not machines, 2014). Eventually all spontaneous, playful and leisurely activities and time will be used for productive and competitive work but with a catastrophic effect. I need not reiterate what becomes of Jack when he goes on about work with no play. In Dewey's (DcDermott, 1973 p. 484) words we get either the narrow, bigoted man who is obstinate and irresponsible even in his own preconceived aims and beliefs or a character dull, mechanical and unalert, because the vital juice spontaneous ingenuity has been squeezed out of him.

Dewey (McDermott, 1973 p.600) laments not so much for the vast number of individuals who are dehumanized by society, but mostly for our inability to comprehend their moral and psychological predicament.

Dehumanization reduces life itself

Scientifically, we do not yet (and maybe we never will) understand the human-as-a-whole well enough to comprehend the human purpose for an individual (Lanier, 2010). When we use a standardized/computer models of learning or friendship or self actualization, and ask people to conduct their lives through our models, we are potentially reducing life itself (Lanier, 2010). We must acknowledge that such models encourage narrow philosophies that deny the mystery of the existence and experience for an individual (Lanier, 2010; Postman, 1992 p.71 - 91).

Postman, 1992 p. 89: ..when we are made to believe that a test can reveal precisely the quantity of intelligence a person has, then, a score on a test becomes his or her intelligence. The test transforms an abstract and multifaceted meaning into a technical and exact term that leaves out everything of importance. An intelligence test is a tale told by an expert, signifying nothing. We come to believe that our score is our intelligence, or our capacity for creativity or love or pain, when in reality it is none of these.

In any case, dehumanization creates short-term benefits for some but ultimately a disaster - a society of maladjusted individuals - awaits all in the long term (Lanier, 2010). In all truism, to become themselves, individuals must to be left to their own instruments of human characteristics and abilities to listen to and determine for themselves at each moment in life (Maslov, 1987).

In addition, man shall not realize his potentialities and achieve his highest possibilities, until he acknowledges and respects himself, for what and who he is. Until then, it will be impossible to lead a healthy and full life. If you like, man shall not live by bread alone - the gratification of a single need or a diminished array of his needs - but by the gratification of every need that is his essence.


  • Maslow, A. (1987). Motivation and personality (3rd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
  • Karasek, R., & Theorell, T. (1992). Healthy work: stress productivity and the reconstruction of working life.
  • Gabor Mate: [Video] When the body says no; Caring for ourselves while caring for others
  • McDermott, J. (Ed.) (1973). The philosophy of John Dewey. Chicago and London. Chicago Press.
  • Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a gadget. Random House Digital, Inc..
  • Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: the surrender of culture to technology.
  • Postman, N. (2009). Teaching as a subversive activity. Random House Digital, Inc.
  • Gatto, T. J. (1992) Dumbing us down
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The human purpose