Friday, July 16, 2010

Maslow's Pyramid Scheme

via the NY Times' 'Idea of the Day', a call for revising Maslow's heirarchy, replacing self-actualization with parenting.

Personally, I think the idea that the apex of human desire is to be a parent is so much garbage, but I'll spare you the Nietzschian griping about the need to transcend the human, not propagate it [1], as well as the obvious criticism that parenting is already in there, two levels down, with family and belonging. And I won't even start on how using parenting as a means of self-actualization is how children end up buried under the frustrated dreams of their parents.

The larger (though perhaps subtler) problem with placing parenting on top is that it's too easy. It's always seemed to me that Maslow's heirarchy is based not so much on emotional significance as on difficulty of attainment. At any given point, the need most salient to us is the one we have the greatest hope of satisfying, so that it's only when we've satisfied an easier need do we move on to one that is more difficult. Or perhaps, given that value comes from scarcity, we value the attainment of some needs more precisely because they are harder to attain. In any case, our needs are arranged heirarchically in the increasing order of the effort required to satisfy them. Or, put another way, if a higher order need were more easily attainable than one lower down in the pyramid, why wouldn't people just leapfrog to the higher order need?

Which is why putting parenting on top doesn't work. Being a parent is too easy an accomplishment [2] to merit being at the top. It makes little sense to make the apex of human desire a state that almost anyone can achieve, and almost everyone does.

(and that almost everyone manages to feel smugly satisfied about - I'd be more willing to put parenting on top of Maslow's pyramid if more parents responded to their babies like this)


[1] Of course, Nietzsche would argue that self-actualization is a pre-requisite for parenting (see Thus Spake Zarathustra, Part I, Chapter 20)

[2] Being a good parent is exceedingly hard, but that's a whole other story.


Banno said...

Parenting on top. So all those who are right now at the bottom of the pyramid, coping with their physiological needs, like the Indian poor, will already have attained the top.

Falstaff said...

Banno: Yup. Which is exactly the problem with a pyramid not based on difficulty of attainment.

km said...

Heh, clever title.

I've always wondered if that pyramid shouldn't be replaced with a horizontal structure? We (and I really mean I) seem to move from one need to another and back rather fluidly.

Anonymous said...

I am actually going to disagree with the "being a parent is easy" thing. But what do I know? Only 28 hour labor pains, no dilation, baby ripping out my insides and the sore aftereffects of having a seven pounder exit from obviously inappropriately designed apertures. Oh and the daylong "morning sickness" that went on for weeks and weeks. But maybe I did something wrong. Other folks just pop one out in silk pajamas with a cup of Darjeeling tea in one hand and a warm, buttered scone in the other.

You know this begs for a Greer remake "If men had babies".


Falstaff said...

n!: You're confusing two different senses of easy. Just because something is difficult in the sense of being painful doesn't mean it's difficult in the sense of requiring intelligence or ability. Car accidents are painful too, but that doesn't mean it's difficult to wreck your car if you choose to.

Falstaff said...

P.S. To be fair, the idea that the merit of an action is proportional to the suffering it involves is a common delusion. Especially among mothers.