Inverting Maslow’s Hierarchy

Nick Nielsen
14 min readMay 26, 2016
An illusration of Maslow’s familiar hierarchy of needs, employed in countless expositions of human motivation.

Self-Actualization versus Ordinary Human Unhappiness

Perhaps one of the most familiar psychological ideas of our time is the Maslovian hierarchy of needs, and the most familiar form of the exposition of the hierarchy of needs is that of a pyramid resting on a broad base of physiological needs, on top of which are needs of safety and security, above these come love and belonging, then self-esteem, and finally culminating with self-actualization at the peak of the pyramid. In one of Maslow’s briefest expositions of the hierarchy of needs he wrote:

“Man is a hierarchy of needs, with the biological needs at the base of the hierarchy and the spiritual needs at the top.” (Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, p. 186)

To fully appreciate Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and his humanistic psychology which serves as the conceptual framework of the hierarchy of needs, all of this must be understood in comparison to (and indeed in contradistinction to) the tradition of Freudian psychodynamic psychology, which, when Maslow was writing, was the dominant school of thought in psychology. Freud began as a physician, and approached the human psyche as a physician. “Success” in Freudian psychology is formulated in the most minimal and modest way imaginable — this is the famous idea that:

“…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.” (From Freud’s Studies in Hysteria, translated and edited by James Strachey; for more on this, cf. From Neurotic Misery to Ordinary Human Unhappiness)

Freud did not focus on what makes an individual mentally healthy, but on treating specific pathologies. Patients came to him with problems, and he tried to cure them. The cure was considered efficacious if the patient was relieved of their neurotic misery and returned to a condition of ordinary human unhappiness.

Sigmund “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” Freud

Maslow versus Freud

In reading Maslow’s Toward a Psychology of Being I have been struck by the degree to which Maslow comes across as consciously and systematically trying to formulate a comprehensive psychology in opposition to Freud. (Maslow’s ideas are conveniently summed up in the final chapter of Toward a Psychology of Being, so if you want to skim Maslow for a sense of what he has to say, this is what you should read.) What I mean by “in opposition to Freud” is that Maslow’s doctrines carefully avoid central Freudian doctrines and seem to focus without exception on what we might call the “positive” aspects of human psychology. Maslow is very ready to admit human limitations and failings, but his own failing seems to me to be a mis-reading of Freud.

Freud and psychoanalysis have been commonly derided for its “negative” approach to the study of the mind. Freud himself rejected this characterization. In the very last of his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud has a wonderful chapter on the place of psychoanalysis within science and the scientific worldview, in which he defends psychoanalysis as having extended scientific research to the realm of the mind. But the psychodynamic model of the mind in Freud’s hands gives a great deal of attention to the ways in which people misunderstand themselves. These failures of self-understanding, so crucial to the psychoanalytical conception of the mind, seem almost absent in Maslow, and Maslow seems (according to my reading) to be avoiding this merely for the sake of rejecting Freud and formulating a “positive” model of the mind.

This perception of Freud as “negative” is closely parallel to the reputation that existentialist philosophy had during its vogue in the 1950s and 1960s. Existentialism was thought to be an entirely “negative” philosophy, concerned with guilt, dread, anxiety, and death. Many people felt justified in rejecting existentialism on these grounds, essentially because they saw it as detrimental to human happiness, even if they knew nothing in detail about existentialism and its doctrines. Sartre, the most famous of the existentialists, rejected the characterization of existentialism as anything negative, and publicly stated that he regarded it as the most optimistic of philosophies because it affirms human freedom:

“We have now… dealt with a certain number of the reproaches against existentialism. You have seen that it cannot be regarded as a philosophy of quietism since it defines man by his action; nor as a pessimistic description of man, for no doctrine is more optimistic, the destiny of man is placed within himself. Nor is it an attempt to discourage man from action since it tells him that there is no hope except in his action, and that the one thing which permits him to have life is the deed.” (Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism”)

Sartre also had an interest in psychoanalysis, and formulated his own psychoanalytic doctrines, in which self-deception has a central role. (Cf. Being and Nothingness, Part Four, Chapter Two, I. “Existential Psychoanalysis”) As different as Freud and Sartre were, they both recognized the role that self-deception plays in the functions of the mind, and it is the utter neglect of this important insight which seems to me to vitiate, or at least seriously weaken, Maslow’s attempt to formulate a “third way” in psychology based on a reactionary reading of Freud.

Abraham Maslow

Problems with Maslow’s Project

Part of the difference between Freud’s approach and Maslow’s approach may be put to the obvious reason that Freud was seeking treatments for serious mental pathologies, while Maslow had something very different in mind. Maslow was trying to describe a healthy, fully-functional human being. His systematic works like Toward a Psychology of Being don’t focus on the treatment of specific pathologies but instead seek to understand and define the human person in its optimal state of being, especially in relation to “peak experiences” and self-fulfillment. Ordinary human unhappiness is not good enough for Maslow; he wants to see the healthy individual converge upon a state of psychological self-actualization in which the highest spiritual goods are realized and personal fulfillment is achieved.

All of this sounds wonderfully inspirational, but I am deeply disturbed by the implications of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in the same way that I am deeply suspicious of Erik Erikson’s stages of personality development. One way to formulate Maslow’s project would be to say that his humanistic psychology is aspirational, though if we say instead that it was prescriptive, while Freud’s psychodynamic psychology was descriptive, we begin to see something potentially troubling in Maslow. Let me try to explain why I find this troubling.

There is a perennial human tendency (perhaps rooted in a cognitive bias) to mistake (or even to twist) a description into a prescription, transforming an analysis into a norm. Thus one might say that if you aren’t experiencing the particular psychosocial crisis that Erik Erikson has defined for the stage of life in which you find yourself at present, then there is obviously something wrong with you and that you aren’t developing naturally or normally. Or one might say that, when an intimate of yours is dying, if you have failed to pass through the five stages of dying delineated by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, that you have failed to grieve properly. Similarly, it might be asserted that if you are not going about clambering up the hierarchy of needs in an orderly and linear fashion, starting with the satisfaction of your physiological needs and gradually working your way up to spiritual self-actualization, then there is something wrong with you, and you need to start over and get it right next time.

One cannot, of course, blame Maslow or Erickson for the dumbed-down versions of their ideas that have filtered into mass consciousness by way of simplified expositions in the mass media, but there are insidious assumptions built into the hierarchy of needs (and, for that matter, in Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development) that are intrinsic even to the most refined and sophisticated expositions.

Sometimes you have to run to save your skin.

Human Needs are Inseparable from Moral Imperatives

Let me start with something basic — something drawn from the most fundamental physiological human needs. Even if you are tired, hungry, thirsty, and cold, if you see a violent mob moving in your direction, you are going to run the other way to keep yourself alive, despite your immediate physiological needs. While these physiological needs are the basis of human well being, I can’t imagine Maslow telling someone about to be murdered by a raving mob that they ought to get something to eat and drink, put on more layers of clothing, and then get a good night’s rest before running to save their lives. This is the reductio ad absurdum of the hierarchy of needs, and such an observation in no way vitiates the overall scheme, insofar as any general scheme must admit of exceptions.

If that were all, appropriate exceptions could be built into the hierarchy of needs to accommodate immediate exigencies, but that isn’t all. The very idea that our moral life is a distant and expensive luxury that occurs at a peak of self-fulfillment and self-actualization (perhaps reserved for exemplary individuals) is so profoundly misleading that it falsifies what it means to be human.

Let us consider another example. If you find yourself isolated, without friends or family, and thus lacking all the components of love and belonging — and, to formulate this even more strongly, perhaps you see no way whatsoever of lifting yourself out of this isolation — and you use this isolation to focus on the fulfillment of a higher creative or moral calling (instead of fruitlessly expending your energies trying to fulfill the unfulfilled level of the hierarchy of needs, from which you have not yet graduated, in order to move up to the next level in an orderly and purposeful manner), is your flaunting of the hierarchy of needs a sign of your pathology?

Some of the greatest works of art in human history, the pinnacle of achievement of what would ordinarily be thought of as the work of exemplary individuals, have grown out of circumstances that seem to pervert every assumption built into the hierarchy of needs. Certainty there is sense in which the construction of great communal projects such as the Parthenon, Chartres cathedral, or the Taj Mahal (central projects of their respective civilizations) rest on an established material and intellectual framework that is the civilizational equivalent of physiological needs, but the hierarchy of needs was formulated to describe individual psychology and not the functioning of exemplary civilizations (though it may be applicable to this also, mutatis mutandis). Certainly in some individuals we see a progressive fulfillment of needs from the physiological to the intellectual, but I don’t think that this is an adequate, or even a fair, portrayal of the further reaches of human nature.

Inverting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

I have often said that, “…I don’t believe that a person can get out of bed in the morning without implicitly having formulated a philosophical judgment that life is worth living and therefore there is a reason to get out of bed, and not merely to lie there and do nothing.” (for example, I said this in Doing Justice to Our Intuitions: A 10 Step Method). Taking this as the basis for all else that follows from this experience of the human condition, it is in this sense that I have used “raison d’être” as the foundation of an inverted hierarchy of needs in the accompanying illustration (see above). From the individual’s raison d’être at the foundations of an inverted hierarchy of needs there follows, in perfectly reverse order, the fulfillment of emotional and psychological drives eventually building up to the final satisfaction of physical drives and needs.

In my hierarchy of needs, the moral need of the individual to realize himself or herself and to fully become what he or she is constitutes the foundation upon which all else rests; above this comes the will to live, which is the individual’s confidence to act upon their moral raison d’être; next higher is the social network within which one is able to act effectively to attain one’s own moral development; resting on this is a predictable environment in which one’s physiological needs can be routinely and satisfactorily met; and at the top of this hierarchy of needs comes the realization of the physiological needs, which often take the form of conspicuous luxuries such as a full night of sleep, indulging in fine foods, and living in a comfortable home.

While it is true that if you do not meet basic and immediate physiological needs, such as not having air to breathe, you will die within minutes, and if you do not have water you will die within days, such immediate exigencies can be compared to the immediate exigencies noted above in relation to Maslow’s formulation of a hierarchy of needs: the existence of these immediate contingencies in no way vitiate the overall scheme. An inverted hierarchy of needs admits of certain exceptions. Granted these exceptions, I find this to be a more accurate and a more satisfying depiction of actual human experience than Maslow’s version.

The fulfillment of needs often involves a sacramental function.

Sacraments and the Ordinary Business of Life

Any hierarchy of needs — whether Maslow’s familiar hierachy or my inversion of Maslow’s scheme — is going to be misleading because there is no clear-cut distinction between physiological needs and needs that transcend the strictly physiological; there is a distinction, to be sure, but the distinction is imprecise, with physiology exceeding its scope at times and becoming almost impossible to separate from emotion, and emotions frequently triggering physiological responses, which, once triggered, take on a life of their own. As a consequence, even the basest of our physiological needs is not without moral significance. The moral dimension of human life is pervasive; nothing is free of moral connotations.

Needs are never merely needs, even when they are merely physiological needs; needs are at the same time moral needs. On the contrary, the stronger the need, the stronger the moral response, even when, if not especially when, the need is among the fundamental physiological demands of life. Hunger, thirst, and lust bring out our strongest passions. These passions are often frequently commingled with religious ideas. For the pious, eating has religious significance; work has religious significance; bearing children has religious significance; leisure time has religious significance.

In my book Variations on the Theme of Life I wrote, “The more human, all-too-human a given phenomenon, the more certain it is to be called sacred or holy” (and I recently quoted this in Transcendental Humors). Far from religion being concerned with the ideal and the transcendent, it is immersed in the human, all-too-human. Every bodily function, every stage of life, every emotion, every predictable idea entertained by the human mind, all have their place in religion. More than having a place in religion, they are celebrated in religion — celebrated quite literally in religious rituals — and define religion.

The Axial Age religions, emergent from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations, but still very much with us as our industrial-technological civilizations retains almost all the institutions of biocentric civilization, are formulated on the basis of a conception of human nature believed to be universal — thus follow the universal claims of what Toynbee called universal churches. A conception of human nature is, of necessity, integrated with the ordinary business of human life. The ordinary business of human life — eating, drinking, sleeping, reproducing, laboring, and so on, i.e., the fulfillment of physiological needs — is transformed in the light of Axial Age religions so that every human activity is potentially a sacrament, because every human activity is an expression of human nature, and human nature is adumbrated in a scared text that has teased out its lineaments in poetic and metaphorical language.

Because the ordinary fulfillment of physiological needs becomes ritualized and placed in a mythological context, and this is how we discover these needs from the earliest hour of life, we never experience a world in which our strongest biological needs are isolated from our most pervasive moral ideas. The two are intertwined, and the social world we inhabit as social beings is constructed from the interpenetration of physiological needs of the body and the moral needs of the mind.

Societies, however, may recognize different social forms of the interpenetration of physiological and moral needs. In classical antiquity, and indeed in many aristocratic societies, it was the assumption that the lowest class of society was simply irrelevant to the moral life of the community, and that consequently no moral expectations should be made regarding the lower social classes. They were to be treated either like children or like chattel, but not expected to be responsible moral beings. This comes across clearly in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which expatiates on virtues like magnanimity, which is essentially about how much money a rich man should give away.

When we think of the ancient world in these terms we gain a better appreciation of the social revolution wrought by Christianity in the ancient world. This social revolution has been so successful that we regard these attitudes of classical antiquity as de-humanizing and congratulate ourselves on our moral progress in having recognized the moral lives of all peoples in a given society.

I do not know enough about ancient society in China, India, or elsewhere to speak with any authority on their traditions, but I believe that these societies were at least as feudal as the west in their organization, and one would expect similar social institutions to prevail under such conditions. That the vast majority of peasants work the land, which is the conditio sine qua non of agrarian civilizations prior to the industrialization of agriculture, meant that by far the greater part of humanity remained in a condition that Marx called “rural idiocy,” untouched by the high culture developing in cities.

The social revolution wrought by Christianity in the west meant that even peasants were eventually taught to read and brought within the sphere of the moral and intellectual community, albeit if in a very limited way. But these developments made possible the emergence of the industrial revolution within western society, in which an increasingly educated and urbanized populace could find its employment in an increasingly technical industrial labor force.

The egalitarian ideals of our world today — which differ radically from the aristocratic ideals that dominated the privileged classes of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization — has meant the increasing prevalence of moral psychology in the lives of all classes of society and an embrace of a human condition in which physiological needs cannot be separated from moral needs.

Whether one considers this to be social progress, or a fall from aristocratic grace, it has resulted in a world in which Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is irrelevant, because the physiological needs cannot be conceptualized outside the moral needs of the community. This development has gone so far that even the attempt to address physiological needs without taking moral needs into account is bound to fail. I wrote about this previously in Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception:

“Because a cosmic war does not occur in a cosmic vacuum, but it occurs in an overall conception of the world, the grievances too occur within this overall conception of history. If we attempt to ameliorate grievances formulated in an eschatological context with utilitarian and pragmatic means, no matter what we do it will never be enough, and never be right. An eschatological solution is wanted to grievances understood eschatologically, and that is why, in at least some cases, religious militants turn to the idea of cosmic war. Only a cosmic war can truly address cosmic grievances.”

This is the reef upon which every well-meaning intervention comes to grief. And these well-meaning interventions are, of course, undertaken in the same spirit of egalitarian ideals that have brought the lowest segments of society so thoroughly into the moral community that even these poorest and most disadvantaged will not accept the most well-intentioned assistance if this assistance is not presented to them in moral terms that they understand. Having recognized the humanity of all human beings, now we must live in a world in which the consequences of that recognition are to be played out.