Jerome Segal, Are We Simple Creatures?


1.      OVERVIEW

2.      Essay is a criticism/rejection of the following ideas

         a.      The good life (human flourishing) is achieved by satisfying a small number of basic needs

         b.      Simple living involves satisfying this small set of human needs

         c.      Simple living is justified by idea that we are simple creatures

                   i.       The case for simple living depends on idea that our needs are simple

3.      Essay, instead, defends idea that

         a.      Humans are not simple creatures, but have a complex array of needs

         b.      Human flourishing can best be achieved by satisfying those complex needs

         c.      Simple living involves a less consumption oriented lifestyle

         d.      Simple living is a good way to satisfy our complex set of needs

                   i.       Can you explain why?



5.      People need to see themselves as worthy

         a.      They need self-esteem and self-respect

         b.      Definition of need: A need is something that if it is not met or developed, then things will have gone seriously wrong in a person’s life

6.      Whether we see ourselves as worthy often depends to a great extent on how others perceive us

         a.      Our self-esteem depends on others seeing us as valuable; we need them to see us as valuable

                   i.       Stoic ideal of self-sufficiency tries to break this connection

7.      How others see us depends (in different degrees in different cultures) on our involvement in the economy

         a.      How we consume

         b.      What we earn

         c.      What we do for a living

         d.      Where we live

8.      We are (or perceive ourselves as) failures, inadequate, and living indecent lives if we don’t live up to these expectations

         a.      To some extent, these norms are culturally given

                   i.       But one can internalize these cultural norms/values and see oneself through the eyes of the culture (and so people’s actual perceptions don’t matter)

9.      When these norms include consumption choices, one’s underlying need for self-esteem is transformed into specific desire for commodities

         a.      To live in a good neighborhood in house with 2 bathrooms where each child has own bedroom and large kitchen

         b.      Market determines need $200,000 house

         c.      Need job that will pay enough to afford such a house

         d.      Need college education to get such a job

10.    Note that not all consumption choices tied back to self-esteem

         a.      Sometimes specific desires for commodities originate from our basic need for self esteem

                   i.       But often self-esteem not basis for many of our specific desires

         b.      People adopt consumption patterns for reference group not always simply because they want their approval (or for status)

         c.      They might just see that what others have is useful to some of their needs (that have nothing to do with self-esteem)



12.    Marketing handbook lists 60 specific needs and suggests that to get people to buy things, one should show how products can satisfy these needs

13.    Segal accepts that there is a diverse and substantial set of legitimate human needs which are independent of marketers’ manipulations and that some of these needs can be met by goods and services

         a.      The needs from the handbook include:

                   i.       To be visible to others, to accomplish difficult tasks, to give care, to play, to establish one’s sexual identity, to exercise one’s talents, to win over adversaries, to see living things thrive, to learn new skills, to be amazed

         b.      Segal’s additions: a need for insight into oneself, the need for meaningful work, a need for beauty or adventure, a need for a comprehensive vision of life

14.    It is true that marketers manipulate us in various ways

         a.      Exaggerate products ability to satisfy a need

         b.      Encourage us to satisfy a need at expense of sacrificing another

                   i.       Buying an expensive car to satisfy our transportation need so we have to sacrifice our need for relaxation (e.g., vacations)

         c.      Use non-rational means to get us to associate a product with a need



         a.      Segal is an advocate of simple living; see his book Graceful Simplicity

16.    Three responses

17.    One: Our most fundamental needs–for love, meaning, friendship, self-esteem, and self-understanding – can rarely be met by purchase of commodities

         a.      They give us a false taste of real thing, and divert us from realizing the genuine need is not met

                   i.       Diamond ring as a commodity that is supposed to satisfy our need for love

         b.      Still it is hard to satisfy these basic needs, and the partial satisfaction of these needs achieved by buying commodities might be better than nothing (a second best solution)

                   i.       But we should not turn these into our ultimate aspirations

18.    Two: Even when purchase of a commodity does satisfy a genuine need, this can cost us a lot (sometimes too much)

         a.      Consumption requires income which requires labor which has many costs

         b.      Too much labor can be unpleasant, unhealthy, boring, painful

         c.      Labor takes lots of time and this takes time from other uses that may satisfy other needs

         d.      **So when have choice between satisfying one’s needs by a high or a low consumption lifestyle, should choose the second (as takes less time and this allows us to use that time to satisfy other needs/desires)

                   i.       So this is an argument for simple living in the sense of living with lower consumption level

19.    Three: Genuine wealth/fulfilment comes from satisfying a variety of different needs (see below)

         a.      Material needs are part--but only part of--these assets of a good life

         b.      Also include

                   i.       Intellectual, spiritual, aesthetic, social “assets”

         c.      Exclusive attention to (or even focusing on) material wealth or needs that can be satisfied materially, thwarts our effort to realize the multiple possibilities of our nature



         a.      Social relationships: our friendships, loves, and families

         b.      Psychological capabilities: our ability to build relationships, to find meaning, to take aesthetic pleasure

         c.      Cognitive capabilities: our ability to read, to understand, to learn, to reason

         d.      Creative capabilities: our ability to make something beautiful, to contribute something different

         e.      Political rights: our ability to be a citizen of one country rather than another, to build our own lives according to our own lights

         f.       Historical and cultural legacy: the riches of insight and experience that have been preserved from previous human lives and that are embodied in the great achievements of human culture

         g.      Natural and man-made physical environments: the beauty of great cities, of the wilderness, of the view from one’s back porch


21.    Argument for simple living depends on human complexity!

22.    So movement for simple living (for less consumption oriented lifestyle) relies on fact we are not simple creatures, but creatures with a widely diverse set of needs that can’t be satisfied simply by material consumption

Study questions for Segal, Are we Simple Creatures?


1.      What is Segal’s response to the following: We are simple creatures, with simple needs. Human flourishing is best achieved if we satisfy our small number of basic needs. Thus simple living is best for human flourishing.

2.      Does Segal think we are simple or complex creatures? Explain

3.      How can the desire for self-esteem get translated into a desire for a specific product?

4.      What are some of the fundamental needs that Segal identifies?

5.      Does he think that our fundamental desires can be satisfied by material consumption?

6.      How does Segal respond to the claim that since we are complex creatures with complex needs, we need many different material items to satisfy those needs?

7.      How does the complexity of human nature/needs undermine the idea that material consumption is the way to become fulfilled.

8.      How can the fulfillment of a genuine need via material consumption cost us too much?

9.      Which does Segal think preferable: High or low consumption lifestyles? Why?

10.    What does Segal have in mind by “simple living?”

11.    Explain why Segal thinks the case for simple living depends on the idea that we are not simple, but complex creatures.