Jerome Segal, Are We Simple Creatures?


1.      Essay is a criticism of the following ideas

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

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

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


2.      How core psychological needs get translated into desires for specific commodities

         a.      People need to see themselves as worthy

                   i.       They need self-esteem and self-respect

                   ii.      Definition of need: Need this because things will have gone seriously wrong in their lives if they don’t develop this

         b.      How we see ourselves often depends to a great extent on how others perceive us

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

                            (1)    Stoic ideal of self-sufficiency tries to break this connection

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

                   i.       How we consume

                   ii.      What we earn

                   iii.     What we do for a living

                   iv.     Where we live

         d.      We are failures, inadequate, living indecent lives if we don’t live up to these expectations

         e.      To some extent, these norms are culturally given

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

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

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

                   ii.      Market determines need $200,000 house

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

                   iv.     Need college education to get such a job


3.      Not all consumption choices tied back to self-esteem

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

         b.      Self-esteem not basis for many of our specific desires

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

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



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

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

         a.      These needs 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, or the need for meaningful work, nor do they include a need for beauty or adventure, or a need for a comprehensive vision of life

7.      It is treu 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.      Three responses

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

10.    One: Our most fundamental needs–for love, meaning, friendship, and 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.

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

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

11.    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)

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

         a.      Material wealth is relevant

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

         b.      Also include

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

13.    Exclusive attention to (or even focusing on) material wealth or needs that can be satisfied materially, thwarts our effort to realize 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


15.    Argument for simple living depends on human complexity!

16.    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?