Claims about needs are a ubiquitous feature of everyday practical discourse. It is therefore unsurprising that needs have long been a topic of interest in moral philosophy, applied ethics, and political philosophy. Philosophers have devoted much time and energy to developing theories of the nature of human needs and the like.
Philosophers working on needs are typically committed to the idea that there are different kinds of needs and that within the different kinds of needs is a privileged class of needs that is especially normatively significant.
Some philosophers go further and make rather grand claims about needs. They claim that needs are central or fundamental to moral thinking and that we must have a needs-centred moral theory or a general reorientation of moral philosophy around needs.
In this paper I aim to do two things. First, to show how applying recent work on modal terms can help us to understand thought and talk about needs. This is the positive part. I then use these ideas to cast doubt on the more ambitious claims about needs. Put briefly, a proper understanding of claims about needs undermines the idea that the concept of needs is fundamental in moral thought or in moral philosophy. Ambitious needs theory fails.