I’ve previously discussed the arbitrary v. non-arbitrary distinction in the problems of society, as well as more recently in the roots of oppression. This distinction creates two categories, that is, “arbitrary” and “non-arbitary,” in which we can group and understand the value judgments we make when puzzling over the normative question — when deciding what is worth doing.
Human beings, like other animals, have certain basic biological needs that must be fulfilled for survival: we forage for food and drink, seek out shelter from the elements, search for mates, and sleep. Because these needs are rooted in biology rather than preference, the value judgments one makes when deciding to fulfill them are non-arbitrary — basic biological necessity is a mark of the non-arbitrary.
However, distinct from other animals, humans have become extremely proficient in accomplishing our non-arbitrary ends, and so many of us are left with large gaps of free time each day. Most importantly, we seek to fill this free time with purposive activity so that we feel our lives are spent doing something meaningful. But what purposes are meaningful, the answer to the normative question what should be done? depends both on who you’re talking to and what his or her cultural, social, and historical context provides. As such, the answer to what should be done beyond fulfilling non-arbitrary needs will be based on one’s own personal sentiments about what’s valuable in life – that is, based arbitrarily on one’s own judgments about what is worth doing. Of course, such judgments are partly shaped by cultural, social, and historical context, but these factors are contingent, in that they could have been anything, and so answering the normative question by appealing to the culture, society, or history you were originally thrown into remains arbitrary – indeed, upon seeing that there’s more than one’s native culture, society, or history (history as hermeneutical) out in the world, the culture, society, or history that one decides to look to in answering the normative question will, again, be a matter of one’s arbitrary preferences and judgments about what is valuable in life.
So, in short, our non-arbitrary needs are food, drink, shelter, sleep, and sex (because while individuals can survive without sex, human beings as a species could not). Every purpose beyond fulfilling these biological preconditions should be seen as arbitrary by default unless it becomes clear that some new element has become necessary for survival. If, for instance, you were born on an island where the only source of food is located high atop a rock wall, then the ability to climb would, in these circumstances, become non-arbitrary, as being able to climb well would be necessary for survival. So you can see how activities and judgments that would otherwise be arbitrary can work their way into being non-arbitrary depending on the conditions one faces. With this in mind, I turn to electricity.
Is electricity a non-arbitrary need? Is creating electricity a non-arbitrary purpose? Life has become, and is becoming, increasingly energy intensive, particularly in the realm of electricity consumption. But has the need for electricity become non-arbitrary? Obviously there are people living today who get along without access to electricity, and in theory one could survive in developed society without being “on the grid.” But to the extent that agriculture, medicine, sanitation, and home heating rely on electricity, and because an insignificant number of Western households are self-sufficient in those regards, I’m confident that without electricity, billions would starve to death, die of otherwise preventable or treatable disease, and freeze to death in their homes. Because electricity has become so essential to survival and the fulfillment of basic biological necessities, the need for electricity can no longer be understood as an arbitrary one. Like the need to climb rocks well on the hypothetical island considered earlier, electricity has worked its way into being non-arbitrary. How one thinks we should produce electricity (ie – with renewables and/or non-renewables) is a function of other values and judgments about the human place in nature, but whether it’s through solar power or natural gas, our ways of living, our very lives themselves, non-arbitrarily require electricity.
So, with some confidence, I think we can expand the list of non-arbitrary human needs to include food, drink, shelter, sleep, sex, and electricity. And we must be open-minded to adaptations of this sort, for there was a time in evolutionary history when the bacterial human ancestor was autotrophic, reproduced asexually, and knew nothing of shelter or sleep. As we evolved into modern humans, so too evolved our non-arbitrary needs. We certainly cannot imagine ourselves as the end of evolution, and so as life itself changes, we must be willing to change our minds about what counts as non-arbitrary. Electricity, it seems to me, has made the cut.