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A Personalistic Appraisal of Maslow’s Needs Theory of Motivation: From “Humanistic” Psychology to Integral Humanism

Abstract

Abraham Maslow’s needs theory is one of the most influential motivation theories in management and organizational behavior. What are its anthropological and ethical presuppositions? Are they consistent with sound business philosophy and ethics? This paper analyzes and assesses the anthropological and ethical underpinnings of Maslow’s needs theory from a personalistic framework, and concludes that they are flawed. Built on materialistic naturalism, the theory’s “humanistic” claims are subverted by its reductionist, individualistic approach to the human being, which ends up in a needs-based ethics that understands goodness, virtue, and rights in instinctual, subjectivistic, and relativistic terms. Its moral imperative, “Be yourself!,” is either the materialistic fiat of genetic drives or the voluntaristic command of unbridled will. Significant implications for business educators, managers, and organizations are discussed, along with recommendations. Managerial theories and approaches that reduce personality to individuality are inconsistent with proper anthropological and ethical business principles. Adopting those individualistic theories may ultimately undermine organizational effectiveness, and the very essence of business as human activity and of management as human calling. Instead, personalistic anthropology and virtue ethics, rooted in Aristotelian–Thomistic thought, soundly account for properly human nature and the good life. Business educators and practitioners are encouraged to embrace this integral, truly humanistic framework for motivation, and management theory and practice.

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Notes

  1. When Maslow explained the peak-experience phenomenon (1962/1968, 1964/1970) to his students, most “claimed to have had peaks, too”; yet, when he later interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt, “she declared brusquely that she had no idea what he was talking about” (Milton 2002, p. 53; see also, Frick 2000, pp. 142–143).

  2. “The study of the human being by science or by self-search can discover where he is heading, what is his purpose in life, what is good for him and what is bad for him, what will make him feel virtuous and what will make him feel guilty, why choosing the good is often difficult for him, what the attractions of evil are. (Observe that the word ‘ought’ need not be used. Also such knowledge of man is relative to man only and does not purport to be ‘absolute.’)” (Maslow 1962/1968, p. 205).

  3. Further discussion of other possible influences on Maslow’s theory, humanistic psychology, and related work—such as the thought of Bacon (empiricism, scientism), Descartes (dualism, idealism, subjectivism), Hume (radical empiricism, emotivism), Darwin (biological determinism, natural selection), Schopenhauer (motivation by desires, voluntarism), Comte (scientism), and Sartre (subjectivist existentialism)—though promising as topic for future research, is beyond the scope of this article. I thank the anonymous JBE reviewers who pointed out two key antecedents of the attack on organized religion: Auguste Comte (who saw himself as high priest, and positivism as substitute religion) and, much earlier, the Reformation. Maslow’s disdainful attitude toward organized religion will be discussed later.

  4. “how tough I’d be with the rioters (I’d shoot them if necessary, even to kill if unavoidable — but only, of course, if the society were behind this & could take it in the political sense). I’d jail & punish all the civil disobedients [sic]. And for the ones who plume themselves on being arrested, I’d have real punishment, anything that they would fear & that would deter them, even if I had to change the laws about cruel & unusual punishment. […] This is prepotent to ‘liberties,’ to rights, to anything. […] As for unemployed loafers today, in a time of shortages of help, I’d simply be willing to let them starve ultimately. […] Being authoritarian at the lower need levels of society (most of the ‘new nations’) instead of politically democratic [sic]. […] But for highly developed & economic democracies, I’d push toward philosophical anarchism” (May 25, 1966 journal entry, Maslow 1979, pp. 631–632).

  5. The fact-value or is-ought problem, and the related naturalistic fallacy, has been covered at length in the moral philosophy literature (e.g., Frankena 1939; MacIntyre 1981/2007; McInerny 1997; Tollefsen 1995). Its further discussion is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to stress that, absent the proper teleological metaphysical and anthropological basis, Maslow’s rendition of the “is-ought” connection is open to the naturalistic fallacy criticism.

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The author gratefully acknowledges three anonymous JBE reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this paper.

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Acevedo, A. A Personalistic Appraisal of Maslow’s Needs Theory of Motivation: From “Humanistic” Psychology to Integral Humanism. J Bus Ethics 148, 741–763 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-015-2970-0

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Keywords

  • Abraham Maslow
  • Business or management ethics
  • Humanism or humanistic psychology
  • Individualism
  • Personalism
  • Virtue