It is not always easy to find a universal definition for a word or concept. Therefore, before accepting an explanation, it is essential to understand its objectivity or subjectivity. Though recognized as a universal truth, some definitions contain biases which render them devoid of reality. There are some terms whose definitions cannot be said to be the universal truth because the definers or the powers behind the definitions included their hidden interests and emotions in the description. An example of such terms is ‘essential service.’ According to Cambridge University, essential service is a basic public need usually supplied to the individuals’ houses (Cambridge dictionary, n.d.). It is also a necessary social service like education and healthcare. Because such a service is essential, interruptions to its provision endanger the life, safety, and health of population partially or wholly. Cambridge University gives examples of such services as water, electricity, gas, education, and healthcare (Cambridge dictionary, n.d.). To that end, the definition can both be biased and discriminative. The definition fails to incorporate the fact that what is considered a basic need in one country may not be viewed as such in another country. For example, in developing countries, gas and electricity may not be considered as basic needs there are alternatives. The implication here is that while drafting the definition, Cambridge University only considered developed nations and categorically neglected the developing and third world countries in their definition. The definition is therefore insufficient and controversial and therefore cannot be used as the universal truth by all nations.

According to Lewis, it is difficult to separate the definition of a term from the definer and context. For this reason, before accepting any definition, one ought to know the definer, definer’s viewpoint, the need for the definition, potential alternative definition, potential beneficiaries of the definition, the authority behind the definition, the power backing the definition and the potential controversies that the definition may bring about (Lewis, 2007). The Cambridge University defined “essential service” with the viewpoint that all people in a society are uniform and that all countries in the world are economically equal. Since Cambridge University is situated in a developed country, the definition is informed by the lifestyles of people living in a developed world and is, therefore, both prejudiced and biased. The definition is also prescriptive as it tells what essential service should be and not what it is. The purpose here is to isolate and demean the poor in society and the underdeveloped countries.

The Content Criterion

According to Lewis, the content-based definition of a term emphasizes more on the subject matter or what constitutes the name. However, what to include in the contents of a term may be hard to determine (Lewis, 2007). Cambridge University includes water, gas, electricity, education, and healthcare in its list of essential services. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, society has different classes and what an individual considers basic or essential need may not be as such to another individual. While a rich Canadian may consider internet connectivity an essential service, an average Canadian may find it a luxury and, therefore, not as important. Equally, while developed nations like the USA and Canada consider gas and electricity a necessity, less developed African and Asian countries may find them not as essential (Walle, 2009). To that end, there arises the problem of determining what to include in the “essential services” checklist. When defined solely using the content criterion, the definition would either be insufficient or inflated. Content criterion definition of “essential service” can be used for manipulative purposes by politicians and social activist groups. A long list of essential services enables the government to charge high taxes. Though not all-inclusive, comprehensive and holistic definition, the content-based definition of essential service can be used to manipulate members of the public as far as taxation is concerned.

Intent-Based Definition

The definition of essential service by Cambridge University can be said to be intent-based. Intent-based definition stresses the intentions of the definer and not the content. Based in the UK, Cambridge University understands that the UK has many countries, especially from its former colonies. By including things like gas, electricity, and education in the definition, the university probably indented to set an example for other countries and governments and encourage them to broaden their public service provision. The definition eradicates the problem of content-based definition by not describing what essential service is, but by prescribing what should be incorporated in it.

Effect-Based Definition

The effects-based definition is futuristic in that it looks ahead to the potential consequences of the definition. Elongating the list of essential services has the effect of making the welfare of the society better. If the list is left to be too short to include only water, education and healthcare, the result will undoubtedly be a poor society (McDonald, 2016). To a developing nation that does not consider water, gas, electricity, and education essential services, Cambridge university’s ambitious definition has the effect of making them realize that they have been doing so little and that they need to do something to make the lives of their citizenry better. The impact of the Cambridge definition is therefore good enough for such countries.


Although the three criteria applied to the definition of essential service, intent and effect based criteria have proved to be the most effective. By intent criterion, Cambridge University showed the intention of spurring economic growth in countries that benchmark using the UK in regards to economic policies and welfare economics. Defining the term using content criterion has shown the definition to be either insufficient or inflated concerning the reader. When looked at by a member from low class or developing country, the definition is inflated. When viewed by a member from the upper level or developed country, the definition is insufficient. If the definition has to be made universally acceptable using the content approach, then the definition should leave the examples out because every social class and country has what it considers essential service.



Cambridge dictionary. (n.d.). Meaning of “essential services” in the English Dictionary. Retrieved January 30, 2019, from

Lewis, K. R. A. (2007). Word and World: A Critical Thinking Reader. Toronto: Thomson Nelson.

McDonald, D. A. (2016). Making public in a privatized world: The struggle for essential services. London. Zed Books

Walle, S. V. (2009). When Is A Service An Essential Public Service? Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics, 80(4), 521-545. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8292.2009.00397.x


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