Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

On achieving one’s potential

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Earlier today I caught a snippet of a news story about global hunger. One of those being interviewed said something like ‘malnourishment prevents children from achieving their potential.’ I realised then that the idea of ‘achieving one’s potential’ is one I’ve often heard and never reflected upon. Reflection proved interesting.

Having potential means having the latent capacity to achieve something. The claim above implies that children have a capacity to achieve something and that malnourishment prevents them from doing so. But, what exactly is that potential for? Do we really have such a capacity?

In one sense, we must have some sort of potential: given that we have finite lives then it must therefore be true that there are finite amount amount of things we can achieve. So, our potential could be a measure of all the things that it’s possible for us to do in our finite lives. But that isn’t satisfactory; when we talk about someone’s potential there is a normative judgement about what it’s worthwhile to achieve. When we speak with sadness about a failure to meet one’s potential, we don’t mean someone’s potential to count as many blades of grass in their finite existence as is humanly possible, and nor do we mean someone’s potential to kill as many people or steal as many things as is possible. Someone’s potential, in ordinary sense, is therefore connected with living the good life or doing something worthwhile. Alternatively, potential could be connected with something more abstract: with the ability to develop an attribute or capability such as rationality to its maximum. There are a number of interesting areas to contemplate that begin to appear at this point – here are some that I’ve thought of, you may have more:

1) A potential must measure what it’s possible to achieve. The claim about malnourishment only makes sense if it means that malnourishment prevents children from achieving the potential they otherwise would have had were they not malnourished. But, how do we know what someone might ordinarily achieve? What we might be able to do is such a horrifically complex and unknowable affair that it’s difficult to make any meaningful judgements about what we might be able to do. Is it even meaningful to think of potential in the ideal and so disregard all that reduces it?

Thinking this way might also require us to rank the desirability of any number of potential goals we could achieve and that’s far from easy. This problem only becomes readily solvable if we think the value of all things can be measured in terms of a single value, such as happiness or pleasure. If, however, we’re pluralists about value then we may think some values are incommensurate. Is love more valuable than friendship or health? If we’re pluralists about value then we could escape this problem by conceiving of potential as the capacity to achieve any number of valuable goods. However, if we do think some goods can be determined to be better than others in some way, then it would be strange to conceive of potential as the capacity to achieve the less valuable goals rather than the more valuable ones.

2) There’s a further problem with thinking of potential in these normative terms and it’s connected with desires and preferences. If someone with the potential to be a great mathematician decides to become a mediocre painter then should we regard this a bad thing? If not, it might be because free choice is more valuable than meeting potential. But what about in the really difficult cases: imagine someone with the potential to cure AIDS who decides to write trashy romance books instead. Here we’re straying into Aristotelian territory and the idea that we all have an end or purpose (a telos) and we live a bad life if we do not achieve it. If we do have such a telos then perhaps the potential curer of AIDs can be said to have lived a bad life irrespective of whether they achieved what they wanted.  Thus, the claim about malnourishment becomes a perfectionist claim that children are prevented from living good lives as judged from objective standpoint not necessarily connected with their individual rationally chosen goals. At this point, *everything* that prevents someone from living a maximally good life in the sense above becomes a bad thing to some degree.

The discussion so far pushes us towards thinking that there is some objective notion of a good life either for all people or for each individual.

And here’s a third thought: if things that prevent us from reaching our potential are bad things, then achieving potential is a good thing. And if achieving potential is a good thing, it’s likely that greater potential is also better than lesser potential. If that’s the case, then things that increase our potential are good. Potential isn’t entirely in our own hands and isn’t fixed at birth – external factors such as teaching, genetic manipulation, parenting etc. can all increase our potential. This makes what we have the potential to achieve open-ended. Might we have to think of a lack of genetic engineering as preventing someone from reaching their potential too?

Anyway, I realise that all of the above is rather rambly and unstructured, and that I’m just splurging out stream of consciousness without having looked at the literature. I probably look really stupid and ignorant to anyone who has properly thought about and researched this stuff. I’ve probably also made a whole slew of errors in reasoning too. So, I’m going to wrap up before I compound my folly with the claim that what people mean when they express sadness or anger at someone’s failure to reach their potential is probably not that they’re prevented from living an objectively maximally good life. Rather, what I think people usually mean when they say someone is prevented from reaching their potential is either a) that a person’s potential to live a good life (whatever that is) is reduced and that this is a bad thing, or, b) that the person is  suffering and suffering is bad. I suspect that b) is more likely. I’m going to be more careful to say what I actually mean in future, and I’m also going to donate something to help combat world hunger, you should too!

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Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

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