Humanity or Sovereignty? Potentialism, A Road Map For the Twenty-First Century

Political systems, as much as practically possible, should allow human beings to develop their potential.—Lyndon Storey

This statement is hardly controversial. You would struggle to find anyone who wanted to live in a world that was not, in principle, consistent with such an idea. Nonetheless, what follows from the acceptance of this proposition is a far cry from the political world we currently inhabit. The logical consequences of acknowledging human potential or potentialism are carefully laid out in Lyndon Storey’s Humanity or Sovereignty: A Political Roadmap for the Twenty-First Century. Storey is currently president of the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. His colorful bio includes Bachelor’s degrees in Arts and Law and a PhD thesis on the Chinese philosopher Mencius. He has worked as a barrister and a public servant, as well as teaching Western Civilization at Liaoning University in China.

There are a few points of departure when starting an argument in political philosophy. The most common approaches throughout Western thought have been as follows:

  1. We are basically good—a theory sometimes referred to as the noble savage theory—and possess a benevolent original nature, which has been corrupted by civilization. This view is often associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
  2. We are basically bad—a theory referred to in theological terms as original sin. This view was put forward by Thomas Hobbes in his landmark book Leviathan. Hobbes believed that people could only escape a hellish existence by surrendering their autonomy to a sovereign person or state.
  3. We are basically blank slates or tabulae rasae—this position is generally associated with John Locke, who claims that the mixing bowl of nature arrives empty and society can freely add whichever ingredients it likes. If parents adopt the right attitudes and provide the right education, then their children—and thus society—can be molded indefinitely.

Potentialism rejects all three of these approaches. Instead, it argues that—instead of having no nature, or a fixed nature—we are, in fact, a mass of potentials. Each of us has the potential to be lazy or indifferent, the potential to eat too much or too little. The potential to let fear guide us or to take a fearless approach, the potential to do good or ill. As we go through life, we seek to actualize many of these potentials, whilst others remain unrealized. We now know that people vary in respect to both their genes and their cultures. People also vary in terms of their potentials. As Storey puts it, “We are not intrinsically anything, but potentially many things.”

There is one key potential that is universally shared: the potential to feel empathy towards others. Storey refers to this as the moral potential. (He excludes cases of psychopathy, in which the sense of empathy is damaged and the human being is rendered abnormal.) This moral potential has often been referred to by other thinkers as a moral sense. It describes the potential concern we naturally have for the wellbeing of other conscious creatures, and the subsequent moral acts influenced by that concern. It has nothing to do with morality in the sense of a series of fixed rules of conduct, such as obligations to wear certain clothes, eat certain foods, or marry certain partners—the way in which many religions commonly conceive of morality. Instead, this is a sense of sympathy and justice, which seeks to maximize the wellbeing of others and to minimize their pain. Appeals to this potential have already extended beyond our own species, as many now consider the sacrifice of fifty-six billion sentient farm animals each year as simply unacceptable. Peter Singer refers to this phenomenon as “extending the moral circle.” The idea of the moral potential contrasts with that of the moral sense insofar as it acknowledges the fact that this potential is very often neglected.

The strength of the moral potential idea, as distinct from the moral sense idea, is that it is both a more modest claim, and a more evidence based one. It is more modest in that the claim is not that we have a functioning moral sense, but that, through empathy, sympathy etc., we have the potential to develop ethical behaviors, such as care for those who are suffering. It is more evidence based in that all that is needed to support Storey’s claim is evidence of some degree of empathy and sympathy.  Evidence of human cruelty and sadism may show that we are not naturally good, or that we don’t have a moral sense, but it is not evidence that we don’t have a moral potential—just that that potential was not realized in a particular case. Our ethical framework does not need to be dependent on Jesus, or the dollar, in order for us to make moral sense of the world.

These differences make Storey’s position both intellectually stronger, and more inspiring. Storey’s ethical theory does not require a supernatural basis. There is no need to believe anything on insufficient evidence. One or more instances of bad behavior is not grounds for abandoning the theory. There is still hope based on our potential. Non-religious paths to ethics, like this one, need to offer not just an assertion of possibilities, but a path towards hope in the face of difficulties.

Cultivation of the moral potential is needed, but there are no guarantees that such an undertaking will be instantly achievable. Even though Storey provides strong evidence to suggest that societies improve once they develop the moral potential, this development can never be a political demand. The best we can ask for is a political system in which as many people as possible are given enough opportunities to develop their moral potential. Social frameworks based on democracy and human rights offer people a better chance to develop their potential than political frameworks based on dictatorship and domination. All individual human beings need to be treated with basic respect and dignity, as a mark of respect for their potential. But state demands that people realize their potential are another thing altogether.

In his chapter on epistemology, Storey reminds us that the possibility of attaining absolute truth is a mirage. This does not mean that we should abandon objective reality, however. Far from it. But we must exercise care in the formulation of our beliefs, hypotheses, theories and conjectures. Only in the sober light of day, subjected to public scrutiny, can objectivity actually emerge. This is the critical method we employ to attempt to root out prejudice and error. When we find empirical evidence and reasons for supporting one view over another, all we can really say is that we have arrived at the best approximation of the truth so far. If the evidence in favor of a moral potential is overwhelmingly strong, we can give reasonable support to the idea. Storey goes on to show that abundant evidence for the moral potential has been found by a variety of disciplines, including social studies, anthropology, evolutionary biology and even economics. He also points out the spontaneous and natural sense of sympathy that we encounter within ourselves.

As befits a thesis claiming that it is applicable to all humans—not just people from a single civilization—Storey draws on supporting evidence from non-Western sources. He quotes the Chinese philosopher Mencius, writing more than two thousand years ago:

My reason for saying no man is devoid of a heart sensitive to the suffering of others is this. Suppose a man were, all of a sudden, to see a young child on the verge of falling into a well. He would certainly be moved to compassion, not because he wanted to get in the good graces of the parents, not because he wished to win the praise of his fellow villagers and friends, nor yet because he disliked the cry of the child. From this it can be seen that whoever is devoid of the heart of compassion is not human.

Mencius’ “heart of compassion” is clearly a very similar concept to Storey’s moral potential. The concept is not a unique one, but it has been neglected in favor of reliance on religion and/or pure reason.  Storey makes a welcome call for us to also focus on the humanistic sources of ethics, our own potential for love and compassion. If these are not part of our humanity, why should we pursue them?

As we start to think about potential in terms of nation states, other ideas emerge. Today’s political landscape is divided into around 206 sovereign states, citizens of which usually identify with the nationality into which they were born. We possess a range of identities, including ethnicity, religion and nationality, which tend to overlap. In principle, these identities need not be problematic, however in practice they routinely are. Loyalty and obedience to strict identities above and beyond our common humanity have been the cause of much needless harm and suffering throughout the course of history. A country cannot claim to respect human potential while denying the rights of a certain class of people. We often show greater respect for the potential of a certain group, based on nationality, religion, ethnicity or sex. However, according to potentialism, respect for our human potential means, first and foremost, respect for our common humanity. If the potential of all human beings is not paramount then the political system is illegitimate. Storey refers to this as the human legitimacy principle.

Storey argues strongly that the logic of human potentialism makes it clear that a key remaining political challenge for the world is to develop a political system that respects the dignity of all human beings, not just those of fellow citizens or co-religionists. His uncompromising attack on the legitimacy of the current system of sovereign states suggests an extensive political reform program: to develop a political framework that respects our most important shared identity, our human identity—rather than deferring to our national or religious identity, as so often happens at times of war, economic conflict, and was most recently illustrated by our failure to establish global co-operative action to address climate change. Storey calls this framework a Human Union, and calls upon people to promote this as an alternative to the current system of competing states.

Since the story of nation states developed in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, political nationalism has been adopted by almost all countries in the world. It is easy to forget that the idea of the nation is a story and that the ability to create better or worse stories depends on our collective imagination or lack thereof. As Noah Harrari writes in Sapiens:

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution (approx. seventy thousand years ago), Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and, on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

This point cannot be overstated. The imagined realities that continue to disrupt humanity’s progress and shape our thinking include religiously inspired intolerance; nationally inspired conflict; and corporate-inspired consumption/automation, which places the acquisition of material wealth above all other values. These competing value systems have been gradually tearing apart the social and environmental fabric of society and no one country can be expected to address them on its own. The positive side to this conundrum is that it presents us with a unique opportunity to create international institutions and agreements, such as the Paris Climate Accord, that allow us to confront these dangers together.

Storey spends a whole chapter of the book laying out possible forms a legitimate international political system could take in practice. He does not insist on any one precise form, but he argues that such a system must foster certain human development policies: freedom of conscience and thought, government by consent, economic development, etc. In other words, a system with some overarching core principles, such as democracy and environmental protection, would hold the international political system together. However, member states would not necessarily have identical political systems and might realize those core foundations differently.

Instead of retreating into nationalism as a means of dealing with social and economic insecurity, now is the time to consider political systems that might appropriately scale to deal with the larger problems we face. If we accept the idea of human potential, we should strive to develop a Human Union (HU). For a concrete example of how this might work, we can look to the European Union (EU), a political system that has gradually progressed beyond the power of sovereign states. Although there are many faults to be found with the EU, including its overemphasis on neoliberal politics and excessive protections for financial institutions, there is also much we can learn from it. Some have argued that the EU can only work because of Europe’s shared culture and history. Nevertheless, Europe itself was previously riven by centuries of sectarian bloodshed, culminating in mass genocide.

The EU currently requires a basic level of democracy and respect for human rights among its members and only allows membership status to countries within Europe. If the EU were to change its name to the Human Union at some stage it could allow any country that shared its respect for democracy and human rights to join. This might even have knock-on effects on countries formerly in crisis, encouraging them to adopt new political principles. This would allow large numbers of refugees to return to their original homes, under a Human Union. Storey provides a road map for an alternative political future: a Human Union grounded on empirically universal characteristics, based on our common humanity and our human potentials.

Another universal that I think could further potentialism is what I would call the objective potential, moral potential’s younger sibling. There are two worlds in which we exist. The way the world is and the way the world ought to be. Storey spends much of his book explaining what exactly it is we appeal to when we reason about what matters, what is better and what ought to be. In contrast, objective potential relates to our potential to see the world as it is, to gain insight into the universe through curiosity and introspection. Science is more concerned with the process of getting at facts than with the facts themselves. Such a process can be challenging at first. It demands that we discard previous ways of thinking when they collide with new reasons and facts. It took many centuries for people to warm to the idea that the sun doesn’t move around the earth and it may take even longer for others to accept that all forms of life, in fact, evolved. The power of orthodoxy to resist facts and counterarguments is unfortunately much stronger than the potential for doubt and uncertainty.

The objective potential would include introspection because, just as science focuses on objects within the cosmos, meditation concentrates on one or more objects within the mind—the breath, sensations, thoughts, sounds or images. The idea of beginner’s mind, emphasized by the Zen tradition and advocated by many great thinkers throughout the ages, involves seeing objects in novel ways, seeking out criticism and viewing trial and error as life’s humbling gift. The objective potential to know both yourself and the cosmos is one of our many human potentials. To the open-minded, many of Storey’s recommendations appear to be the rational next steps, if we want to base our decisions on evidence and reason and support human potential.

Storey’s theory of potentialism and its political consequences should give us pause for thought. This rational and empirical moral framework is a very strong contender in what must be considered the twenty-first century contest of values. It offers a program based on hope and empirical evidence, which could enable us to develop a path towards political justice in the twenty-first century.

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  1. Anyone who believes that the EU is a force for good let alone human progress or BELIEVES in man made climate change has not done any serious research of either subject.

  2. Thank you for introducing me to Lyndon Storey’s book, Humanity or Sovereignty: A Political Roadmap for the Twenty-First Century. Indeed, thank you for introducing me to potentialism.

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