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There is a Buddhist story that when the Buddha achieved enlightenment beneath the bodhi tree, his choice to continue to live as a human being was due to his recognition that there are two levels of enlightenment: That which is achieved by the individual, and that which can be achieved by humanity. The first is incomplete without the second. However one takes this story, whether literally or allegorically, the meaning is the same: There is an ideal to which we aspire, that perhaps defies clear definition but that we know exists. We implicitly recognize it whenever we strive to excel for the sake of excelling, whether in sports, or academics, or any other sphere of life. But true excellence, as Isaac Newton noted of his own genius, always “stands on the shoulders of giants.” Or, perhaps more precisely, of one giant, the giant that is the collective genius of a civilization (see The Genius of the Many and The Hollow Mountain).

Many people may conceptualize “human potential” as an individualistic concept, a thing that individuals achieve, individually. In reality, like the human mind itself, it is a collective aspiration, achievable only through our social unity. Even the most individualistic of achievements, such as running the fastest 100 meter dash, or jumping the highest or longest, is a feat built from the techniques and training that involve both people engaged in the same endeavor over time, and the transmission of their knowledge to and through the individual who excels.

But not only are most sports team sports, the mind itself is a team mind. We think in languages, mobilizing concepts, in communication with others, all of which are the product of a collective human history. My mind, like all others, is defined by a combination of genes and memes, most of which are broadly shared, and are only marginally individuated in me (see The Fractal Geometry of Social Change). Even our minds are, in the final analysis, mostly common property. The question, therefore, is not so much how we each might excel individually, but rather how we all might excel together.

To a great extent, the processes by which this happens are organic and unintentional. Human history has produced a proliferation of techniques, of refinements, of “progress.” Not all of it is beneficial, and not all chapters of the story have been laudable, but it is certainly arguable that, on balance, we have stumbled toward various improvements in the quality of life, at least in certain limited regions, and by certain limited criteria. But intentionality plays a role as well; the intentionality that led to the development of scientific methodology, and the intentionality that led to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, for examples. Such intentionality in our shared enterprise is always, essentially, political in nature.

The question then becomes: What is the political meaning and process of “realizing human potential”? In a political context, what we normally think of as “human potential,” of excelling in various kinds of endeavors, is less an end in itself than a means to an end. Certainly, there is a certain euphoria attached to excelling, whether athletically, academically, artistically, professionally, or in some other kind of skill or endeavor, but it is really in how this excellence is applied that its political and social significance begins to become clear. Also, other kinds of “excellence” are brought into the discussion: excellence in kindness, in dedication, in mobilizing people, in leadership, and in performing myriad small and mundane tasks that contribute to human welfare. Mere individual “excellence,” in and of itself, is a paltry form of realizing human potential, a source of individual gratification and public entertainment. But excellence in contributing to our human endeavor, in liberating our collective genius, and in increasing our collective welfare, is a catalyst of something far greater.

In one sense, realizing our individual and collective “potential” is the goal, as well as the means to achieving it, for fragments of the greatest joy can be achieved through the expression of our humanity to the fullest possible extent in one field of endeavor, whether as dedicated humanitarians, phenomenal athletes, brilliant scholars, or visionary artists. But the whole, the compilation of those fragments, requires a balance among the various aspects of our humanity, and a balance between a focus on individual and collective excellence. Through this lens, working together to satisfy human needs, augment opportunities, and enrich lives is merely one aspect of the goal that “human potential” encompasses, but it is the most basic and fundamental aspect, the one upon which the rest is built.

To excel in our individual contributions to our collective genius and collective welfare, we have to understand the arena in which we are operating. Political ideological space can be plotted along three dimensions: 1) a commitment to the improvement of the human condition; 2) a commitment to ideological certainties; 3) a commitment to crude self or localized interest. Most of us are comprised of some mixture of these three, and are thus located within this space in an area that is defined by the intersection of our “values” along each of these three dimensions.

The first dimension involves liberating the genius of the many (i.e., improving the processes by which the products of human genius are produced), but also mobilizing that genius to our collective welfare. In other words, it is comprised of both “effectiveness” (how well we accomplish our goals) and “social responsibility” (the extent to which our individual goals serve the general welfare). “Effectiveness” is the quality all purposive actors want to permeate the processes by which they do things, and “social responsibility” is the quality all socially responsible people want to permeate the substantive goals of what they are doing. I will refer to these two qualities as “functional rationality” (how well we accomplish what we set out to accomplish) and “substantive rationality” (how well what we set out to accomplish servies human welfare). 

The second dimension is comprised of all of the simplifications that our minds rely on, all of the accepted certainties that we variously gravitate to and refrain from reexamining. This is not something that can be eliminated: The world is too complex, our minds too limited, and our time and attention too constrained to allow us to be perfectly “open minded” on a continuous basis. In fact, such perfect open-mindedness is dysfunctional, erasing past mental processes that had arrived at conclusions and understandings in order to leave them forever in question, forestalling any cumulative progress in our understandings by removing the previous steps taken toward such process. So, part of the challenge of not letting the second dimension pre-empt the first one is in very carefully selecting that which we considered settled, using processes that increase rather than decrease both the functional and substantive rationality of our individual cognitive landscapes.

The third dimension is ever-present. We each, almost without exception, are more concerned for our own welfare, and for the welfare of those closest to us, than we are with the welfare of others with whom we have little or no direct connection. It is true that we are hard-wired for empathy and cooperation, and that our own individual welfare depends on at least some commitment to the welfare of others, even independenly of how that commitment may materially benefit us. But we clearly are not a fundamentally altruistic species, else we would be unable to endure the gross inequities that those reading this are benefiting from. Self-interest is a real and significant dimension of our shared existence.

The precise location of any individual doctrine within this political ideological space can be contentious. For example, “Libertarianism,” if fervently adhered to, would be located far along the “ideological certainty” and “self-interest” axes. But libertarians also make arguments about the social value of extreme individualism. Therefore, it’s precise location along the “commitment to the improvement of the human condition” axis is a subject of debate. But, to the extent that any doctrine retains a high “ideological certainty” value, it’s “commitment to the improvement of the human condition” value is correspondingly reduced, because rather than subject the doctrine to the crucible of reason in service to that goal, it is adhered to as a thing unto itself. Therefore, the dimension of “commitment to the improvement of the human condition” requires freeing oneself from ideological certainties, and focusing instead on this goal which they may purport to serve.

In other words, adherence to substantive doctrines is in a tension with one’s commitment to improving the human condition, yet is a requirement of cognitive economics. And maximizing our commitment to the general welfare requires recognizing our degree of self-interest. A major challenge for those most committed to improving the human condition is how to reconcile these competing demands. Meeting this challenge is served by focusing on the development of disciplines, individual and collective procedures that those who truly want to improve the human condition attempt to adhere to, in order to maximize both the effectiveness of their efforts, and the wisdom of the goals we identify as serving the ultimate goal of robust, sustainable, and fairly distributed human welfare. (See A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill for a discussion of how to go about doing this).

Simplifying the above discussion a bit, we are all either trying to make the world kinder and more rational, or are pursuing more foolish (usually blindly ideological) goals, or are behaving indifferently or antagonistically to the welfare of others. Most of us are defined by some mixture of these three. The question, for those of us who are consciously committed to improving the general welfare, is how to increase in ourselves and others our individual and shared commitment to reason (functional and substantive rationality) and goodwill (in service to the general welfare).

Some people balk at one or both of these values, believing “reason” to be either unattainable or undesirable, and “goodwill” expressed in public policy to be either an affront to “liberty” or a ceding of power to the enemy. But if we clearly define “reason” to mean most effectively acting in accord with and in service to the welfare of those we care about, and “goodwill” to mean either caring about all others or, at least, preferring our actions and choices to assist rather than obstruct others in their efforts to serve the interests of those they care about, then the vast majority of people will claim either to be, or to be striving to be, or to agree that we all should strive to be, reasonable people of goodwill.

That is the foundation on which we can build. We need a movement that recognizes that our current ideological balkanization does not serve these values, even if each is convinced that their own personal ideological convictions do. At stake is how well or poorly we meet the challenges of our shared endeavor.

The gap between our current capabilities for more robustly, sustainably, and fairly producing and distributing “human welfare” (a concept which includes material wealth, physical and mental well-being, and the various elements of a rich and fulfilling life) and our realization of those capabilities is a challenge to which all reasonable people of goodwill should address themselves. Those of us most committed to closing that gap need to step back from the endless urgency of now, and from the specific issues on which we each may be working, and ask ourselves how to create, implement, and maintain the most effective movement possible for closing the gap between what is and what can be.

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