Warning: this is long and rambly and may not have a point, but there are many thoughts that have been swirling around in my mind about the question of potential and its role. Here they are.
Most human beings hate the concept of missing opportunities. It’s a sort of common wisdom that you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did do. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about lost opportunities lately as the large impending move in my future is cutting off a lot of the things that I might like to do in my current life (jobs I’d looked at, relationships that are just starting, volunteering I’d like to do). These things make me incredibly sad, especially the things that I’ve been able to dip my toe into but will have to abandon.
Recently I had a conversation with a friend about living forever. He made some good arguments about all the amazing things that the world offers and the potential experiences that could come from living forever. The finitude of life means that there are always more missed opportunities than taken opportunities and having more time to take more opportunities does sound quite appealing. There may even be some moral impetus to want to live longer in order to take advantage of more of these opportunities. We certainly see that denying someone else of these opportunities (through murder) is untenable. The idea that we should or might want to live longer for the sake of potential things we could experience has a strong pull for many people.
The way that we see potential and potential selves impacts our ethics in all sorts of ways we wouldn’t expect: it’s most often applied to things like stem cell research or abortion, but it also affects how we should live our lives and whether we should want to live forever and the sadness that is appropriate to making choices. To live consistently and logically within our ethical systems, we should be aware of the fact that questions of potential reach far further than the stark examples that involve life and death.
We like to use arguments from potential: we use them against abortion and suicide, we use them for living forever. Emotionally, they speak to us: “what if” we ask ourselves. But we miss opportunities all the time. Every moment is wasted potential and there is no way to make that up. Every decision we make is choosing not to make a different decision, closing other doors. At any given point in time there is an infinite number of things we could be doing: infinite potential. Sure some infinities are larger than other infinities, and the potential of a life that goes on forever is larger than my current lifespan, but at any given moment we have an impossible number of things we could be doing (and even if we do live forever, the infinity of things we could do will always be larger than the things we will do).
If we were to be morally consistent we would have to feel intense guilt every time we choose not to do something, which would be nearly every second of every day (as an example I am currently choosing not to go do my workout because I’m blogging instead, not to go in to work because it’s my day off, and not to eat more lunch because I’m lazy. These are all good reasons, but I could be doing any number of things right now that I’m not. I don’t feel guilty about that).
Every decision we make removes potential other decisions and actions. When we suggest that we need to maximize potential we are arguing for indecisiveness. There is no way to do all the things. it implies we should feel guilty every time we make a decision that cuts off another decision. While some people have no problem with the idea of a moral obligation that is unattainable, I find the idea a bit distasteful. Beyond that, we have good reasons to be suspicious of arguments from potential through the debates on abortion. We don’t generally confer rights or moral imperatives based on potential (the potential president does not demand the same respect the actual president does), and there are all sorts of negative potentials as well.
So how do we understand the strong, visceral reactions we have to many arguments about potential (for example in the case of suicide or murder) in conjunction with the fact that most of our lives are made up of lost potential? Are there other ethical issues at play in most of the cases that we feel rely on potential? How do we understand the regret of missing potential in an ethical context? Is there any ethical impetus in our lives that should be driven by potential?
Let’s look for a moment at suicide, since questions about the end of life throw potential into the harshest light, but suicide does not have the added difficulty that abortion or murder does of one individual interfering with another individual’s choices.
One of the arguments against suicide is that it deprives society of the individual’s contributions and deprives the individual’s potential future selves of life (in the case that they would change their mind). We generally see suicide as a waste of potential, as an individual not seeing all of the things that their life could hold. Most people think that we should probably at least try to convince a suicidal individual to look at all the potential in their life, and some assert that we have a right to interfere. We see the future life and potential actions of individuals as things to be protected.
To counter that:
“Libertarianism typically asserts that the right to suicide is a right of noninterference, to wit, that others are morally barred from interfering with suicidal behavior. Some assert the stronger claim that the right to suicide is a liberty right, such that individuals have no duty not to commit suicide (i.e., that suicide violates no moral duties), or a claim right, according to which other individuals may be morally obliged not only not to interfere with a person’s suicidal behavior but to assist in that behavior. (See the entry on rights.)”
“Another rationale for a right of noninterference is the claim that we have a general right to decide those matters that are most intimately connected to our well-being, including the duration of our lives and the circumstances of our deaths. On this view, the right to suicide follows from a deeper right to self-determination, a right to shape the circumstances of our lives so long as we do not harm or imperil others (Cholbi 2011, 88–89). As presented in the “death with dignity” movement, the right to suicide is the natural corollary of the right to life. That is, because individuals have the right not to be killed by others, the only person with the moral right to determine the circumstances of a person’s death is that person herself and others are therefore barred from trying to prevent a person’s efforts at self-inflicted death.”
-all from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
While arguments from potential against suicide seem to make an intuitive sense, it’s important to remember that individuals are allowed to have preferences and choices about their own potential. The idea that someone should be obligated to act out all their potential makes no sense when we think about the vastness of potential in our lives.
When we look at the question of immortality and whether we should seek immortality, people seem far less invested in the question of whether or not we are cutting short our potential. The difference appears to be active interruption of potential vs. simply not encouraging potential (leaving a place with all the potentials that organically would grow if you were to stay there vs. actively working to create more time and space to live out potentials). Do we have an obligation to not actively cut short our potential? Perhaps. Perhaps it is important to have some sense of the amazing number of possibilities that our life contains and discards, some way to motivate ourselves to continue trying and expanding and growing. Perhaps an awareness of all the amazing things we could be doing will give us some hope for the future and prevent something like suicide.
Of course suicide is the ultimate question of cutting off potential. But going home and taking a nap instead of going out into the world and doing MORE THINGS is like a tiny suicide in terms of its impact on potential. This is again, making an active choice not to live out your full potential. Should we shame those who choose to do less active things in their lives, or who choose to do the same things over and over again? Should those people feel guilty for wasting their lives and their potential? Doesn’t the emphasis on potential put an undue amount of pressure on each human being to never be quiet, engage in self care, rest? Don’t we lose some element of enjoyment in what we are actually doing by putting an ethical value on the things we could be doing?
I don’t know that we can ever entirely discount the importance of being aware of the size of the world and the amazing possibilities that we ourselves contain, but I will leave you all with this thought:
“Time is like wax, dripping from a candle flame. In the moment, it is molten and falling, with the capability to transform into any shape. Then the moment passes, and the wax hits the table top and solidifies into the shape it will always be. It becomes the past — a solid single record of what happened, still holding in its wild curves and contours the potential of every shape it could have held.
It is impossible — no matter how blessed you are by luck, or the government, or some remote, invisible deity gently steering your life with hands made of moonlight and wind — it is impossible not to feel a little sad, looking at that bit of wax, that bit of the past. It is impossible not to think of all the wild forms that wax now will never take.
The village, glimpsed from a train window — beautiful and impossible and impossibly beautiful on a mountaintop, then you wondered what it would be if you stepped off the moving train and walked up the trail to its quiet streets and lived there for the rest of your life. The beautiful face of that young man from Luftnarp, with his gaping mouth and ashy skin, last seen already half-turned away as you boarded the bus, already turning towards a future without you in it, where this thing between you that seemed so possible now already, and forever, never was.
All variety of lost opportunity spied from the windows of public transportation, really.
It can be overwhelming, this splattered, inert wax recording every turn not taken.
“What’s the point?” you ask.
“Why bother?” you say.
“Oh, Cecil,” you cry. “Oh, Cecil.”
But then you remember — I remember — that we are, even now, in another bit of molten wax. We are in a moment that is still falling, still volatile — and we will never be anywhere else. We will always be in that most dangerous, most exciting, most possible time of all: the now. Where we never can know what shape the next moment will take.”
-Welcome to Nightvale