The Problem With Potential

COMMENTARY: Life’s specific rules dispose and urge a person to become fulfilled in a way that is in accord with his God-given destiny.

Another inclination, readily observable in babies, is to love and to receive love.
Another inclination, readily observable in babies, is to love and to receive love. (photo: Yuri Chen / Shutterstock)

The word “potential” is mesmerizing. It conjures up a dreamland in which one can become anything he wants to be. It has not yet crossed into the realm of the actual, where it loses its unsullied attractiveness. 

A young woman yearns for the perfect mate. She can maintain this yearning as long as it remains in dreamland. When she marries, she may have found a fine husband, but he inevitably falls short of the potential ideal mate who existed in her imagination. The actual never quite lives up to the potential. 

Author Erica Jong said that she decided to keep her womb empty and full of possibilities. But a mere possibility is not a reality and therefore can be of no benefit to anyone.

President Biden is a strong advocate of fulfilling one’s potential. But does he advocate only a potential for some good, or just any potential? A high-point in selling this idea was enunciated to the world on March 8 on International Women’s Day, when Biden stated that a woman cannot “fulfill her God-given potential” unless she has access to abortion-on-demand.

Biden, in his enthusiasm for promoting abortion, overlooked the God-given potential of the unborn child. Nor did he consider the rights and obligations of the child’s father. The pregnant woman was removed from the web of human interrelationships and treated, rather unrealistically, as a solitary being, a “solo entity” as professor John T. Noonan Jr, has characterized her.

The notion of the potential is too broad to serve as a moral category. We all have the potential for any number of crimes and follies. We should distinguish between the potentials that will benefit us from those that will be injurious to us. Fulfilling one’s potential is a highly ambiguous expression. The question arises: How do we distinguish between the good from the bad potentials?

First, we must replace the word “potential” with the word “inclination.” Our inclinations are precisely the potentialities that should be actualized. We all have plenty of potential, but what we need to affirm and develop are our “God-given” inclinations. Fulfilling any potential whatsoever is not exactly a humanizing activity. To become a tyrant fulfills a potential, but it does not affirm and develop an inborn inclination. It is in being faithful to our inclinations that we are humanized. 

We come into a world with an inclination toward life, a characteristic often referred to as a “life-preserving instinct.” This inclination is evident in the activities of all animals. In the absence of this inclination, human beings, as well as all other animals, would be inert, indifferent to choosing one thing over another. In the words of Jacques Maritain, “Any kind of thing existing in nature, a plant, a dog, a horse, has its own natural law, that is, the normalcy of its functioning, the proper way in which, by reason of its specific structure and specific ends, it ‘should’ achieve fullness of being either in its growth or in its behavior.” 

Another inclination, readily observable in babies, is to love and to receive love. Sigmund Freud, despite his many errors, had a genuine insight into the human condition when he stated that wealth does not make a person happy because it does not fulfill an infantile wish. A toddler, at his early age, has no desire to be rich.

We are also born with an inclination toward justice. A youngster playing a game will be quick to point out that his opponent is cheating. “That’s not fair,” he will protest vehemently. By insisting that the game being played fairly, he is being true to his natural inclination for justice.

We also have a natural inclination to seek truth and to know God. In general, we have a natural inclination or disposition to do good and to avoid evil. This deeply significant point is missing from naïvely fulfilling any potential whatsoever.

St. Thomas Aquinas uses these natural inclinations to organize the Natural Law, which is the objective basis for morality. The Natural Law is consistent with the fundamental structure or design of the human being that is a kind of blueprint for his authenticity.

According to the Natural Law, the killing of an innocent human being, which takes place during abortion, is an activity, rooted in one’s potential activities, which contradicts the basic inclinations of both the mother and the unborn child. Motherhood, in a given instance, may very well be the fulfillment of the inclination to love. To abandon one’s motherhood through abortion in order to fulfill certain potentials that are contrary to the Natural Law is the very essence of immorality.

We are dynamic creatures. Our natural inclinations are impulses or directives that help us to know who we are as loving, life-affirming, truth-seeking and God-aspiring beings. Whereas the range of natural inclinations is much smaller that the range of possibilities, it is the former which constitutes what we need. The latter can be a temptation to be what we are not meant to be. Our inclinations define and describe us; our potentialities can lead us astray. In addition, the Natural Law provides the basis for our fundamental moral rights. 

Numberless women have undergone induced abortion so that they could actualize other potentialities. But contravening the Natural Law, which essentially prescribes who we are, cannot be a path to improving one’s self. The Natural Law cannot be rejected for something for which we have no natural disposition. This helps to explain the well documented fact that a significant number of women experience deep regret after they have had an abortion.

It is profoundly sad that the current president of the United States seems to know nothing about the Natural Law, while promoting the fulfillment of a potential that is not in line with what is good for us. The notion that “anything goes” is, in the final analysis, self-destructive. 

Life is not a game. It has specific rules that are built into the fabric of the human being. These rules, so to speak, are the specific natural inclinations that dispose and urge a person to become fulfilled in a way that is in accord with his God-given destiny.