The term “self-realization theories” is used to designate ethical theories that see some form of self-realization as the ultimate good. It is appropriate to include here certain stances taken within humanistic psychology which see “self actualization” or “realizing one’s full potential” as appropriate goals for all of humanity.
Aristotle’s theory of ethics is one of those classified as a self-realization theory. The points of agreement between Aristotle’s theory and the theory presented in this book, which are quite substantial, have already been indicated. However, the theory of Doing the Most Good presented here is in rather vehement disagreement with certain notions that are favored by many humanistic psychologists and psychotherapists.
The first point of disagreement concerns the idea of “self-esteem.” There may be some people who have been told that they are worthless by abusive parents and who can therefore benefit from being told that they are not worthless. However, most people get their sense of self-worth from their own recognition of their own abilities. They continually discover new things that they can do. Having other people recognize one’s abilities certainly helps, but even then the help comes primarily from strengthening and confirming one’s own recognition of one’s abilities, not from the fact of being praised.
Second, the notion of “realizing one’s full potential” is regarded as quite misleading, since a person’s potential is something that does not exist in any objective way. It is only in our imaginations that any of us can make good estimates of what someone else may accomplish in life. Nearly everyone makes important choices without knowing very well how the various alternatives might turn out. Sometimes things turn out well, sometimes not. We might meet the right person at the right time. We might also meet someone who changes our life much for the worse. Life involves risks and unpredictability.
Third, there is the idea that “one must love oneself.” Clearly it is not good to continually punish oneself, not good to deliberately make bad choices, not good to create obstacles for oneself. It is also true that it is good to care about one’s own well-being and about one’s reputation, if one can care without caring too much. People need to be critical of their own progress in developing competencies and critical of how well they have applied their abilities to benefit others. People need to be aware of their own virtues and vices. They need to have plans for contributing to the betterment of someone or some segment of society. None of this implies that anyone needs to feel good about him- or herself. People only need to feel good about their achievements. They need to have hope for themselves. They need fortitude. If they lack hope or fortitude they need to look for ways of building up their hope or fortitude.
Fourth, there is the notion of “having a sense of identity.” Certainly, everyone needs to be aware of their relationships with the persons and groups in their immediate environment and some of the more distant ones. They also need to be aware of some of their own personality traits, of their abilities and their inabilities, their strengths and weaknesses. But this awareness is not an end in itself. Its usefulness lies in providing a framework in which plans of action can be made.
A psychotherapist may be able to help a client achieve self-esteem or a sense of identity, but the value of these things come from their helping a person contribute to the well-being of society. Ultimately psychological health consists of being able to formulate and carry out short-term and long-terms plans for acquiring and utilizing abilities in collaboration with others and for the benefit of others besides oneself and one’s collaborators.