The Ethics of Self-Actualization

A new defense of individualism


Personal Destinies, by David L. Norton, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976, 398 pp., $22.50/$4.95

Decades of painstaking and sometimes agonizing work in philosophy prove to be worth it all when a book like David Norton's comes along. Moreover, this book proves that philosophy need by no means be a dry and bloodless affair. Philosophy—literally, love of wisdom—can be, as it is supposed to be, approachable by all. Norton's Personal Destinies addresses tough philosophical issues, yes; but it does much more. One is hard-pressed to think of any other recent or near-recent book that is scholarly yet speaks to laymen so directly, accessibly, and, as a great bonus, beautifully. There are some difficult parts, but no reader should expect a worthwhile book to read like pap that makes it to the "bestseller" list. Because of its personal relevance and Norton's comfort with words, Personal Destinies rewards the care it requires with enormous pleasure—with elation, even.


This is a book on ethics, one that speaks to each of us without preaching, yet with the capacity to teach if one but pays heed. The work develops the ethics of self-actualization, or eudaimonism. "Eudaimonism," as Norton explains, "is the term for the ethical doctrine…that each person is obliged to know and live the truth to his daimon [genius, or individual capacities and aptitudes], thereby progressively actualizing an excellence that is his innately and potentially."

This ethical doctrine received its first expression in the great Greek philosophers, but it today needs revitalization. As Norton explains why, we get a taste of his spirited prose and encouraging viewpoint.

Beneath the accretions of contravening epochs and cultures a vestige of the original eudaimonistic intuition endures today, I believe, in the individual's residual conviction of his own irreplaceable worth. But this small conviction is wholly unequipped to withstand the drubbing it takes from the world, and from which all too often it never recovers. At its first appearance it is buffeted by alarms and commotion, and trampled beneath the scurrying crowd. Propped upright it is conscripted to this cause or that where roll call is "by the numbers," truth is prescribed, and responsibility is collective, the individual's share being determined by arithmetic apportionment. What remains is a merely numerical individuation, deriving its fugitive worth from the collective whole of which it is a replaceable part.

So Norton sets out to resurrect individualism, saving it from the funeral for which it has been scheduled over and over again.

The thesis Norton defends isn't brand new: the ultimacy of good, right, responsibility, and other ethical ideas lies in the potential for development of the abilities, talents, and expressions of individual persons. People don't have potentials to express themselves in the same actual way, so goodness does not lie in what each does in particular but in the actualizing of whatever each is best suited for. Though not a new idea, Norton transforms it into a consistently woven fabric, with new patterns that meet much of the criticism heaped upon its earlier forms.


Norton first travels the history of ideas so as to show us where notions similar to his have failed. Here he discusses some philosophers not popularly known and others who are the layman's only link to what philosophers are about. (Jean-Paul Sartre, known as the major Existentialist thinker, is among the latter.)

Then Personal Destinies confronts the big task, the only segment of the book that is really tough sledding. To pave the way for talking about the myriad directions available in human life, Norton sets out a metaphysics of genuine possibilities. "It is philosophy," he notes,"—and pre-eminently metaphysics—that apprehends alternatives to whatever happens presently to exist…[and therefore] affords ultimate exemplification of human freedom." Thus does Norton explain the necessity of this difficult section on the metaphysics of self-actualization. It is not forbidding, though; rather it is a tribute to his instructive ability in presenting the vast bulk of his book with the lucidity and style of a novel.

Now Norton turns to the most directly relevant task—the development of the concrete ethical implications of individualism. His discussion of the stages of human life is perhaps his most exciting and challenging contribution to self-actualization ethics. Here he follows the psychological lead of Jung and Erikson but goes far beyond them. Childhood, adolescence, maturity, old age—these are the stages of one's life, each with its own principle of self-actualization. Childhood is absorption guided by external authority; adolescence, an insecure search for one's own aptitudes, or potencies; maturity, a striving to express those potencies; and old age, a realization that one has no future. Full individualism is experienced in maturity, where performance is the objective measure of self-actualization and felt striving is the subjective measure of potencies within. By differentiating stages of life, Norton opens our eyes to moral truth that we have always felt facing us but that we have been unable to articulate.


Does individualism reduce to a dog-eat-dog world of conflicting self-actualizers? That it must, is the most persistent charge leveled at such an ethics. Norton meets this charge by wedding the individual psychology of his system and a theory of the social act. This is a brilliant move, dismissing once and for all the haunting bugaboo that the self and society are by necessity in eternal conflict.

A human being becomes conscious of itself as a self only in social interaction with others. One's knowledge of one's selfhood emerges concomitantly with the knowledge of others as selves. Thus a self has as part of itself the direct recognition of many feelings, meanings, and potencies of others. This automatically involves a self-actualizing individual in the promotion of others' development as part of his own.

Instead of the dog-eat-dog caricature advanced by anti-individualists, we have a social theory of complementarity. Individual differences in life aims and styles are not ranked from inferior to superior; complementarity based on mutual appreciation can replace conflict based on hierarchical antagonisms. Self-esteem and social worth are to correspond to productive performance in actualizing one's potencies. Of course, failures can generate conflict, but the charge has always been that interpersonal conflict is inherent in the best of individualist systems.

This brings up what Norton has to contribute to the contemporary fray in political theory. A section of Personal Destinies is devoted to the egalitarian/redistributive thought of John Rawls and the libertarian thought of Robert Nozick (and Norton is at work on a more comprehensive treatment of social and political philosophy). Here he has the upper hand over Rawls and Nozick, for his theory is directly applicable to our ongoing social experience. Whereas Nozick and Rawls return, conceptually, to square one to begin again—Nozick with his utopian framework, Rawls with his veil of ignorance and "original position"—Norton's theory requires only evolutionary change starting from the present position.

With its potential applications to experience, this theory is extremely useful. It yields a coherent perspective in numerous areas of concern to us. It also displaces some of the more loyally embraced pet theories of our times. As an example of the theory's fruitfulness, let's look at the general social panorama and see how we can extend the theory.


Western civilization is now largely a mass culture: city life, media, production, transportation, health services, education—in short, all our institutions—are geared to extremely large numbers of people. Norton wants to make individual self-actualization more and more prevalent by a reordering among and within these institutions. Though self-actualizing can and sometimes does occur within mass society, such a society is geared, not to the self-actualization of autonomous individuals, but only to the routines of numerically identifiable units. Given this harsh reality, the task of social reorientation Norton calls for is staggering. His vision, however, is plausible, while other alternatives seem less than possible. He does not suggest that government could bring about the reorientation. Within the spirit of his thesis, the most that government could do would be to inform and educate in a noncompulsory way.

If any factor crucially underlies the problems of Western society, it is over-expectation. Politicians, Madison Avenue, credit institutions, and educators have cultivated the belief that everyone has an immediate right to this, that, and the other. The simple fact is that there simply is not and cannot be nearly enough material goods, medical treatment, service time, capital, expertise, access to information, defense deterrence, concern for fairness, sexual beauty, family devotion, or supportive love to go around at the incredible levels we have been led to expect.

Though Norton does not address this problem directly, his theory can explain why such a state of affairs has arisen, and that is the first test of the theory. If self-actualization is indeed the key to normative behavior, then our expectations register how much remains to be accomplished in any particular task. This guidance of present action by future expectations is the greatest strength in human behavior. But, a point of greatest strength is always a point of greatest vulnerability; so the present widespread malaise of society can be interpreted within Norton's theory as a dysfunction of the expectation mechanism. All people have unidentified yearnings (which Norton takes to be natural signs of striving for self-actualization) that politicians and advertisers prey upon to turn into insatiable cravings. Norton's theory is virtually able to predict over-expectation when technological success is grafted over a future-oriented mass society.


Not only can Norton's theory explain why we are caught in the present thicket of social troubles, but it points a way out. For he develops the idea of reconstructing our pasts. A person's expectations are largely a function of the kind of self-image he has, drawn from what he considers his past successes and failures to be. Self-actualization, as Norton sees it, would have each person reinterpret his own past in terms of personal success—the accomplishment of goals relative to his own abilities and potencies, and not judged by exterior standards of perfection glamor, wealth, and power. Such a reassessment of one's past would be a psychological base from which to project reasonable expectations of one's own future.

Another theoretical notion of Norton's is valuable for breaking the vicious circle of increasing over-expectation: opening our eyes to possibilities that can become the source of inner satisfactions and appreciations. The realm of possibilities that can become real potencies is much wider than most people dream of in their everyday philosophies. Coming awake to this would sensitize people toward avenues that might be theirs to travel and would heighten the appreciation of others' complementary potentialities.

We see, then, that Norton's ethical theory is compelling in somewhat the same way as a successful scientific theory. Of course, here, the appeal is to verification in moral experience. There are some difficulties, however, in applying this theory realistically to people statistically distributed over various degrees of self-actualization. Norton touches on some of these and not on others. Among the difficulties are the following: the need for continual education of everyone for the appreciation of complementary values; the psychological inclination toward gregariousness that breeds a herd mentality among men; compulsiveness in performance; and the presumption that there will be enough people who can actualize themselves by doing all the tedious and grungy work that needs doing.


No single book can tackle all these problems nor even most of them in great detail. It is to Norton's credit that his treatise can stimulate such interest to pursue its implications. He fully recognizes that he will have accomplished what he wanted if he provokes serious thought along these lines.

In Personal Destinies, Norton has preserved the basic thrust of the ethics of individual self-actualization as propounded throughout philosophical history. He has achieved preservation by a remarkable transformation. Those with an impulse toward such an ethical thrust, in whole or in part, should not rest easy till they have worked through Norton's transformed rendition. The resulting satisfaction is more than worth the effort—an effort that is in itself an intellectual delight. On the other hand, those who attempt to refute self-actualizing individualism will from now on have to take Norton into account.

Professor Lee teaches philosophy at Tulane University. He is widely published in scholarly journals.