Ethics and Psychoanalysis

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Ethics concerns mores: human moral attitudes in general and, more specifically, rules of behavior and their justifications. This system of rules attributes values to behaviors by judging them to be good or bad according to their intrinsic moral qualities or their concrete social consequences. For Freud, ethics takes up where totemism and taboos leave off, and constitutes the basis of all religion.

In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a [1929]), Freud noted, "The cultural super-ego has developed its ideals and set up its demands. Among the latter, those which deal with the relations of human beings are comprised under the heading of ethics" (p. 142).

As early as the Studies on Hysteria (1895a), Freud analyzed hysterical conversion symptoms as the result of a conflict between patients' erotic thoughts and moral ideals. The adjective "ethical," ethisch in German, appeared for the first time in 1898 in "Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neuroses." In that essay, Freud raised the question of whether physicians have the right to intrude into the sexual lives of their patients and whether their "ethical duty" might not be "to keep away from the whole business of sex" (p. 264).

The notion of ethics in Freud's work refers primarily to those moral ideals in the name of which individuals renounce any instinctual impulses that are irreconcilable with the narcissistic ideals of the ego. These ideals are based on images of loved objects and the esteem of the superego. For Freud, the symptoms of the transference neuroses were substitutes for the remains of old loves that were forbidden by morality.

The reign of "civilized morality" begins when the drives are renounced. This forms the basis of religion and culture. Yet when individuals renounce the drives, they are deprived of the sexual and aggressive satisfactions demanded by the id, and so run the risk of neurosis.

This traditional conception of ethics is emphasized when the German word Ethik is translated as morals or morality. In what Angélo Hesnard calls "the morbid universe of guilt," the unconscious feelings of guilt that cause neurotic symptoms do not relate to the material reality of the patient's actions. Neurotic patients are guilty only of their secret intentions. The psychic reality of the forbidden and repressed wishes of "the child that is in man" (Freud, 1910a [1909], p. 36) is accessible to us by dream interpretation and is realized in the course of analytic treatment in the love/hate relationship of the transference. And yet, by reawakening the demons banished by morality, does not psychoanalysis run the risk of destroying the very foundations of culture, which always demands sacrifices of the individual?

This question leads to another conception of ethics, one that is specific to psychoanalysis. The ethics of psychoanalysis is a consequence of how its practice implements its method and rules. Psychoanalysis does not aim to make the individual adapted to his or her environment. In other words, it does not serve the good; rather, it seeks the truth. When Freud recommended that physicians not give in to the amorous advances of their patients, he was giving voice less to traditional morality than to a psychoanalytic ethics conceived in terms of the requirements of a praxis founded on a method. The patient, by engaging in transference love, aggravated by a resistance to remembering, aims to reduce the analyst to a lover. The analyst is ethically bound not to respond, because he does not mistake the transference for true love. He wants to frustrate the analysand's love so that it can be analyzed. Otherwise, the analyst would become allied with the resistance. Here moral motives converge with psychoanalytic technique.

This psychoanalytic notion of ethics serves philosophical, religious, and moral causes. In Moses and Monotheism (1939a), Freud showed that ethics originates in "a sense of guilt felt on account of a suppressed hostility to God" (p. 134). Using Judaism, he returned to the myth of the murder of the father that he developed in Totem and Taboo (1912-1913a). Freud argued that people have always known that at one time they had a primitive father (which in religion becomes the godhead) and that they put him to death. The resulting "nostalgia for the father" reflected an insatiable need to appease a sense of guilt by changing the father's prohibitions into ethical obligations. When sons ingest the dead father's body, they come to identify with someone whom they simultaneously love and hate. Thus, the dead father becomes the superego, demanding self-sacrifice. When the subject obeys the superego and renounces his sexual and aggressive impulses, he can both hate and love the parental authority within himself.

Freud revealed the role that masochism and narcissism play when the drives are reined in by ethics. A subject who suffers by sacrificing his or her desires to the supposed demands of the Other feels loved and chosen by this Other while unconsciously reproaching the Other for sadism.

Jacques Lacan discussed how the death drive functions in the dialectic between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. He began by declaring the prohibition of incest to be the only universal law. All other rules of morality are merely historical and cultural variations of this law. Desire for the mother can never be satisfied, even after the murder of the deterring father, because acting out incest would cause the social order to collapse. For this reason, the "naturalist liberation" of pleasure fails (Lacan, p. 4), jouissance remains forbidden, and the prohibition is reinforced by the work of mourning. The human condition is tragic because the more the subject renounces pleasure, the more his superego demands greater sacrifices. Nevertheless, the superego is necessary to produce the economy of pleasure and to introduce desire into the world of symbolic mediation.

In the character of Antigone, Lacan found an incarnation of a "pure and simple desire for death" (p. 282). This "raw," "inflexible" "kid" (pp. 250, 263) opposes the ethics of the good, represented by Creon. With her sacrifice, Antigone becomes the pure and simple relation between being human and "the break introduced by the presence of language in the human life" (p. 279). The result is that "when an analysis is carried through to its end the subject will encounter the limit in which the problematic of desire is raised" (p. 300).

Jacques Lacan emphasized the human subject's debt to language in becoming human and thus proposed a psychoanalytic ethic that did not concern itself with happiness and the good. The idealization of the figure of Antigone produced a Hegelian imperative to "pure action" that could conceivably be added to or substituted for traditional ethico-religious ideals. What Patrick Guyomard refers to as "the enjoyment of the tragic" must give way to the specific requirements of psychoanalytic work, a work of mourning that, according to Conrad Stein, leads to a "crossing of the tragic." Thus the ethics of psychoanalysis is a consequence of its specific method.


See also: Boundary violations; Criminology and psychoanalysis; Judgment of condemnation; Kantianism and psychoanalysis; Seminar, Lacan's; Transgression; Truth. Bibliography

   * Freud, Sigmund. (1898a). Sexuality in the aetiology of the neuroses. SE, 3: 259-285.
   * ——. (1910a [1909]). Five lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 11: 7-55.
   * ——. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.
   * ——. (1930a [1929]). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.
   * ——. (1939a). Moses and monotheism: Three essays. SE, 23: 1-137.
   * Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1895a). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.
   * Guyomard, Patrick. (1992). La jouissance du tragique: Antigone, Lacan et le désir de l'analyste. Paris: Aubier.
   * Lacan, Jacques. (1997). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book 7: The ethics of psychoanalysis (1959-1960) (Dennis Porter, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1986)
   * Stein, Conrad. (1995). La traversée du tragique en psychanalyse.Études freudiennes, 35, 33-48.