From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
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Lacan asserts that ethical thought "is at the center of our work as analysts,"[1] and a whole year of his seminar is devoted to discussing the articulation of ethics and psychoanalysis.[2]

Simplifying matters somewhat, it could be said that ethical problems converge in psychoanalytic treatment from two sides: the side of the analysand and the side of the analyst.

on the side of the analysand is the problem of guilt and the pathogenic nature of civilized morality.

In his earlier work, Freud conceives of a basic conflcit between the demands of "civilized morality" and the essentially amoral sexual drives of the subject.

When morality gains the upper hand in this conflict, and the drives are too strong to be sublimated, sexuality is either express in perverse forms or repressed, the latter leading to neurosis.

In Freud's view, then, civilized morality is at the root of nervous illness.[3]

Freud further developed his ideas on the pathogenic nature of morality in his theory of an unconscious sense of guilt, and in his later concept of the superego, an interior moral agency which becomes more cruel to the extent that the ego submits to its demands.[4]

On the side of the analyst is the problem of how to deal with the pathogenic morality and unconscious guilt of the analysand, and also with the whole range of ethical problems that may arise in psychoanalytic treatment.

These two soruces of ethical problems pose different questions for the analyst:

Firstly, how is the analyst to respond to the analysand's sense of guilt? Certainly not by telling the analysand that he is not really guilt, or by attempting "to soften, blunt or attenuate" his sense of guilt,[5] or by analyzing it away as a neurotic illusion. On the contrary, Lacan argues that the analyst must take the analysand's sense of guilt seriously, for at bottom whenever the analysand feels guilty it is because he has, at some point, given way on his desire. "From an analytic point of view, the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one's desire."[6] Therefore, when the analysand presents him with a sense of guilt, the analyst's task is to discover where the analysand has given way on his desire.


  1. S7 38
  2. Lacan 1959-60
  3. Freud 1908d
  4. Freud 1923b
  5. s7, 3
  6. S7, 319