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ethics (Èthique)

Lacan asserts that ethical thought 'is at the centre of our work as analysts' (S7, 38), and a whole year of his seminar is devoted to discussing the articulation of ethics and psychoanalysis (Lacan, 1959-60). 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 civilised morality. In his earlier work, Freud conceives of a basic conflict between the demands of 'civilised 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 expressed in perverse forms or repressed, the latter leading to neurosis. In Freud's view, then, civilised morality is at the root of nervous illness (Freud, 1908d). 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 (Freud, 1923b). 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 sources 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 guilty, or by attempting 'to soften, blunt or attenuate' his sense of guilt (S7, 3), or by analysing 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' (S7, 319). 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. Secondly, how is the analyst to respond to the pathogenic morality which acts via the superego? Freud's views of morality as a pathogenic force might seem to imply that the analyst simply has to help the analysand free himself from moral constraints. However, while such an interpretation may find some support in Freud's earlier work (Freud, 1908d), Lacan is firmly opposed to such a view of Freud, preferring the more pessimistic Freud of Civilization and Its Discontents (Freud, 1930a) and stating categorically that 'Freud was in no way a progressive' (S7, 183). Psychoanalysis, then, is not simply a libertine ethos. This seems to present the analyst with a moral dilemma. On the one hand, he cannot simply align himself with civilised morality, since this morality is pathogenic. On the other hand, nor can he simply adopt an opposing libertine approach, since this too remains within the field of morality (see S7, 3-4). The rule of neutrality may seem to offer the analyst a way out of this dilemma, but in fact it does not, for Lacan points out that there is no such thing as an ethically neutral position. The analyst cannot avoid, then, having to face ethical questions. An ethical position is implicit in every way of directing psychoanalytic treatment, whether this is admitted or not by the analyst. The ethical position of the analyst is most clearly revealed by the way that he formulates the goal of the treatment (S7, 207). For example the formulations of ego-psychology about the adaptation of the ego to reality imply a normative ethics (S7, 302). It is in opposition to this ethical position that Lacan sets out to formulate his own analytic ethic. The analytic ethic that Lacan formulates is an ethic which relates action to desire (see AcT). Lacan summarises it in the question 'Have you acted in conformity with the desire that is in you? (S7, 314). He contrasts this ethic with the 'traditional ethics' (S7, 314) of Aristotle, Kant and other moral philosophers on several grounds. Firstly, traditional ethics revolves around the concept of the Good, proposing different 'goods' which all compete for the position of the Sovereign Good. The psychoanalytic ethic, however, sees the Good as an obstacle in the path of desire; thus in psychoanalysis 'a radical repudiation of a certain ideal of the good is necessary' (S7, 230). The psychoanalytic ethic rejects all ideals, including ideals of 'happiness' and 'health'; and the fact that ego-psychology has embraced these ideals bars it from claiming to be a form of psychoanalysis (S7, 219). The desire of the analyst cannot therefore be the desire to 'do good' or 'to cure' (S7, 218). Secondly, traditional ethics has always tended to link the good to pleasure; moral thought has 'developed along the paths of an essentially hedonistic problematic' (S7, 221). The psychoanalytic ethic, however, cannot take such an approach because psychoanalytic experience has revealed the duplicity of pleasure; there is a limit to pleasure and, when this is transgressed, pleasure becomes pain (see JOUISSANCE). Thirdly, traditional ethics revolves around 'the service of goods' (S7, 314) which puts work and a safe, ordered existence before questions of desire; it tells people to make their desires wait (S7, 315). The psychoanalytic ethic, on the other hand, forces the subject to confront the relation between his actions and his desire in immediacy of the present. After his 1959-60 seminar on ethics, Lacan continues to locate ethical questions at the heart of psychoanalytic theory. He interprets the soll in Freud's famous phrase Wo es war, soll Ich werden ('Where id was, there ego shall be', Freud, 1933a: SE XXII, 80) as an ethical duty (E, 128), and argues that the status of the unconscious is not ontological but ethical (Sll, 33). In the 1970s he shifts the emphasis of psychoanalytic ethics from the question of acting ('Have you acted in accordance with your desireT) to the question of speech; it now becomes an ethic of 'speaking well' (l'Èthique du Bien-direy (Lacan, 1973a: 65). However, this is more a difference of emphasis than an opposition, since for Lacan to speak well is in itself an act. It is fundamentally an ethical position which separates psychoanalysis from SUGGESTION; psychoanalysis is based on a basic respect for the patient's right to resist domination, whereas suggestion sees such resistance as an obstacle to be crushed.