Ethics and Psychoanalysis - Humanistic Ethics: The Applied Science of the Art of Living

Man for Himself: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Ethics - Erich Fromm 2013

Ethics and Psychoanalysis
Humanistic Ethics: The Applied Science of the Art of Living

From the foregoing it is, I think, apparent that the development of a humanistic-objectivistic ethics as an applied science depends on the development of psychology as a theoretical science. The progress from Aristotle’s to Spinoza’s ethics is largely due to the superiority of the tatter’s dynamic to the former’s static psychology. Spinoza discovered unconscious motivation, the laws of association, the persistence of childhood experiences through life. His concept of desire is a dynamic concept, superior to Aristotle’s “habit.” But Spinoza’s psychology, like all psychological thought up to the nineteenth century, tended to remain abstract and established no method for testing its theories by empirical investigation and exploration of new data concerning man.

Empirical inquiry is the key concept of Dewey’s ethics and psychology. He recognizes unconscious motivation, and his concept of “habit” is different from the descriptive habit concept of traditional behaviorism. His statement18 that modern clinical psychology “exhibits a sense for reality in its insistence upon the profound importance of unconscious forces in determining not only overt conduct but desire, judgment, belief, idealization” shows the importance he attributes to unconscious factors even though he did not exhaust all possibilities of this new method in his theory of ethics.

Few attempts have been made either from the philosophical or from the psychological side to apply the findings of psychoanalysis to the development of ethical theory,19 a fact that is all the more surprising since psychoanalytic theory has made contributions which are particularly relevant to the theory of ethics.

The most important contribution, perhaps, is the fact that psychoanalytic theory is the first modern psychological system the subject matter of which is not isolated aspects of man but his total personality. Instead of the method of conventional psychology, which had to restrict itself to the study of such phenomena as could be isolated sufficiently to be observed in an experiment, Freud discovered a new method which enabled him to study the total personality and to understand what makes man act as he does. This method, the analysis of free associations, dreams, errors, transference, is an approach by which hitherto “private” data, open only to self-knowledge and introspection, are made “public” and demonstrable in the communication between subject and analyst. The psychoanalytic method has thus gained access to phenomena which do not otherwise lend themselves to observation. At the same time it uncovered many emotional experiences which could not be recognized even by introspection because they were repressed, divorced from consciousness?20

At the beginning of his studies Freud was mainly interested in neurotic symptoms. But the more psychoanalysis advanced, the more apparent it became that a neurotic symptom can be understood only by understanding the character structure in which it is embedded. The neurotic character, rather than the symptom, became the main subject matter of psychoanalytic theory and therapy. In his pursuit of the study of the neurotic character Freud laid new foundations for a science of character (characterology), which in recent centuries had been neglected by psychology and left to the novelists and playwrights.

Psychoanalytic characterology, though still in its infancy, is indispensable to the development of ethical theory. All the virtues and vices with which traditional ethics deals must remain ambiguous because they often signify by the same word different and partly contradictory human attitudes; they lose their ambiguity only if they are understood in connection with the character structure of the person of whom a virtue or vice is predicated. A virtue isolated from the context of character may turn out to be nothing valuable (as, for instance, humility caused by fear or compensating for suppressed arrogance); or a vice will be viewed in a different light if understood in the context of the whole character (as, for instance, arrogance as an expression of insecurity and self-depreciation). This consideration is exceedingly relevant to ethics; it is insufficient and misleading to deal with isolated virtues and vices as separate traits. The subject matter of ethics is character, and only in reference to the character structure as a whole can value statements be made about single traits or actions. The virtuous or the vicious character, rather than single virtues or vices, is the true subject matter of ethical inquiry.

No less significant for ethics is the psychoanalytic concept of unconscious motivation. While this concept, in a general form, dates back to Leibniz and Spinoza, Freud was the first to study unconscious strivings empirically and in great detail, and thus to lay the foundations of a theory of human motivations. The evolution of ethical thought is characterized by the fact that value judgments concerning human conduct were made in reference to the motivations underlying the act rather than to the act itself. Hence the understanding of unconscious motivation opens up a new dimension for ethical inquiry. Not only “what is lowest,” as Freud remarked, “but also what is highest in the Ego can be unconscious”21 and be the strongest motive for action which ethical inquiry cannot afford to ignore.

In spite of the great possibilities which psychoanalysis provides for the scientific study of values, Freud and his school have not made the most productive use of their method for the inquiry into ethical problems; in fact, they did a great deal to confuse ethical issues. The confusion springs from Freud’s relativistic position, which assumes that psychology can help us to understand the motivation of value judgments but cannot help in establishing the validity of the value judgments themselves.

Freud’s relativism is indicated most distinctly in his theory of the Super-Ego (conscience). According to this theory, anything can become the content of conscience if only it happens to be part of the system of commands and prohibitions embodied in the father’s Super-Ego and the cultural tradition. Conscience in this view is nothing but internalized authority. Freud’s analysis of the Super-Ego is the analysis of the “authoritarian conscience” only.22

A good illustration of this relativistic view is the article by T. Schroeder entitled “Attitude of One Amoral Psychologist.”23 The author comes to the conclusion that “every moral valuation is the product of emotional morbidity—intense conflicting impulses—derived from past emotional experiences,” and that the amoral psychiatrist “will replace moral standards, values and judgments by the psychiatric and psycho-evolutionary classification of the moralist impulses and intellectual methods.” The author then proceeds to confuse the issue by stating that “the amoral evolutionary psychologists have no absolute or eternal rules of right or wrong about anything,” thus making it appear as if science did make “absolute and eternal” statements.

Slightly different from Freud’s Super-Ego theory is his view that morality is essentially a reaction formation against the evil inherent in man. He proposes that the child’s sexual strivings are directed toward the parent of the opposite sex; that in consequence he hates the parental rival of the same sex, and that hostility, fear, guilt thus necessarily spring from this early situation (Oedipus complex). This theory is the secularized version of the concept of “original sin.” Since these incestuous and murderous impulses are integral parts of man’s nature, Freud reasoned, man had to develop ethical norms in order to make social life possible. Primitively, in a system of taboos, and later on, in less primitive systems of ethics, man established norms of social behavior in order to protect the individual and the group from the dangers of these impulses.

However, Freud’s position is by no means consistently relativistic. He displays a passionate faith in truth as the aim toward which man must strive, and he believes in man’s capacity thus to strive since he is by nature endowed with reason. This anti-relativistic attitude is clearly expressed in his discussions of “a philosophy of life.”24 He opposes the theory that truth is “only the product of our own needs and desires, as they are formulated under varying external conditions”; in his opinion such an “anarchistic” theory “breaks down the moment it comes in contact with practical life.” His belief in the power of reason and its capacity to unify mankind and to free man from the shackles of superstition has the pathos characteristic of the Enlightenment philosophy. This faith in truth underlies his concept of psychoanalytic cure. Psychoanalysis is the attempt to uncover the truth about oneself. In this respect Freud continues the tradition of thought which, since Buddha and Socrates, believes in truth as the power that makes man virtuous and free, or—in Freud’s terminology—“healthy.” The aim of analytic cure is to replace the irrational (the id) by reason (the ego). The analytic situation may be defined from this standpoint as one where two people—the analyst and the patient—devote themselves to the search for truth. The aim of the cure is the restoring of health, and the remedies are truth and reason. To have postulated a situation based upon radical honesty within a culture in which such frankness is rare is perhaps the greatest expression of Freud’s genius.

In his characterology, too, Freud presents a non-relativistic position, although only by implication. He assumes that the libido development continues from the oral through the anal and to the genital stage, and that in the healthy person the genital orientation becomes predominant. Although Freud did not refer to ethical values explicitly, there is an implicit connection: the pregenital orientations, characteristic of the dependent, greedy, and stingy attitudes, are ethically inferior to the genital, that is, productive, mature character. Freud’s characterology thus implies that virtue is the natural aim of man’s development. This development can be blocked by specific and mostly extraneous circumstances and it can thus result in the formation of the neurotic character. Normal growth, however, will produce the mature, independent, productive character, capable of loving and of working; in the last analysis, then, to Freud health and virtue are the same.

But this connection between character and ethics is not made explicit. It had to remain confused, partly because of the contradiction between Freud’s relativism and the implicit recognition of humanistic ethical values and partly because, while concerned mainly with the neurotic character, Freud devoted little attention to the analysis and description of the genital and mature character.

The following chapter, after reviewing the “human situation” and its significance for character development, leads up to a detailed analysis of the equivalent of the genital character, the “productive orientation.”