Psychoanalysis substantially changes our conception of ethics and the problematic of ethics, for it raises the question of moral psychology and what is going on when we violate an ethical principle. Within a psychoanalytic framework, it’s no longer enough to suppose that violation of an ethical principle is simply a failure of will arising from being overcome by our passions and appetites. No, what the discovery of the unconscious suggests is that these violations might, in fact, arise from unconscious desires that condemn us to repeat despite what we might consciously wish. As a consequence, we can no longer be strictly Epicurean, Stoic, Kantian, nor utilitarian. No, we must also take into account the dynamics of the unconscious– not to mention the death drive –and what that is speaking within us.
However, here we must proceed with caution. We might think that what psychoanalysis teaches, like Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals, is that our ethical principles and aims really embody a dirty secret. Freud taught us to discern sex, libido, in things that on the surface would appear remote from desire. As Deleuze and Guattari put it– and in some respects they’re more Freudian than Lacan (but that’s a story for another day) –the bureaucrat is literally getting off with his filing systems, his procedures, his forms, and his regulations, despite the fact that no sexual organs are involved whatsoever. There is a libidinal component here, even though there seems to be none. In this regard, we might also think of the character of the Catholic albino priest in The Da Vinci Code who cruelly flagellates himself in his religious ritual. At the surface level we see a ritual designed to emulate the Passion of Christ, to show his humility, and thereby show his devotion to God. Freud, however, showed us that this too is a way of getting off, of achieving jouissance through indirect means. Even the asexual has found a way of getting off. The lesson is that sex and libido are not to be found in the organs.
From this we might conclude that the teaching of psychoanalysis is that all ethical principles are, in reality, techniques for satisfying violations of ethical principles in the name of a forbidden satisfaction; or that psychoanalysis teaches a sort of Hegelian speculative identity like the thesis that “the spirit is a bone”, whereby ethical action is, in fact, unethical action. In short, we might conclude that all ethical action is, in reality, at the level of the unconscious, motivated by something other than the ethical, or a violation of the ethical. For example, one might argue that acts of altruism are, in fact, passive aggressive actions premised on a sadistic desire to master those in unfortunate positions, such that they aren’t altruistic at all.
While this is certainly a dimension of the psychoanalytic discovery, the core psychoanalytic discovery is perhaps far more disturbing. As someone, somewhere says– the reference escapes me at the moment –psychoanalysis teaches that we are simultaneously less (as above) and more ethical than we might suspect. It is the “more ethical” that is truly disturbing, for what psychoanalysis teaches is that we cannot escape the truth of our being. The ethical code– here I construe it loosely as whatever cultural ethics happens to interpellate us in the course of our development –structures our unconscious and desire, and is, in a certain sense, inescapable. Put differently, the truth always comes out in some form (a symptom), regardless of how hard we try to flee it. If this is the case, then it is because, as Freud argued, repression is never absolute, but is always accompanied by a return of the repressed in the form of a symptom or parapraxes. In other words, where the “moral law” is installed in our unconscious, transgression of that law– whatever it might be for that individual –will return in the form of a symptom.
Adrian Johnston articulates this point well in his co-authored book with Catherine Malabou, Self and Emotional Life. Criminal activity, he reminds us, might not be a transgression of the individual’s ethical law drawn from culture at all, but might be in fact the way in which that individual creates circumstances to get him or herself punished for a violation of some other unconscious ego ideal (those identifications around which the subject organizes her ego) or ethical principle (rational or irrational). The subject here carries a sense of unconscious guilt– so well described by Zizek in his analysis of Angel Heart in Tarrying With the Negative –that he strives to appease by creating scenarios in which he gets himself punished for his transgression. Here unconscious desire is this desire for punishment.
If this is true, then an ethics that I would describe as Pauline is suggested. Saint Paul distinguished between an ethics of the law and an ethics of love. The ethics of law, Paul says (and here I don’t have time to track down the references in Romans), mortifies and kills. He says that it is precisely because of the [moral] law that we are sinful. This is because, in his view (as a master psychologist), the law creates the desire for what it prohibits (whether only in thought or in real action). Think about when you try to abstain (a law you’ve imposed on yourself) and how suddenly the act of abstaining creates an unbearable desire for what it prohibits (as in the case of a diet). Love, relinquishing law, would be a beyond to this mortifying logic that kills us in the endless repetition of the symptom or the return of the repressed.
But what might that beyond characterized by love be? We’re never really told. However, the foregoing gloss on psychoanalysis and ethics suggests a possibility. Rather than condemning the person for their violation of whatever cultural ethical code they happen to violate (as in the case of criminality), love might instead see these violations as indexes of the subject’s betrayal of the truth of their being (the ethical code/desire that animates their unconscious). As in Johnston’s portrayal, the criminal act would be a “manifest content” (in the sense Freud describes in the dreamwork) that creates circumstances to get oneself punished for the violation of that ethical code and ego ideal. Rather than focusing on punishment and law, an ethics of love would instead aim at assisting the other in uncovering the truth of their being so that they might embrace it and live it, rather than fleeing from it. It would assist in helping the other to make those difficult and resolute decisions– which are often costly in personal relationships –so as to more directly live the desire that they are, what their truth is, or what is ownmost to their being. In the end, psychoanalysis argues that the truth always catches us, that we can’t flee it. We can choose to embrace it in the form of a symptom such as alcoholism, or directly though it might be difficult.