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  • Moral Experience and the Unconscious
  • Steven Groarke

In a fascinating paper, where the stakes are a good deal higher than the modesty of its tone might suggest, Edward Harcourt requires us to think again about the ethics of psychoanalysis. We should not allow ourselves to be misled by Harcourt's tendency to downplay the ambitious reach of his argument. Indeed, Lacan demonstrated what is at stake here by drawing attention to the "originality of the Freudian position in ethical matters" (1986/1992, p. 11). Lacan may be relied on, more obviously than anyone else I can think of in the Freudian field, as a counterweight to the assimilation of psychoanalysis to moral philosophy. A stenographer began to transcribe Lacan's seminars starting in 1952 and, reflecting on matters some 20 years later, Lacan claimed that "of all the seminars that someone else is going to bring out, [L'éthique de la psychanalyse (1959–1960)] is perhaps the only one I will rewrite myself and make into a written text" (1975/1998, p. 53). Clearly, Lacan considered the seminar important enough to warrant special attention and, in my view, it is one of the most significant psychoanalytical and philosophical works on ethics in the Freudian tradition, a counterpart, as Certeau (1986, p. 60) points out, to Freud's masterwork on religious history in Moses and Monotheism.

It is not surprising that Harcourt makes no mention of Lacan or L'éthique in an otherwise wide-ranging and eclectic paper. Unlike Harcourt, Lacan did not view the ethics of psychoanalysis of a piece with Aristotelian ethics, or with a style of ethical theory based on notions of arete, right habits, and a rational conception of the life of eudaimonia in which the good for human beings can be identified with reference to the nature of human experience. More pointedly, psychoanalysis on Lacan's reckoning is not a type of education in the excellence of character, and he certainly did not think that analysts needed a better theory of maturity. Rather, taking his bearings toward the real from Freud, he privileged the discipline of Ananke or necessity over the ends of virtue. As opposed to the defining continuities in Harcourt's argument regarding classical and psychoanalytic ethics, Lacan (1986/1992, p. 11) emphasized "the interval between Aristotle and Freud." On this view, which is one that I share, the Freudian interpretation may be counted as an ethical event, precisely, to the extent that the 'interval' provides an opening over against the tradition.

As far as I know, the vast majority of moral philosophers have shown little or no interest in psychoanalysis, although among those philosophers who have engaged seriously with psychoanalytic theory, John Cottingham (1998) is notable for allowing that the Freudian concept of the unconscious has profound implications for the ethical task of determining the conditions of human fulfillment. If, as Cottingham (1998, p. 140) argues, "we take the central problem of moral philosophy to be that of how we should live our lives to the full…then psychoanalytic theory uncovers a fundamental flaw in the idea that we can reach that [End Page 137] goal by the application of a rationally laid plan." Lionel Trilling (1951) spoke in the same vein for variousness and possibility, for the potentialities of life, against a narrowing of mind modeled on the use we make of it in everyday, organizational tasks. The same holds for Cottingham as for Trilling and Lacan: psychoanalysis announces and inaugurates a new discourse on the human predicament. And developing requisite habits of virtue on the Aristotelian model of ethics, for instance, does not meet the fundamental Freudian challenge that there is something in the human psyche, an irreducible tendency to self-disruption (Lear, 2000), which repeatedly resists the principle of reason. Lacan (1973/1977, p. 33) insisted more vociferously, perhaps, than anyone else that the "status of the unconscious … is ethical." Nevertheless, he maintained that the logic of the unconscious cannot be stated in the vocabulary of traditional moral philosophy. Although the moral philosopher, at best, aims at finding ways in which we can rationally agree about what matters, the unconscious is precisely that about which we want to know...


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pp. 137-142
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