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The Subject of Ethics

The Letter, Issue 14, Autumn 1998, Pages 3 - 26


William J. Richardson

It was the time of the Lie. The following reflection was born in the moment when an entire nation held its breath in anticipation of its President testifying before a Grand Jury about an alleged denied of an alleged sexual liaison with a White house intern in a pre-trial deposition concerning another alleged sexual liaison (also denied), and allegedly encouraging the intern in question to lie about it. To ask about the subject of ethics under these circumstances was to ask about what was most deeply at stake in the whole unhappy brouhaha.

Arthur Schlessinger, Jr., had claimed in an Op Ed piece in the New York Times[1] that 'every gentleman lies about his sex life. Only a cad would tell the truth.' It may be so, but this is not an ethical issue - it is a sociological one. On August 14th the national press reported that the President's advisors were designing a strategy by which he would admit the liaison but deny that he had encouraged the intern to lie about it. Shrewd enough, perhaps, but this was not an ethical issue. It was a political issue, perhaps, or at most a legal issue, but had nothing to do with ethics. The previous week's New Yorker had carried a fine article by Jeffrey Rosen entitled The Perjury Trap, in which he distinguished eight different kinds of 'lie,' including: kidding, exaggeration, fudging, half- truth, bent facts, white lies, falsehood, and perjury.[2] But this was not the ethical issue either. For Rosen it was another version of the legal issue. But it does imply an ethical issue. For the ethical issue is: ought a human being - or ought he not - abstain from lying under any circumstance? If he ought, then the ethical question becomes: why? If he ought not, then Rosen's spectrum of 'lies' from kidding to perjury suggests a way to differentiate various modalities of a ’lie1and differentiate accordingly the various levels of 'ought* that may pertain to them. Ethics is all about Ought.

Psychologists/psychoanalysts clearly have their own kind of Ought. On April 19th, 1998, the front page of the Sunday Metro section of the New York Times, bore a bold headline that read: Child Psychiatrist and Pedophile, with the subhead: His Therapist Knew but Didn't Tell; a Victim Is Suing. The ethical question: ought he have told? The essential facts:

Denny Almonte (21) is the son of struggling immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic. When he was 10 years old, abnormally depressed and troubled by suicide thoughts, he was brought by his parents to Connecticut State Hospital for treatment. There he was sexually molested by a Dr. Joseph De Masi, a 31 year old resident in child psychiatry on a 4-month hospital rotation at that time. Now 21 years old, Amante is bringing suit against New York Medical College, where De Masi was trained, and against Dr. Douglas Ingram, De Masi's therapist while in training, who was aware of De Masi's pederastic tendencies at the time. The suit holds New York Medical College liable for having failed to supervise and evaluate De Masi properly, and Dr. Ingram liable for having failed to inform the proper authorities of the latent danger De Masi presented to the children he was preparing to treat. The case will be heard in the First District Court in Bridgeport, and the trial is scheduled to begin September, 1998.[3]

The family argues that Dr. Ingram had an obligation to oppose New York Medical College's approval of De Masi as a child psychiatrist, because, although he was De Masi's therapist, he had a special responsibility toward the College inasmuch as he was, when the treatment began, also member of the Faculty of the College, whose consensual approval of De Masi's qualification to be a child psychiatrist would be decisive. Moreover, there was more than one way to make such opposition effective without revealing privileged information about the patient.

Dr. Ingram, of course, sees the matter differently, and he is no naive apprentice. He finished a term as President of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis in 1998, has been editor of the American Journal of Psychoanalysis and is leader of a Manhattan Task Force on psychiatry and confidentiality for the American Psychiatric Association. He reports in his deposition that when De Masi first reported pederastic tendencies in 1986, he immediately terminated formal psychoanalysis of the patient on the grounds that psychoanalysis is incompatible with unrepentant pederasty (szc) but continued a more generalised psychotherapy with the purpose of challenging his thinking, managing distress and trying to make sure that he did not act out his desires. For his part, De Masi continued to defend these desires, presenting Dr. Ingram with a dubious study that presumably proved that children were not harmed by sex with adults. And besides, what about the Greeks? They survived, even flourished, and they did it all the time. Dr. Ingram took all this to be a sign of progress, inasmuch as De Masi was at last reflecting on the issue 'intellectually,' etc. Dr. Ingram claims to have 'agonised' over his decision, consulting both lawyers and several other psychiatrists for advice. In the end, though, he judged De Masi's pederastic interests to be rather a matter of 'attitude' than a plan for action, and did nothing to block his promotion

But where is the Ought in all this? How does it arise? Whence comes its force? What is its scope? How does it function in the conjunction of the many factors just mentioned: the intention of the agent in making a decision, the nature of decision-making process, and of the responsibility that follows from having made it? Such questions as these are the stuff of ethics. They are essentially reflective (some would call them ’philosophical') questions that probe the deeper sources of human activity in its very humanness. If 'theory' (from the Greek theorem, meaning to 'behold' or 'look at') means to take a look at things from a distance in order to see them more dearly, then ethics may be called a theoretical examination of human life in that activity involving the Ought that we have come to call 'moral'. Given the constraints of the present context, I propose to review, however sketchily, the general course that such theorising has taken over the years so as to understand more clearly the kind of challenge it poses for us today. Since the question about the 'ethics of psychoanalysis' has been brought into focus by Jacques Lacan in his seminar entitled, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1959-60),[4] 1 shall take as foci those philosophers of the tradition with regard to whose ethical thought Lacan has chosen to position his own ethical reflection, principally Aristotle and Kant. With this much to clarify what is meant by the subject of ethics in general, I shall then consider the 'ethics of psychoanalysis' in particular, asking whether this means something more than the application of general ethical norms to the problems of a specific profession ('professional' ethics, as it is called), and if so, how so.


The experience of Ought is much older than the word. Among the ruins of Pompeii there is a mural that portrays Agamemnon as he is about to sacrifice his daughter at Aulis. You will recall that, according to the myth, he is Head of State and General of the Armies whose responsibility it is to lead the Grecian assault against Troy. But the ships are becalmed and cannot move. Consultation with the seer informs him that the ships will remain becalmed until he offers his daughter, Iphegenia, as a human sacrifice to the gods in reparation for some ancestral sin. In the mural, Iphegenia is bound for the sacrifice and turns her eyes pleadingly to Agamemnon, begging for her life. Agamemnon refuses to meet her gaze and looks off into the distance, steeling himself for the decision he feels he has to make. For the Danish philosopher, Sdren Kierkegaard (1813-55), this mural serves as paradigm for every ethical dilemma. Agamnenon is bound by two forms of Ought that oppose each other: one obliges him as chief of state to expedite the liberation of his ships as efficiently as possible; another obliges him as father of his family to nurture the child he helped bring into the world and defend her from all harm. Yet choice between the two is necessary - it can not be evaded.

Kierkegaard stresses the difference between the ethical dilemma confronted by Agamemnon and the religious dilemma confronted by Abraham when commanded by God to offer up his only son Isaac in sacrifice. With Agamnenon, the decision and act are his own. For Abraham, the authorisation for the act comes from God; Abraham merely acquiesces to it in religious faith. Let that say that ethics is a specifically human enterprise whose only instruments are human reason, knowledge, language and honesty. Moral issues based on religious faith of any kind, together with the notion of 'sin,' ‘redemption,1etc. they often comport, are left to theologians and philosophers of religion to discuss.[5]

The moral sense dramatised so powerfully by Aeschylus (525-456 BC) and Sophocles (496-406 BC) in sixth and fifth century B.C. Athens was based on sheer intuition, unconscious if you will, into the nature of the human predicament. Ethics as we know it would have to wait for the reflections of the philosophers. First among these, was Socrates (469-399 BC). We know him best as gadfly to the Sophists, the spin-doctors of his day. Their function was to teach people to 'live well, that is, to 'do well in the law courts, trading and political structures of the thriving City-State. Socrates took as his task to sting them into clarity about some of the ethical notions they bantered about so easily, like piety, justice, and the like. But in the final days of his trial and its aftermath that preceded his death, it became evident that the deepest question for him personally was what it meant for a human being to 'live well' simply as human. His answer: 'To live well means the same thing as to live honorably or rightly'.[6] To keep asking this question is 'the best thing that a man can do'. Without such examination, 'life... is [simply] not worth living'.[7]

For Socrates, then, ethics meant asking about what it means to 'live well', that is, 'honourably and rightly', in the society in which he found himself—in other words, in a properly human way. In its essence, that is what ethics still means today. Everything turns around what we conceive a human being to be. But Socrates did little more than articulate the problem. It was Aristotle (384-322 BQ who addressed it formally, Aristotle who first elaborated ethics into a system that remains the baseline for all ethical thinking up to our own day.

Aristotle poses the question in his master work, the Nicomachean Ethics, named after his son, Nicomachus, who edited the text after his father's death. In approaching the question, Aristotle first makes it clear that ethics as he deals with it here, with the focus on individual human life, is only part of, and propaedeutic to, a much more comprehensive science which deals with human life in its social and political dimension, the science of politics, 'truly the master art'.[8] Let that say that every ethics worthy of the name implies a correlative political theory congruous with the social nature of the human phenomenon, even if it is impossible to retain that aspect of the problematic here.

For Aristotle to ask what it means for a human being to 'live well' is to ask what we want most out of life. Whatever it may be, Aristotle calls it a 'good', meaning by that something that 'suits' us or 'fits' us, hence, somehow 'right' for us and, to that extent, satisfying. What we want most and would find most satisfying, would be some supreme good, exceeding all others, of which all other goods are but a shadow or an anticipation. Specifically, what is it? Aristotle examines the obvious options (wealth? honour? pleasure?, etc. - pleasure is very nice, of course, but far too ephemeral to be considered supreme among the rest) and settles on what he calls eudaimonia (lit. to be blessed with a good daimon, that is, genius, or guiding spirit), which is normally translated 'happiness'. This is how he defines it:

Human good turns out to be activity of the spirit [for our purposes, understand this as 'self'] in accordance with excellence [that is, at the highest pitch of that activity, at its peak) and if there is more than one kind of excellence, in accordance with the best and most complete [of these]. But we must add 'in a complete life.' For one swallow does not make a summer.[9]

Aristotle has often been criticised for calling the supreme good for human beings 'happiness,' as if this were some fantasised pie in the sky when you die. But that misses the point completely. What human beings want most out of life, he claims, is some stable condition in which it is possible for them to flourish as being everything they can be, within the limits (that is, the risks and vulnerabilities) that are indigenous to human life as such.[10]

The nine books of the Nicomachean Ethics that follow analyse in detail how one ought to lead one's life in order to achieve this kind of fulfilment. Aristotle qualifies these excellences of the spirit as either 'intellectual' or 'ethical,' the first formal use of the word 'ethics' that we have. Here the word derives from the Greek ethos, meaning 'custom' or 'habit', in the sense of those habits that gradually form character in a human being. A lot happens here all at once: the Greek word for 'habit' (ethos) translates into Latin as mos, moris, giving us the word 'moral' (hence the confusing overlap between the words 'ethics' and 'morality' - Freud used the two terms interchangeably and we need not take time to insist upon a difference here), and the Greek word for 'excellence' (arete) translates into the Latin virtus, meaning 'strength', 'power'/’empowerment' giving us the English 'virtue'. Sometimes Aristotle’s ethics is referred to as a 'virtue' ethics, meaning that the power of Ought is mediated through the traction that these virtues/excellences/powers exercise in the self.[11]

At this point, Aristotle elaborates what he understands by moral excellence. First of all it is 'a stable state of character, that is, a permanent disposition, as opposed to spontaneous impulse or passing phase, like the blue' phase of a Picasso, which then may yield to a subsequent phase of development. Ithasthefollowingcharacteristics:

1. It includes the power of choice to perform a given action.

2. The appropriateness of this action is determined by a norm conceived as a mean between two kinds of extreme (that is, between excess and defect in the action itself): for example, for that tedious but de rigueur official reception, one ought not have too little to drink lest one appear unsociable, yet not too much either, lest one be thought a fool - just enough to wedge one’s way through the evening with a minimal amount of pain. Note the flexibility of such a norm: its measure is relative to the agent who discerns it here according to the circumstances that occasion the party, to one’s capacity to handle alcohol, to one's physical condition at the time (fatigued? empty stomach?), as well as to circumstances that are purely external (for example, one's status as the evening's 'designated driver').

3. This choice must be a rational one, passing muster before the court of human reason - before a logos, therefore, and Aristotle sometimes adds orthos, that is, upright reason, with all the rigor that that implies. Heidegger has called our attention to the fact that logos in Aristotle also means 'speech,' suggesting that Aristotle's definition of human being as zdon logon echon, normally translated 'an animal having reason' (that is, 'rational animal'), could also be translated 'animal having language' (that is, 'speaking animal'). This legitimates Lacan's reading of logos in this context as 'discourse'. In any case, ethics for Aristotle is the business of intelligence articulated in language, not simply of feeling or affect of any kind.

4. This reason must be such that a prudent man, the man whose wisdom in dealing with practical matters has been earned through long, hard years of experience, would concur with it. The opinions of the ‘best and the brightest' are not good enough here. What is needed is a fought for wisdom that is dearly won on the battlefield of life itself.

To gain a concrete (though maybe simplistic) sense of what Aristotle means by moral excellence, recall the story of the 'Unabomber'. By all accounts, the mother and father of the Kaczyinski boys were 'good enough' parents as measured by the standards of our time. Apparently they did their best to instil good habits in their sons. Both boys were bright (eventually each would take an Ivy League degree), both reflective and reserved in manner (though from the beginning Ted was the more withdrawn of the two). Despite the seven-year age difference, the two related fairly well to each other, sharing a love of nature and life in the wild, a disdain for the excesses of technology as threatening the destruction of mankind, and a compelling sense of justice.

After a successful stint as a high school English teacher, followed by several years as a solitary living close to nature in a desolate corner of Texas, David finally shaved, clipped his hair, pared his nails and returned to normal living in 1990. He trained as a social worker, married his high school sweetheart and became a counsellor to troubled adolescents in Albany, an unspectacular but well respected member of the community.

As for Ted, the seeds of the family training fell upon rocky soil. Despite brilliant promise as a mathematician, he became more and more alienated through his academic career that began at Harvard and ended at Berkeley. In 1970 he dropped out completely and withdrew into a hut built by himself in the recesses of the Montana forests. Except for occasional short trips to mail his bombs, there he remained until his capture in 1996.

In the summer of 1995, David's suspicions were aroused when newspaper reports surmised that the Unabomber had associations in Chicago, Berkeley and Salt Lake City - all places where he knew Ted had been. When the Unabomber's manifesto appeared in the New York Times, David could hear the echo of Ted's voice in peculiar turns of phrase, He brought his suspicions to Susan Swanson, childhood friend of his wife then working for a local detective firm. She engaged the help of Clinton Van Zandt, behavioural scientist and formerly the FBI's chief hostage negotiator, who ran a security consulting firm. He, in turn, engaged a psychiatrist and a linguist, and together the three compared the Unabomber's manifesto with two of Ted's earlier letters to his family. Their conclusion: a 60% probability that all 3 were the work of the same author. As further confirmation, two more communications specialists reviewed the material and raised the probability ratio to 80% - 90%. At that point, Swanson turned to Anthony Bisceglie, respected Washington attorney, who then in guarded fashion approached the FBI* A month later, he persuaded David to talk directly to the agents, who promised a discreet and unobtrusive investigation. We know the rest of the story.

Convinced that his brother was the Unabomber, David had several extreme options available: He could have remained completely silent out of visceral loyalty to his own flesh and blood ('My brother is my brother is my brother'). The other extreme could have been to go straight to the FBI on the first suspicion, with no precaution for his family’s privacy or heed to second thoughts, to stake a claim on the reward and hire an agent to negotiate the book contract. In fact he chose a mean between these two extremes, first by confirming his suspicions through a second, third, fourth, sixth and even seventh judgement (the issue was serious enough to warrant such care), then by seeking the discretion and mediation of the man of proven practical wisdom, a savvy Washington lawyer. Only then did he allow himself to be persuaded to reveal what he knew to the FBI. If one were to ask him why he did what he did, he might be surprised by the question. Whatever the pain and shame to his family and himself, the lives of other possible victims, and with them the common good of society at large, all of these were at stake - reason enough to motivate a man of true moral stature, as Aristotle conceives him to be.

As for the Unabomber himself, he, too, can be seen through Aristotelian eyes. However well intentioned by a sense of justice and justified anger at the abuses of technology, he chose a solution that was an extreme one, a mad one. Indicted and convicted, he nonetheless received a very Aristotelian sentence, for he was spared the death penalty. Aristotle saw very clearly that actions compelled from the outside, or proceeding from overwhelming passion or ignorance (here: insanity) do not proceed from an agent in a responsibly human way. A responsible choice is a deliberate choice. As Aristotle puts it: 'Choice will be a deliberate desire of things within our power; for when we have decided as a result of deliberation, we desire in accordance with our deliberation'.[12] By this standard, Ted Kasczynski's choice was not a properly deliberate one, hence he can not be held fully accountable for his action. The 'insanity defence' is as old as that, as valid today as it ever was and for a constantly Aristotelian reason.

Does Aristotle have anything to say about lying? Not very much. In discussing various kinds of virtue in Book IV, he speaks, among other things, of love for the truth. 'The lover of truth' he writes, 'eschews lying as [a] shameful [thing],' and, indeed, 'in itself' (kath auto) - I take him to mean, apart from any circumstances or motivation that might mitigate it.[13] If asked for comment on CNN, he might have wished for the sound-bite wit of a Samuel Johnson to be able to say: 'Even the devils themselves do not lie to one another, since the society of Hell could not subsist without truth anymore than the others'.[14] In any case, Aristotle's point presumably would have been the same.

What, then, may we retain as the essentials of Aristotelian ethics? At least this much:

1. The Ought for Aristotle is exercised through the power by which every human being strives toward the supreme good of being all one can be within the ineluctibie limits of one's finitude.

2. This implies that an ethical act is a specifically human act, in which one's essential humanity (including intelligence and power of choice) is at stake.

3. What constitutes the norm of human propriety is clearly 'situational'. It is discernible in a unique situation as a mean between extremes relative to a single individual agent, yet it escapes the arbitrary and approximates the universal to the extent that it is determined by right reason as confirmed by the judgement of the man of practical wisdom.

4. The ethical agent is responsible for his decisions and is to be held accountable for them.


If Aristotle is the most important ethical thinker of the ancient world, it is Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who holds that distinction for modernity. I take ’modernity' here to refer to that historical epoch that began in the sixteenth century when human attention shifted from focus on the external world of a theocentric universe to the subject's awareness of itself as fundamental reference point for all thought and action. We all know about the lightning-bolt effect of Descartes' discovery that an unshakeable ground of truth and certainty could be found in one's certainty about one's own existence as verified in the very questioning of it. This turn towards the subject reached its apogee two centuries later in what we know as the Enlightenment, and Kant was its brightest star.

Springboard of Kant's thought was his confrontation with the English philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), who argued that we can have no valid knowledge beyond what the evidence of sense impressions leaves us. What we call 'ideas' are representations of these impressions in the mind but fainter than they. Abstract or general ideas are clusters of individual ideas united by association with each other, but truly universal ideas, that is, one single meaning (for example, 'water') that can be predicated univocally of many inferiors, are impossible. Yet there was Isaac Newton (1642-1727) using universal ideas initially grounded in empirical data to formulate the universal and necessary laws of mechanics. Kant's challenge was to reconcile the apparent contradiction. This meant exploring on a much deeper level than Descartes had been able to do the fundamental structure of the human subject's power to know in the very roots of its possibility. In the simplest terms, he admitted with Hume that there are indeed data presented to us by the world outside us that are 'sensibly' perceived, but the perceiving of them presupposes that these data first be registered on a perceptive apparatus constituted by radar systems of space and time. These sense perceptions are then processed through certain organising systems of the understanding called 'categories' that enable the understanding itself to supply to its judgements the universality and necessity that constitute the 'law' character of Newton's scientific discoveries.

But Kant did not stop there. With this much momentum, he proceeded to examine still more abstract ideas of reason in its purest form, that is, stripped of any relation at all to sense experience such as the laws of science can claim. Such ideas are found on the turf where metaphysicians feel most at home and like to claim as their own: ideas such as the world itself (as distinct from the things that are in it), the immortality of the soul, and the existence and attributes of God. But without any connection to sense experience, such ideas have no ground to stand on. Ungrounded, they are without validity. Invalid, they serve at best to regulate our thought processes, giving them order and orientation - but nothing more. This whole examination he called a 'critique', in the sense of a 'determining of the limits' of human reason in its purity (that is, independent of sense experience), hence the title of his epoch-making work: Critique of Pure Reason.

Deprived of the God of metaphysics, Kant was nonetheless the son of Pietist parents with a deeply moral sense of Ought. Whatever must be said about Reason in its speculative function, it has a practiced function too, in our daily moral life. In the order of practical activity, pure Reason is referred to as pure Will and, as such, the Law of all morality. Elsewhere he tells us that 'nothing in the world - indeed nothing even beyond the world - can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will1.[15] That human will is good, then, that conforms to pure Reason as Will, that is, as Law, and, indeed, motivated solely by reverence for the Law, which Kant calls 'duty'. This is a hard saying, of course. Kant is aware, to be sure, that many other motives stir us to action - for example, sensual pleasure, hope of reward, love, compassion, and above all desire for happiness, but none of these suffice to make an act morally good. Kant gives the example of the honest shopkeeper. If the reason for his honesty is that it is good for business, that is not enough to make his behaviour moral. Duty alone must be the motive, if an act is to be considered conformed to pure Reason as Will as Law.

The good news is that since the Law is Reason itself as it is inscribed in every rational being, hence in every human being, Reason may be said to be the giver of the Law, that is, to be the Lawgiver that gives the moral Law to itself. This is what Kant calls the 'autonomy' of the moral subject. For a human being to submit to the Law that its own reason imposes upon itself is already a profound form of freedom.

But how is one to know whether a given act is conformed to the Law or not? Kant proposes a rule of thumb that he calls the 'categorical imperative.' That's the bad news. This is a command ('imperative') of conscience that is unconditional ('categorical') in its demand for obedience. This is what Freud takes to be the paradigm of what he calls the 'super-ego'. Kant opposes this to a 'hypothetical' imperative, based upon a condition to be fulfilled (for example, if you wish to qualify for third-party payment, you ought to [must] have proper professional accreditation). A categorical imperative is unconditional and may be formulated as follows: 'So act that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle establishing universal law'. In other words, if the maxim that guides an action can be considered valid for every human being without inconsistency or contradiction, then its very universalisability is a guarantee that it is in conformity with universal Law/Reason.

Take, for example, the issue of promise-keeping. If my maxim is that in making a promise I implicitly affirm that I am not bound by this promise, that is already a contradiction in itself. Stretched to the universal level,the maxim would permit no social organism to survive. Again,with regard to the lie, let the maxim be: ’I have a right to lie if I have a good reason to do so’. Now Kant assumes that the natural purpose of the speech acts in which lying occurs is the ’communication of one's thoughts'.[16] To tell a lie, even for a good reason, contradicts the very nature of a speech act: 'It cannot hold as a universal law of nature that an assertion should have the force of evidence and yet be intentionally false'.[17] Again:

The man who communicates his thoughts to someone in words which yet (intentionally) contain the contrary of what he thinks on the subject has a purpose directly opposed to the natural purposiveness of the power of communicating one's thoughts; [he] therefore renounces his personality and makes himself a mere deceptive appearance of a man.[18]

This sounds pretty rigorous and it is. The acid test is a classic case, which, transposed into terms of the Anne Frank era, would read: if a Gestapo officer were to inquire of a Dutch householder whether there were any Jews inside his house, might the householder lie to save an innocent person's life? Kant himself will say 'no,' on the ground that obligation to speak the truth is an obligation to society at large as a guarantee of its integrity and harmony. 'Here is an unconditional necessitation through a command (or prohibition) of reason, which I must obey; and in face of it all my inclinations must be silent'.[19] Opposition to this rigorism has been all but universal, but some nuance is available in Kant's reflection on rules that conflict with each other. Since all moral obligations are absolute, one cannot say that one obligation is more binding than another, but rather that the stronger ground of obligation should prevail. Hence:

When two such grounds conflict with each other, practical philosophy says, not that the stronger obligation takes precedence ..., but that the stronger ground of obligation prevails ...[20]

Thus, in the case in question, protecting another person's life provides a stronger ground of obligation than that of telling the truth. Hence, in this case, following the rule against lying would in fact be 'contrary to our duty'.[21]

However austere Kant's position may be, in fairness we should add that he does not want us to take the negative injunction that one must never lie as identical with the positive injunction that one must always tell the truth, 'the whole truth and nothing but the truth’. There are many verbal interchanges that do not purport to tell the truth, and prudent reserve is an essential part of daily living. Besides, Kant points out elsewhere that there are many morally acceptable ways by which we may avoid telling the truth without lying: for example, silence, mental reservations, noncommittal answers, evasions, equivocations, and the like.[22] Case in point: would a statement, made in a deposition in a civil suit, that is 'legally accurate' but, by the standards of ordinary language, factually untrue qualify as a justifiable mental reservation? Or as a lie? If it be a lie and made under oath, is it subject to the charge of perjury? What precisely constitutes perjury? Is it a legal fault or a moral one? What is the relationship between the legal order and the moral order? What is the difference? These are the kinds of questions that pertain to the subject of ethics.

But there is more than one formula for the categorical imperative. Much more significant to psychologists and psychoanalysts is a formula that emerges when Kant argues as follows: since every human being is autonomous, that is, its own Lawgiver, it is by the same token irreducible and unique, that is, an 'end' in itself. Thus, he can express the categorical imperative by the following formula: 'Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never only as a means'[23]- a formula that permits us to understand the entire human community as a 'Kingdom of Ends'.[24] This formula expresses the acme of Kantian ethics - it makes the whole long climb worthwhile. Let the words be said again and carved in stone: 'Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, always as an end, never only as a means'.

What, then, is the subject of ethics? Taken in the sum of its history, it is a theoretical reflection upon moral action, which has as its fundamental question: what ought one do to lead a decent human life, that is, in terms of one's own humanity and that of one's fellow humans, including the broader community in which one lives. Its essentials are a theory of Ought and an accountable subject that responds to that Ought. Every ethical principle derives from the conception of what makes a human being human from which it starts. For a capstone formula, we can't do better than Kant: Act in such a way as to respect humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never only as a means.1 Given all this we are in a position to evaluate the conception of ethics proposed by Edwin Wallace, in an otherwise excellent article on Freud as Ethicist:

The definition of 'ethics' by Abelson and Nielson[25] approximates as closely as any to what I mean by the term:

'(1) a general pattern or 'way of life,' [No! That is the work of sociology or anthropology. Ethics is reflection on the Ought that lies at the basis of such a pattern];

(2) a set of rules of conduct or ’moral code1 [No! Reflection on the Ought implies consequences that follow, but not a 'set of rules' imposed, as it were, from outside human being as such];

(3) inquiry about ways of life and rules of conduct [No! That may make for sociological research or investigative journalism but it implies no reflection at all upon the meaning and implications of Ought]'.[26]


What, then, is the subject of the ethics of -psychoanalysis? General principles must be translated surely into the specifics of daily life and, more particularly, into terms appropriate to the various circumstances and problems proper to different professions. Result: 'professional ethics.' Basic paradigm for this would be the ethics of the medical profession as formulated in the stentorian tones of the Hippocratic Oath:

You do solemnly swear, each man by whatever he holds most sacred, that you will be loyal to the profession of medicine and just and generous to its members; that you will lead lives and practice by our art in uprightness and honor; that into whatever house you shall enter, it shall be for the good of the sick to the utmost of your power, you holding yourselves far aloof from wrong, from corruption, from the tempting of others to vice; that you will exercise your art solely for the cure of your patients and will give no drug, perform no operation for a criminal purpose, even if solicited, far less suggest it; that whatsoever you shall see or hear of the lives of men which is not fitting to be spoken, you will keep inviolably secret. These things do you swear.[27]

Is the ethics of psychoanalysis anything more than a general ethics adapted to the particularity of psychoanalysis, as the Hippocratic Oath has been applied to the practise of medicine? If so, then why make an issue of it now? Psychologists are already amply guided by the ’Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct' of the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychoanalytic Association has had its own set of guidelines in place for years. If not, how does it differ from all other forms of professional ethics so as to need a version all its own?

The 'Code of Conduct' for psychologists in my copy runs to fourteen pages, includes eight sections, one hundred and ten entries, dealing with: the clinical or counselling practice of psychology, research, teaching, supervision of trainees, development of assessment instruments, conducting assessments, educational counselling, organisational consulting, social intervention, administration, and other activities as well. Reduced to simplicity, the code echoes and re-echoes the following themes: regarding the psychologist, the crucial word is ’responsibility,' first toward oneself in developing and maintaining one's professional expertise, then toward the profession, then toward the community at large, and last but most of all toward the client(s), and this primarily in the form of ’respect'. Respect for what? Again and again the word 'dignity' recurs, and this keeps referring to 'rights', 'values', 'autonomy1, ‘privacy1, 'confidentiality' etc. Taken in the sum, these indices add up to a conception of the human being that far transcends the impression given by some of the literature: for example, that a human being can be understood basically as a bundle of stimuli and responses, or as a computer that can be programmed if only we can develop the right software, or as a substance that, in principle, is totally quantifiable. Responsibility, dignity, rights, autonomy, privacy - none of these can be quantified, assessed by statistics or displayed on a graph. Vet these are heart and soul of the psychologist's ethical code.

The 'Ethical Principles' of the American Psychoanalytic Association essentially overlap those for psychologists. Differences are largely matters of detail: the Code for psychologists includes reference to the rubrics of testing, etc., while the Code for psychoanalysts refers to consultations between analysts, the setting of fees, etc. Both Codes are equally adamant against sexual relations between therapist and client. Does not all this suffice to handle the problems of a Dr. Ingram? Of course it does. Why, then, speak about an ethics of psychoanalysis now as if it were something new and unique?

If we turn to Freud, we find no answer - there is no mention at all of an 'ethics of psychoanalysis' as such. To be sure, he speaks a great deal about ethical (more precisely, ’moral') issues, and often in radical fashion, but none of this adds up to a formal ethics. And we know that in his personal life his morals were quite conventional - even austere.[28] True enough; he was opposed to repression of any kind (though he realised it was inevitable), but the closest thing to an ethics one can find in his work, perhaps, is what Philip Rieff called an 'ethics of honesty'.[29]

No, it is Lacan, and Lacan alone, who forces the issue of an ethics of psychoanalysis upon us and won't let us turn away. His claim is that Freud's fundamental insight was of its very nature an ethical one, and implied the opening up of a new dimension of ethics that far transcends any of its traditional forms:

... The deep dissatisfaction we find in every psychology - including the one we have founded thanks to psychoanalysis - derives from the fact that it is nothing more than a mask, and sometimes even an alibi, of the effort to focus on the problem of our own action - something that is the essence and very foundation of all ethical reflection. In other words, we need to know if we have managed to do anything more than take a small step outside ethics and if, like the other psychologies, our own is simply another development of ethical reflection, of the search for a guide or a way, that in the last analysis may be formulated as follows: 'Given our condition as men, what must we do in order to act in the right way?'[30][-question as old as Socrates!]

[But Freud] has changed the problems of the ethical perspective for us to a degree that we are not yet aware of ...

... [His] discourse facilitates something that allows us to go farther than anyone has gone before in a domain that is essential to the problems of morality .. .[31]

What is it in Freud's experience that has such profound ethical import, despite his failure to generate any proper ethics in its own name? The fact, claims Lacan, that for Freud the unconscious comports the function of desire:

Analysis is the experience which has restored to favour in the strongest possible way the productive function of desire as such. This is so evidently the case that one can, in short, say that the genesis of the moral dimension in Freud's theoretical elaboration is located nowhere else than in desire itself.[32]

The entire Seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis becomes, then, the orchestration of an ethics of desire.

For Lacan, psychoanalysis opens up an entirely new dimension of a human being (the unconscious), which challenges every conception of what makes human beings human that the ethical tradition has considered. Until now, every ethics has taken into account only the conscious subject; no ethics has taken into account the unconscious as Freud conceived it. That is why an ethics of psychoanalysis cannot be simply an application of general ethical principles to a specific practice - a professional ethics like the rest. It must be formulated precisely as an ethics of desire as such. We cannot take the question any further here and must be content with Lacan's own formulation of his project:

... It is because we know better than those who went before how to recognise the nature of desire, which is at the heart of this experience, that a reconsideration of ethics is possible, that a form of ethical judgement is possible, of a kind that gives this question the force of a Last judgement: Have you acted in conformity with the desire that is in you?

We are left with certain questions, however, that an elaboration of such an ethic must sooner or later confront:

1. Lacan hints at the first question himself, when he says in the closing session: 'If there is an ethics of psychoanalysis - the question is an open one - it is to the extent that analysis in some way or other, no matter how minimally, offers something that is presented as a measure of our action - or at least claims to'.[33] But what can be the measure of desire except desire itself? Does this mean that desire is unlimited by any Ought that constrains it? In the analytic situation, we have in fact not one desire but two: desire of the analyst and desire of the analysand. For the analyst, the desire is constrained by an Ought that binds one to yield to the exegencies of the analytic process as such, that is, to do everything in one's power to allow the unconscious of the analysand to manifest itself to itself, so that he may acknowledge and assume it as his own. But what Ought 'measures,' that is, constrains, the desire of the analysand? If the measure of the analysand's desire is desire itself as metonymied through language, how are other essential ingredients in the analysand's life (for example, the needs, demands, desires, legitimate rights of other subjects -like spouse, children - dependents of any kind) to be factored in as limits to the analysand's desire?

2. How does an ethics of desire as described account for the subject of that desire? The nature of desire emerges as the subject reconstructs the narrative of her past slowly (painfully) recognising it as her own and accepting responsibility for it, eventually acquiescing to the castration that must be embraced. But this implies a continuity in the subject that the process itself supposes. How are we to understand that continuity - 1 do not say substantiality - but con-sistency and co-herence of the subject necessary for the analytic process itself to take place, when the most that can be said for the subject of psychoanalysis is, in Lacan's own words, as follows:

My hypothesis is that the individual who is affected by the unconscious is the same individual who constitutes what I call the subject of the signifier. That is what I enunciate in the minimal formulation that a signifier represents a subject to another signifier. The signifier in itself is nothing but what can be defined as a difference from another signifier.

The subject is never more than fleeting (ponctuel) and vanishing, for it is a subject only by a signifier and to another signifier.[34]

How can so fleeting a subject abide long enough to accept responsibility for anything, that is, be an ethical subject at all? Yet without an accountable subject, there is no ethics, and an ethics of psychoanalysis no more than chimera. The whole enterprise would have to be rethought, then - or call itself something else.


[1] A. Schlessinger, Jr. 'Presidency Under Siege: Enough is Enough' in New York Times, August, 1998.

[2] J. Rosen. 'The Perjury Trap' in The New Yorker LXXIV/23 (August 10,1998), pp. 28-32.

[3] New York Times, pp. 4/19/98: A35-40.

[4] J. Lacan. The Seminar ofJacques Lacan Book VII. The Ethics ofPsychoanalysis (1959-1960), ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, trans, by Dennis Porter. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992.

[5] See S. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, ed. and trarts. by H.V. and E.H. Hong. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1983. pp. 1-123.

[6] Plato. 'Crito' 48b, in Plato: Collected Dialogues, ed. by E. Hamilton and H. Cairns. New York, Pantheon, Bollingen Series DOG, 1961.

[7] Plato. 'Socrates' Defence (Apology)' 38a. op.cit.

[8] Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. by R. McKeon. New York,: Random House, 1941.1094 a 225 - b 5-10. Hereafter: NE.

[9] ibid, 1098 b 15-20.

[10] See M. Nussbaum, The Fragility ofGoodness. Cambridge, University Press, 1986. pp. 318- 42.

[11] NE, n, 1,1103 a 15-19.

[12] Aristotle, NE, III, 4,1113 a 10-15.

[13] Aristotle, NE, IV, 7,1127 b 5.

[14] S. Johnson. 'The Adventurer' 50 (28 April 1753), in Selected Essays from The Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler, ed. by WJ. Bate. New Haven, Vale University, 1968. Cited by Sissela Bok in Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York, Pantheon, 1978. pp. 18-19.

[15] I. Kant . Foundations of the Metaphysics of Moras, trans. by L.W Beck. New York, Bobbs - Merrill, 1959. p. 9.

[16] I. Kant. Metaphysics of Morals, trans. by Mary Gregor. Cambridge, University Press, 1991. pp. 225-7/429-30. Hereafter: MM.

[17] I. Kant. Critique of Practical Reason, trans. by L.W. Beck. Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1956. p. 45/44.

[18] Kant, MM, pp. 226/429.

[19] Kant MM, pp. 270/481. This position was confirmed when challenged by Henri- Benjamin Constant who had argued that one has a duty to tell the truth but only to someone who has the right to the truth, and then only when it will do no harm to others. Kant's repudiation of the idea in Supposed Right to Liefrom Altruistic Motives (1797) was adamant. See Sullivan, pp. 173-7.

[20] Kant, MM, pp. 50/224.

[21] R. J. Sullivan. Kant's Moral Theory. Cambridge, University Press, 1990. p.177. Hereafter: KMT.

[22] See Sullivan, KMT, 172. It should be noted that Kant's Lectures on Ethics, trans. by L. Infield (Indianapolis, Hackett, 1963) are sets of notes largely taken down by students from his lecture courses at the University of Königsberg, 1775-80, which were largely commentaries on Alexander Baumgarten, Initia philosophiae practicae primae (1760) and Ethica philosophica (3rd ed., 1763). They are more familiar in style and less rigorous in argument (for example, he expresses a certain tolerance for the 'white lie' here) than CPrR and MM. They may not be taken, then, as representing his definitive position on these matters. See L.W. Beck, 'Foreward' to Kant, Lectures on Ethics, ix-xiv.

[23] I. Kant. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. by L.W. Beck (New York: Bobbs- Merrill, 1959. pp. 47/429.

[24] ibid., pp. 51/433.

[25] R. Abelson and K. Nielson. 'History of Ethics' in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. by P. Edwards. New York, Macmillan, 1967. pp. 81-117. Cited by Edwin R. Wallace, IV, 'Freud as Ethicist,' in Freud. Appraisals and Reappraisals, ed. by Paul E. Stepansky. Hillsdale, N.J. Analytic Press, 1986. pp. 83-141.

[26] E.R. Wallace. 'Freud as Ethicist,1 in Freud. Appraisals and Reappraisals, ed. by P.V. Stepansky. Hillsdale, N.J: Analytic Press, 1986). pp. 83-142,83.

[27] Columbia Encyclopedia. New York, Macmillan, Columbia University, 1950.

[28] E. Wallace, 'Freud as Ethicist,' pp. 128-36.

[29] P. Rieff. Freud: The Mind of the Moralist 3rded, Chicago, University Press, 1979. pp.300-See also E. Wallace, 1Freud the Eihicist' in Freud: Appraisals and Reappraisals ed. by P. Stepansky. Analytic Press, 1986. pp. 82-141.

[30] J. Lacan, op.cit., pp. 19/27-28.

[31] ibid., pp. 36/47.

[32] ibid., pp. 3/11. Cp. 38/48,84/101,133/159,152/182,291/338,312/360

[33] ibid., pp. 311/359.

[34] J. Lacan. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan XX. Encore. On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge (1972-1973), ed. by J.-A. Miller, trans, by B. Fink. New York, W.W. Norton, 1998. pp. 142/129-30.

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