The Freudian Wish and its Place in Ethics

Chapter 4: Some Broader Aspects of the Freudian Ethics

Edwin B. Holt

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THE ethical considerations which I have endeavored to present, and which I venture to think are a direct logical deduction from Freud's keen observations on the human mind, are not wholly out of touch with earlier thought in the ethical field. I believe, however, that the formula which we have now arrived at, for it is so far a formula rather than a completed system, is, as compared with the previous ethical formulations to which it is most akin, more clear, exact, and concrete. It is a definite description of what moral conduct is, and therefore by the same token is a practical guide, a precept, for one who desires to meet the dilemmas of life in a moral way. Thus our present formula,—to avoid the suppression of any reaction tendency by a more complete discrimination of the elements in the situation to be reacted upon, to

(135) resolve every situation rather than to do violence to it by a summary Yes or No,—is unmistakably reminiscent of that 'mean' of conduct which Aristotle praised so highly. Yet I do not see that Aristotle has shown us the clear and important distinction between the middle course of compromise, in its worst sense, and the middle course of rational discrimination. Indeed, Aristotle's commendation of the ' mean' is dangerously near being a general counsel of lukewarmness ; although doubtless he did not intend it to be that. The same is to be said of many other similar utterances, such as Dante's condemnation of excess and Ruskin's praise of temperance.' They are in some sense true, but are too abstract to be a wholly feasible practical guide. If Dante is right, that every vice is a virtue carried to an unlawful extreme, it is still necessary for us to know what virtue is and what that quantity of it is which becomes unlawful.

A closer affinity exists, as the reader will have already noticed, between our ethical formula and the three steps of the Hegelian dialectic. Our case of the woman urged by opposing views and desires regarding the theater, and finally reconciling these by a process of discrimination, could be cited by

( 136) Hegel as a clear case of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Hegel is at the moment so greatly out of fashion that one hesitates to cast a single pebble; indeed, I would rather take the opportunity to say that, as it seems to me, Hegel is almost the only philosopher who has dealt at all responsibly with the problem of error. And anyone is very welcome to undertake to prove that our dilemma of opposing motives and its resolution is only an instance of the three movements in the dialectic. Yet I must insist that one gains a cleaner psychological analysis and a more usable, not to say a sounder, understanding of synthesis and resolution, by studying human conduct from the Freudian rather than the Hegelian point of view. Hegel leads one to suppose (though how fully he intended to do so I cannot say) that opposites are reconciled in the final synthesis ; that, to revert to our last illustration, the good and the evil of the theater are seen to be somehow actually reconciled and merged if one only views the theater comprehensively enough. This is, however, precisely what they are not: the good and the evil of the theater remain everlastingly arrayed against each other. And for this very reason they can be everlastingly discrimi-

( 137) -nated. Hegel seems to dissolve evil, and to turn contradiction and negation into mere ' appearance,' unreality. He does not appreciate, as Freud does, their so very potent reality. On the other hand, curiously enough, the Hegelian argument has given rise to the practical belief that opposition and conflict are desirable, are to be encouraged and promoted—because they will eventually emerge in a triumphant synthesis.' Thus it is argued that in parliament and convention it is better that there should be several parties and factions, each represented by men who act solely in the interests of the party or faction, than that all members should seek to view impartially all of the various considerations to be met, and all work directly for their just reconciliation. This is to say that conflict is better than cooperation. Such a doctrine may seem too strange to be credible, and yet I think it will be found to be a practical maxim of the day. Its widespread acceptance accounts for the disappearance of what was once called statesmanship from the government of several great countries. This fatal doctrine has its root in the conviction (peculiarly Hegelian, I believe) that opposition is the very

(138) condition not merely of progress, but even of process. Nothing takes place without conflict, and hence, to adduce an exact parallel, friction is the cause of motion. And here it is worth noting that the Hegelian reality, the 'Absolute,' is absolutely static. Since conflict is unreal, so motion must also be unreal. Applied to human behavior, this doctrine would assert that that person is nearest to synthesized activity whose native tendencies are the most completely dissociated and antagonistic. In short, Hegel and his school have altogether lost sight of harmony in process. Now it is one thing to say that conflict is desirable because it leads to a resolution, and a very different to say that resolution is desirable because it does away with conflict. The Hegelian emphasis is a downright fallacy. And thus while the Freudian formula moves in three steps which are to some extent analogous with the three phases of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, it is nevertheless a very different analysis of the moral problem. The similarity is in fact superficial.

A far more interesting and indeed a remarkable point of contact between the view here outlined and the history of ethics is to be found in the

( 139) Socratic and Platonic conception of the will. In the ' Gorgias ' (468) Socrates says : "We will to do that which conduces to our good, and if the act is not conducive to our good we. do not will it; for we will, as you say, that which is our good, but that which is neither good nor evil, or simply evil, we do not will." And again, Socrates asks Polus : "But does he [any man] do what he wills if he does what is evil? Why do you not answer?" Pol. "Well, I suppose he does not." And again, in the " Protagoras " (858) we read: " Then you agree, I [Socrates] said, that the pleasant is the good, and the painful evil. . . . Then, I said, if the pleasant is the good, nobody does anything under the idea or conviction that some other thing would be better and is also attainable, when he might do the better. And this inferiority of a man to himself is merely ignorance, as the superiority of a man to himself is wisdom. . . . Then, I said, no man voluntarily pursues evil, or that which he thinks to be evil. To prefer evil to good is not in human nature; and when a man is compelled to choose one of two evils, no one will choose the greater when he might have the less."

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The argument seems to be that we do things which are not conducive to our good, but we do not will them. And if we do them it is through ignorance, and of course we are not free to will that which our ignorance hides from us. The more psychological distinction between will and freewill is not drawn, and the upshot of the argument is that none but the wise man is free to will. Wisdom and virtue are one, and only the wise and virtuous man is free.

Aristotle, with a characteristic touch, hastened to blur this clear-cut picture by declaring that the evil man is equally free to will his evil; thus entirely disposing of the doctrine that wisdom and virtue are the same, and are essential to freedom. And the Socratic-Platonic doctrine has remained comparatively without influence ever since. Thomas Aquinas upheld it, but nevertheless the subsequent history of ethics and psychology shows a steady degradation of this high-minded doctrine ; it giving way to the dogma that moral 'responsibility' demands a ' contingency' in human action, to the dogma of 'absolute fiat,' and so forth. Perhaps it is that no philosopher since Thomas has had a sufficient acquaintance with both virtue and wisdom

( 141) to recognize their identity ; or perhaps the so-called science of psychology developed a system of vagaries in which the earlier truth could find no place. In any case the Socratic doctrine of the identity of wisdom, virtue, and freedom has been left, as if it were a romantic dream, too exalted and unreal for either ecclesiastical or academic ethics to take hold of.

Now the Freudian ethics is a literal and concrete justification of the Socratic teaching. We have seen throughout that truth is the sole moral sanction, and that the discrimination of hitherto unrealized facts is the one way out of every moral dilemma. This is precisely to say that virtue is wisdom. Freud gives the subject a more concrete psychological analysis than did Socrates or Plato ; and he proves the doctrine to hold in the special case. And as regards freedom, Freud's confirmation is even more remarkable. We have seen that the opposite of discrimination is suppression, the condition in which a person in the face of a given situation is stimulated to two (or more) antagonistic courses of action, so that whichever course he pursues, the antagonistic innervations prompting to the other course constantly impede him; as I showed

( 142) especially in the instance of the mushrooms. Such a person is not free to take any of the courses, but in every case is hampered and held back by his own opposed inclinations. This is indeed the very serfdom of the will. And freedom, like virtue, comes through discrimination, i.e., wisdom. The person in whom there are no suppressions, in whom the process of discrimination and integration has gone on successfully, throws his whole force into whatever he does ; he does it without constraint. This person has 'free-will.' And so for Freud, as for Socrates, wisdom, virtue, and freedom are all one condition of the soul. Freud has shown how the soul that fails to attain this condition, that fails to develop through progressive integrations, is strikingly inhibited, repressed, and unfree ; and in his psychiatrical and other volumes has copiously illustrated the variety of ways in which such failures occur. And it is rather interesting to note that in many of these cases one is at first puzzled whether to describe the difficulty as nervous malady, mental inhibition, or moral perversity: a perplexing circumstance until one realizes that all three pertain to one and the same genus—suppression.

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The Socratic doctrine is of such cardinal importance that it is worth while to consider two of the apparent objections to it. For it is often plausibly alleged that on the one hand many thoroughly virtuous persons are yet unwise and ill of soul, while on the other hand many wicked persons are perfectly healthy and most desperately cunning. Indeed, so proverbial is this that Mephistopheles, the archfiend, is always represented as a supreme intellect. As to the first of these arguments, it is of course admitted that rain and lightning fall on the just and the unjust alike; so that the virtuous person is liable indeed to physical illness and lingering forms of death. But all the curious inadvertencies and stupidities of the socalled virtuous, and all their ailments which by any possibility can be called mental, are found, when they are analyzed and understood, to be quite as much departures from virtue, in the broader sense of the term, as they are departures from health or wisdom. Freud has given us a thousand classical examples, to which Alfred Adler has added further cases, which show how oblique and unhallowed motives are habitually suppressed (not victoriously overcome by discrimination) in order to produce

( 144) the appearance of virtue, and how just these suppressions work havoc with every aspect of mental integrity. It is thus the apparently most virtuous who are the most often afflicted with mental disabilities of one sort and another. It is not to be wondered at that the popular misapprehension has arisen. But the genuinely virtuous, those who have integrated away every suppression, are also the genuinely healthy of mind. And let no one think of his poor dear friends, A., B., and C., as paragons of virtue yet afflicted with morbid anxiety, forgetfulness, motor incoördinations, bad dreams, or hallucinations, until he has studied Freud's cases and learned to read the sort of subconscious wishes that lurk beneath a virtue so extreme and so bedridden. Moreover, the inconveniences consequent on suppression are often of a sort that seems to be entirely physical—migraine, lameness, etc. ; and herein, perhaps, lies whatever is true in a certain half-truth that has been utilized by Christian Science.

Secondly, in regard to those who are wicked and yet seem to be both healthy and shrewd, it is to be admitted at once that such persons sometimes have few internal suppressions. They have de-

( 145) -veloped so far fairly healthily, and they have largely avoided suppressions by dint of a studied inattention to the disagreeable and a frank pursuit of whatever pleases them regardless of consequences. The downright wicked person sometimes has the virtue of not being a hypocrite. But all this is, as I said, regardless of consequences. And the consequences soon appear, so that the latter end of the wicked presents a picture of abject mental inadequacy, the cruelest suppressions, and presently of mental disease. We often think of the wicked as supremely young, just taken in some act of dashing highwaymanship, and while envying them their youthful vigor we forget that they are true cases of arrested development. In short, the picture we make to ourselves is of the brief heyday of wickedness, and we fail to see that this very wickedness reveals a now arrested integration, and that the next phase will be a fearful display of suppressions, anxieties, and mental incapacity (and all this apart from any artificial penalties which the wickedness may incur). An important circumstance which often hides from us the fact that wisdom and virtue are in principle one, and that principle the progressive lifelong integration of

( 146) experience, is that the earlier steps of integration concern merely the child's successful navigation of his immediate tangible surroundings. The recession of the stimulus has as yet not proceeded very far. As the stimulus recedes further, that is, as the integration of experience continues, the things with which the youth learns how to deal are less and less tangible objects, but are rather aspects, situations, and the like. Then develop integrated modes of behavior toward more comprehensive aspects, such as science, business, and society at large; while the highest stages of integration produce the most comprehensive courses of action, and these are inevitably of the sort which we call moral. In moral conduct the stimulus has receded the farthest and such conduct is behavior toward the most universal entities, toward truth, honor, virtue, and the like. And one further stage is possible, the religious. Thus we say that at first the child is developing its body, then its practical intelligence, then its theoretical mind, then its moral and finally its religious ' nature.' So that if integration ceases at a certain point, we may see the phenomenon of a fairly sound body and mind, lacking both morals and religion.


Nevertheless I am careful to say only ' fairly sound.' For in point of fact it appears that the process which will definitely stop the integration at any one of its later stages generally commences very early in the child's life, perhaps in the cradle. And if the moral nature is never to be developed, certain warps and twists can generally be found in the already existing mind, which show why its future growth is to be thus limited. The Mephistopheles legend, of a very wicked man yet thoroughly master of himself and sound in body and mind, is about as untruthful a picture as mythology affords.[1] It may be here hinted that at the present stage of ' western civilization ' the moral, and the higher stages of mental, integration appear most often to shatter on a very prevalent malformation of what may be called the ' ego complex.' But to develop this theme further would be beyond our present scope.[2]

Thus for the Freudian view which I have endeavored to outline morality is the most inclusive knowledge. Ethics is solely a question, as Epic-

( 148) -tetus so long ago said, of " dealing wisely with the phenomena of existence." In a way, indeed, this has been the main contention of all practical moralists. What is new is that Freud shows what in the concrete case the mental mechanism of wise dealing is. It is the establishment through discrimination of consistent and not contradictory (mutually suppressive) courses of action toward phenomena. The moral sanction lies always in facts presented by the phenomena ; morality in the discrimination of those facts.

This is, of course, an ethic 'from below.' For such a view morals evolve and develop; they grow, and are a part of the general growth and evolution of the universe. This is in sharp contrast with a considerable portion of academic ethics, where in one form or another we find the intimation that moral ideals are something imposed 'from above'; the moral sanction is somehow supermundane. And these academic discussions themselves of ethics hang suspended in the air, and seem unable to establish connection with the world in which we live. Thus 'the good,' for an instance, is in many modern (and for that matter ancient) discussions the subject-matter of ethics, but it appears that

(149) this 'good' can be neither defined nor pointed out, and surely until this pivotal entity can be somehow located among the concrete phenomena of existence, the ethical fabric that rests thereon is merely a systematic jargon. Or again, we find the word ‘value' as representing the cardinal concept of systematic ethics. It is a popular word just now, and is the theme of no end of current philosophic vagarizing. But this word, too, despite its seemingly more definite psychological meaning, retains a deal of the same abstract and unseizable quality. It is merely a sort of psychological synonym for 'the good.'

In nearly all these philosophic discussions of ethics one has somehow the haunting sense of a wrongness of direction. Virtue is somehow imposed from above, it is descending upon us. And the unfortunate part of this is that it has to descend very low indeed before it reaches us; and when there, it has lost the buoyancy wherewith to lift us up. Also this academic misapprehension may be seen reflected in the practical sphere. We hear everywhere of bringing this and that good thing down to the unfortunate and the debased, and then of ' adapting ' it to the taste and comprehen-

(150) -sion of these same unfortunate and debased. Thus at the present moment a so-called evangelist who is touring the country is accounted thoroughly successful in " bringing the gospel to the masses "; and his method is to couch his message in language that would make a cowboy blush. He has reached the masses indeed, and gone lower than the masses; but has not the 'gospel' become somewhat unrecognizably transformed during this descent? It seems to me a palpable fact that every form of philanthropy and' social service' to-day is more or less infected with this fallacy. The idea is everywhere to bring the good down, in the false hope that this will somehow lift the masses up. But why shall anything strive upwards, when all that is high is bidden to descend? And is it not a striking and ominous fact that to-day the word' aspire ' is never heard?

These egregious ethics of the air have produced other tangible and all-pervading consequences. Since' ethics ' is such a floating vapor, many sober-minded persons conclude, and not illogically, that it is quite apart from the practical conduct of life. And they lead their lives accordingly. Thus the Teutonic races, in their rigorous fashion, have

( 151) codified this conclusion. Ethics, they explicitly say, have no part to play in politics and statecraft; these are a science and they deal solely with realities. This science is ' Realpolitik,' the Politics of Reality. The effect of such a doctrine when put in practice is now being written on the pages of the world's history in letters so large that even he who runs must read. And similarly, the world over, it tends to be held by high and low that the ' scientific' attitude supersedes the ethical. The ethics of the air are indeed effete.

But set against all this, and as different from it as the day from night, are the ethics of the dust. It presents mind itself as an evolution, and morals as one of the higher stages of this process. Here we have man, as ' real' and as ' scientific' as you please, growing upwards. (And I insist that the direction is somehow right.) He who does not see the real sanction of morality, that morality is a stage of wisdom and a step higher than ' science,' is merely shortsighted. And the facts can safely be trusted to impress in due time their lesson, to drive us on to morals. On such an ethics it seems to me that Freud's discovery of the ' wish,' the articulate unit of mind and character, casts con-

(152) -siderable light. Much remains to be learned, but in this learning it may be that the suppressiondiscrimination formula for wishes, which we have been studying, will serve somewhat as a talisman.


  1. It is interesting to note the prevailing cynicism of the societies and epochs in which this tradition has flourished.
  2. Cf. Alfred Adler: " Ueber den nervösen Charakter." Bergman, Wiesbaden, 1912.

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