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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

FREUD: Civilization and Its Discontents (Conscience)

Freud’s mission in life was to place human psychology on a rational, scientific foundation.  In order to do this he wanted to account for all mental activity in a way that would preclude any divine influence.  One major phenomenon he had to explain was human Conscience.  Freud needed a rational explanation for “the origin of the sense of guilt.”  Why do we feel guilty when we do things we know are wrong?  Freud agrees that “a person feels guilty (devout people would say ‘sinful’) when he has done something which he knows to be ‘bad.’  But then we notice how little this answer tells us.”  Actually it tells us a great deal.  If most people call certain activities “sinful” then we already have a clue about both their religious values and the society they live in.  But Freud’s main point is well taken.  Why do they feel guilty?  Where do these feelings come from?  Freud puts it this way.  “How is this judgment arrived at?  We may reject the existence of an original, as it were natural, capacity to distinguish good from bad.”  Freud rejects the notion that we have an inborn “capacity” to know right from wrong.  Instead, he thinks society channels our inborn capacity for aggression and directs it inward, in the form of a superego, kind of a policeman and judge of the mind.  Thus we internalize the values of society.  What society determines is “good” becomes good in our minds, at least in our superego.  When we deviate from those “good” principles we feel guilty (or, if we’re religious, sinful).  Freud believes this acceptance of society’s conception of right and wrong is the glue that holds society together.  It’s what makes civilization possible.  And this feeling runs so deep that psychologically (according to Freud) “it makes little difference whether one has already done a bad thing or only intends to do it.”  We feel guilty if we even think about breaking social taboos and “This state of mind is called a ‘bad conscience’… Present-day society has to reckon in general with this state of mind.”

Modern society may indeed have to reckon with this state of mind but we’re certainly not the first generation to face this reckoning.  Immanuel Kant (Conscience GB1) dealt with the same issue but came to an entirely different conclusion.  For Kant “Conscience is an instinct to pass judgment upon ourselves in accordance with moral laws” and not just society’s values.  He did not believe moral laws were derived from society.  Some societies may in fact be good and have good laws but they can also be corrupt and have corrupt laws.  If we use society as our guiding foundation then how would we ever know if our conscience had not been corrupted too?  Kant thinks we need to build on a firmer foundation than the human mind, which is notoriously prone to error and self-interest.  So he proposes a different standard when he says “Conscience is the representative within us of the divine judgment-seat; it weighs our dispositions and actions in the scales of a law which is holy and pure; we cannot deceive it, and, lastly, we cannot escape it because, like the divine omnipresence, it is always with us.”  Kant finds in divine law a standard that is “holy and pure” and cannot be corrupted.  That’s why Kant believes “He who has no immediate loathing for what is morally wicked, and finds no pleasure in what is morally good, has no moral feeling, and such a man has no conscience.”  For Kant it’s important for us to listen to that small, pure voice within, even if society teaches us differently.  That’s because if “the verdict of natural conscience is in conflict with the verdict of instructed conscience, we must obey the natural conscience.”  The best education society has to offer cannot change divine law and Kant says “a cultivated mind need not be followed by a cultivated conscience.  Thus conscience is synonymous with natural conscience.”  Freud doesn’t believe in a “natural conscience” at all and their disagreement is not a trivial one.  Isn’t it interesting that two of the finest minds of Western Civilization can’t agree on how to answer one simple question: Why do we feel guilty when we do things we know are wrong?


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