Ethics of Evil: Psychoanalytic Investigations, by Ronald C. Naso and Jon Mills

Moralizing Evil

Are we headed toward human extinction?  All inhabited continents are engaged in military conflict, and there is no foreseeable end in sight.  World superpowers, rogue nations, and international politics fuel existing warfare, leading to repetitive cycles of death, despair, transgenerational trauma, and systemic ruin.

Global economies have been shattered, social infrastructures effaced, and entire ways of life destroyed.  Whole communities have perished or have been displaced, historical traditions broken, established customs nullified, and cultural identities lost.  Diasporas, mass-scale refugees, and the walking wounded scurry to neighboring territories, often herded at their borders. Chaos, uprisings, and revolt over impoverishment, maltreatment, and retaliatory aggression lead to further warfare, civil disorder, violence, and crime.

“World superpowers, rogue nations, and international politics fuel existing warfare, leading to repetitive cycles of death, despair, transgenerational trauma, and systemic ruin”

At the individual level, developmental traumas and attachment pathology besiege the plight of the human being, hampering the ability to have healthy, loving relationships and to have empathy and compassion for others. Increasingly, normativity is tainted by pathos. Child abuse in its most odious forms is a primordial scab on humanity: it becomes the bedrock of suffering in every society where kids are held hostage in emotional concentration camps by their parents or culture, the very people who also are victims of abuse, oppression, and demoralization. Here the enemy lies within our family and community, cryptically threatening our sense of wellbeing and safety at home.

‘rarely is evil engaged as a moral issue within its own discourse”

Yet, despite its haunting, inescapable presence, rarely is evil engaged as a moral issue within its own discourse. All too often, it is viewed exclusively from a particular psychological, cultural, and/or religious perspective.  As an expression of manicheanism, for example, evil reflects the darker side of the struggle against the good that defines the human condition.  In doing evil, one instantiates a transcendental process; one comes face to face with the demonic, poised at any given moment to undermine God’s will. Evil’s discourse is embedded in an overarching religious narrative and moral order they establish.

Interestingly, contemporary psychological treatments of evil undermine any effort to moralize the concept.  For many, this is regarded as an advance, allowing for a more detached, scientific approach to the problem of evil.  The agent does not act on the basis of demonic forces or even out of a commitment to doing evil for evil’s sake, but rather out of a form of ignorance very much in keeping with Aristotle’s analysis of akrasia (ἀκρασία).  It will be recalled that the akrate does wrong out of neither malevolence nor unbridled narcissism, but rather because he confusedly regards what brings him pleasure as the good.

In its contemporary articulation, the agent acts on the basis of a psychological disorder that, in essence, deprives him of responsibility and, in turn, of the very property that defines evil:  the freedom to choose otherwise. To act on the basis of psychic disturbance is the antithesis of freedom and choice.  Thus conceptualized, evil is relegated to the expression of a psychiatric/medical disorder, vitiating any basis for moralizing its various expressions.

“preordained categories of understanding”: the analytic left hemisphere tends to see reality in terms of binaries: good/evil, white/black, yes/no

Each of the chapters in Ethics of Evil resists the temptation to fall into preordained categories of understanding.  Each refuses to remain in a state of perpetual astonishment or to avoid thinking about evil as a plurality. The reality of evil never has been more stark and undeniable, our resources for understanding seemingly inadequate to the task. Yet, somewhere between the demonic and insanity views lies the possibility of formulating evil as a unique discourse, one that not only reflects contemporary attitudes and beliefs but, perhaps more importantly, influences our perceptions and actions. To expose the ethical framework shared by evil’s diverse expressions is to grasp its impact on individual behavior, character development, and the broader socio-political fabric of culture.  It is to lay bare the distinctive properties of a discourse that has haunted civilization from the beginning, but whose newest iterations make its assault more intimate and inescapable than ever. This discourse necessarily encompasses the conflicting narratives of perpetration and victimacy, violence and moral condemnation.

otherness as “a projection, displacement, and denial of our own interiority—in short, the evil within”

In today’s world where every form of transgression enjoys a psychological motive, rational justification, legal defense, and/or pastoral forgiveness, psychoanalysis stands alone in its ability to uncover the hidden motives that inform individual and social collective behavior. Both in theory and practice, it bears witness to the impact of anonymity on the potential for perpetration, especially when others are experienced as faceless, disposable objects whose otherness is, at bottom, but a projection, displacement, and denial of our own interiority—in short, the evil within.

In keeping with this perspective, Ethics of Evil rejects facile rationalizations of violence; it also rejects the idea that, as a concept, evil is inscrutable or animated by diabolical forces. Instead, it evaluates the moral framework in which evil is situated, providing a descriptive understanding of it as a plurality and a depth psychological perspective of the threat it poses our well-being and ways of life. In so doing, it also fashions and articulates an ethical stance that recognizes the intrinsic link between human freedom and the potential for evil.

Freud envisioned human behavior as a product of conflict and compromise, whether oriented toward good or evil.  He very clearly recognized the Hobbesian nature of the common man, his readiness to exploit others to his own advantage. In this view, evil reflected the failure to recognize and tame the demands of the unconscious, of inclinations to control, dominate, and triumph over others in accordance with one’s selfish interests. Evil rejected the civilizing forces of restraint and the values of care, sacrifice, and cooperation. But it also acknowledges that destruction and annihilation can never be eradicated because these are but one of two primary sources of who we are.

Following Freud, psychoanalysis has continued to refrain from advancing a proselytizing agenda, focusing instead on the motivations that inform individual and social collective behavior.  Yet, it would be inaccurate to claim that psychoanalysis is devoid of ethics. It is better regarded as a critique of prevailing ethical systems, exposing them as cultural inventions that are more closely related to myth than to truths that are readily universalized.

Psychoanalysis replaces traditional ethical thinking with a specialized form of reflection, one that recognizes the irreconcilable forces stirring within man’s soul and the extent to which desire is forced to supplicate on the altar of civilization’s demands.  It does not matter how much desire consciously is relinquished in exchange for the security of communal life; in the unconscious, the pursuit of our darkest, disavowed, self- and species-undermining inclinations continues unrestrained. Its silence with respect to prescriptive ethics notwithstanding, psychoanalysis remains one of the most intellectually salient and incisive critiques of ethical life.  The collection of essays in this volume speaks a different tongue: moralizing evil becomes one of the most important agendas of our time.

“When people feel abused and experience no sense of justice, it violates a universal ethical principle”; children killed by US/NATO invasion forces in Afghanistan

When people feel abused and experience no sense of justice, it violates a universal ethical principle, one that is shattered with the realization that there is no universal ethics, that is, no metaphysical dispensary of the “good and right” watching over them. From anarchy and ochlocracy to nihilism, the human animal becomes a machine of violence. Aggression begets aggression, a simple iteration as repetition compulsion. Tempestuous human relations lead to further social discord with no hope in view of reversing this predictable pattern. And when enemies are no longer foreign, conflict is generated from within a society where economic and class discrepancy, racial division, religious prejudice, political injustices, and governmental exploitation of masses leads to protest, civil disobedience, riots, coups, revolutions, and insurgencies.

The problem of evil makes these global prophecies of fate all the more expeditious. Will humanity avail itself to subvert its aggressive inclinations toward self-annihilation?  Recognizing the powerful forces that seem to be propelling us toward implosion, the question arises ever more urgently as to how ought we to live. What moral frameworks apply to the conundrums of evil?  Can psychoanalysis contribute to peace?

Written by psychoanalysts internationally recognised for their scholarship, Ethics of Evil is unified by its focus on the unique discourse presented by the plurality of evil’s forms. It is divided into three sections. The first, entitled “How ought we to live?”, begins with Dr Mills addressing the role of pathology and destruction in the process of civilisation and explores the degree to which the positive significance of the negative may inform new valuation practices that, in turn, improve human relations and world accord. Juxtaposed to psychoan- alytic anthropology, Hegel’s dialectic becomes a logical model for examining the possibility of global amelioration of the pernicious forces that beset the fate of humankind. He argues that we must seri- ously question whether mankind’s aggressive essentialism will even- tually lead to the end of the human race.

In Chapter Two, Dr Merkur offers a sustained enquiry into Freud’s moral theory, identifying two very different, perhaps incompatible, accounts. The first aligns immorality with sexual desire, equating the latter with that which is primitive and infantile. In this reading, morality is equated with consciousness, instinctual renunciation, and the subordination of self-interests to the best interests of the community. The emergence of Freud’s structural point of view, however, altered this perspective. In it, morality no longer is linked to instinctual renunciation alone, but rested on the establishment of psychological structures whose imperatives represented morality. Not only did Freud assign Eros now to the unconscious, but viewed it propelling people into relationships with others and with the larger group. This change in his thinking complicated Freud’s moral theory in so far as it provided a basis for moral action originating in either the superego or the id. In other words, the same instincts and ideals, operating unconsciously, were capable of inspiring both moral and immoral action. Dr Merkur develops the implications of these differences for the concept of evil.

In Chapter Three, Dr Govrin investigates the problem of evil from the perspective of the observer. Using research findings from the fledgling field of moral psychology, he argues that judgements of evil are not grounding in objective assessments of harm, but, rather, on interpretations of the relationship between aggressor and victim, all within the contexts or situations in which such events unfold. Disparities in the assessments of victim and victimiser are the norm rather than the exception, problematising evaluations of evil for witnesses. It is to this problematic that Dr Govrin turns his attention in the final section of this chapter.

The second section of this book is entitled “Clinical applications”. In Chapter Four, Robin McCoy Brooks discusses several key macro cultural–historical and political processes that at once engender and conceal trauma. She argues that these processes embody ideologies that undermine critical reflection and create conditions that make trauma both unspeakable and unknowable. In her view, evil may arise through traumas induced by historically real events whose impact is dissociated and tacitly transmitted across generations. She describes her work with a woman in whom “real history” played a shaping role and was uncovered only by virtue of a contemporary event that reactivated the violent trauma of cultural–historical events in which she had unwittingly participated.

“integrity often depends on the dissociative suspension of deliberation”

Chapter Five describes the treatment of a forty-five-year-old CFO whose embezzlement was discovered during the course of his psychoanalytic treatment. It focuses primarily on the motivations and meanings of his actions and how facilely they were rationalised in an otherwise moral individual. While dissociative defences operated powerfully in his transgressions, promoting attachment security as well as bringing about states of mind in which perpetration was not experienced as really real, Dr Naso argues that these same processes play an important role in integrity. Simply put, integrity often rests on a refusal to compromise, to entertain alternatives to one’s beliefs and obligations. Notwithstanding the importance of rational assessment, a closer examination of moral conduct suggests that integrity often depends on the dissociative suspension of deliberation, a process that renders one’s commitments non-negotiable.

The third and final section, “Applied studies”, begins with Dr Prince’s account of the diverse and evolving narratives of Holocaust survivors who have emigrated to the USA. In Chapter Six, he argues that their stories are unified only by virtue of beginning with a trauma of major historical significance. Both survivors and their children struggle with formulating their experiences and Dr Prince concerns himself with examining the implications of common myths and distortions with an eye toward the defences that underpin them. He argues that it is essential to consider the historical meaning and social context in which these narratives unfold, focusing particularly on the concept of moral injury as a vehicle of trauma as well as the key to contextualising its meaning and impact.

The banality of evil?

In the final chapter, Dr Lothane reflects on the storm of indignation ignited by Hannah Arendt’s (1963) classic text, Eichmann in Jerusalem, among survivors on both sides of the Atlantic, including such luminaries as the Holocaust historian Raoul Hilberg and the philosopher Gershom Sholem. Here, he revisits the historical furore generated by her concept of the “banality of evil” with a view to illuminating the nature of radical evil and aspects of Holocaust historiography. More than this, he identifies what he argues is the fatal flaw of a brilliant political and social philosopher whose books and charisma were a beacon of learning for countless scholars, students, and the educated masses.

Taken together, each of the chapters in Ethics of Evil displays a deep appreciation of evil as a global phenomenon, of its various and ever-changing expressions.

Ronald C. Naso, PhD, ABPP is psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist in independent practice in Stamford, CT. He is currently a director and secretary of the American Board and Academy of Psychoanalysis as well as a consultant and supervisor in the Internship and Postdoctoral Fellowship training programs at the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut. The author of numerous papers on psychoanalytic topics and associate editor of Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies, contributing editor of Division/Review, his book entitled Hypocrisy Unmasked: Dissociation, Shame, and the Ethics of Inauthenticity was published by Aronson in 2010.

Jon Mills, PsyD, PhD, ABPP is a philosopher, psychologist, and psychoanalyst. He is a Diplomate in Psychoanalysis and Clinical Psychology with the American Board of Professional Psychology, Fellow of the American Academy of Clinical Psychology, Fellow of the Academy of Psychoanalysis, and is past President and Fellow of the Section on Psychoanalytic and Psychodynamic Psychology of the Canadian Psychological Association. A Professor of Psychology and Psychoanalysis at the Adler Graduate Professional School in Toronto, he is on the editorial board of Psychoanalytic Psychology and is the editor of two book series as well as the author of several books. He maintains a private practice and runs a mental health corporation in Ontario, Canada.

Their latest book, Ethics of Evil: Psychoanalytic Investigations, is published this week by Karnac.