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The Implications of Freudian Theory Within Moral Philosophy

Freud is one of the key thinkers of modernity within philosophy of mind after he introduced a theory of mind, known as the psychodynamic model, based upon a divided self made up of unconscious, preconscious and conscious. This was later built upon to produce a topography of mind consisting of an unconscious Id, unconscious Ego, preconscious Ego, conscious Ego and a Superego which interacts with the other parts but is not specifically located within any of the earlier divisions of the mind. The model is usually referred to as the (human) psyche, although Freud sometimes refers to it as the psychic apparatus. The purpose of this essay is three-fold; first to explain Freud’s psychodynamic theory of mind, secondly to highlight the implications this has on the notion of free will and to determine whether or not free will is compatible with Freud’s theory. Finally to demonstrate the implications the compatibility of free will within Freud’s theory and has on moral philosophy in order to show that if Freud’s psychodynamic theory is found to be true then any feasible ethical model would have to fall upon the concepts I shall show throughout this essay. From this I shall conclude that free will is compatible with Freud’s psychodynamic and can support ethical systems based upon free will.

Before I begin with my explanation of Freud’s psychodynamic theory of mind I would like to point out that this essay is not intended to prove whether Freud is correct or not, nor is it intended to highlight any flaws within the model, although some flaws may become apparent throughout the following sections.

Freud’s earlier topography of the mind consisted of unconscious, preconscious and conscious, where “the nucleus of the unconscious consists of instinctual representatives which seek to discharge their cathexis; that is to say, it consists of wishful impulses” [Freud, UC, pg:582]. The term cathexis plays a vital part in Freud’s theory and can be used to mean psychic energy. Thus the unconscious exists as a collection of impulses, each of which has a cathexis of its own and interacts by discharging the cathexis around the topography of the mind. The unconscious is also the first point of call for external stimuli once it passes through the perceptive faculties for “in the first phase the psychical act is unconscious” [Freud, UC, pg:578].

Cathexis, as stated above, can be considered as a psychic energy which allows the parts of the mind to interact with each other by discharging quantities of cathexis. Therefore Freud’s psychodynamic model can be seen as a system of sinks and flows with the unconscious, preconscious and conscious being the passive parts of the system (the sinks). And the cathexis, in its multiple forms, acting as the flows hence the dynamic part of the psychodynamic model. Cathexis can manifest as sexual impulses towards certain erogenous zones, such as the mouth or anus, which Freud argues is part of the psychosexual development of the psyche.

Once external stimulus has passed into the unconscious it then undergoes a screening process to determine whether the discharge of cathexis is safe. “if, on testing, it is rejected by the censorship it is not allowed to pass onto the second phase…if, however, it passes this testing, it enters the second phase and thenceforth belongs to the second system…the preconscious” [Freud, UC, pg:578]. The preconscious then acts as a memory bank holding any latent impulses which may be recalled by the conscious at any given point, in a way it is both conscious and unconscious as it not fully conscious but not blocked by the defence mechanism of repression, which is another vital concept for Freud. Essentially is the bridge between the unconscious-conscious schism.

Freud argues “under certain conditions…the impulse then passes into the state of repression…for the ego cannot escape from itself” [Freud, RP, pg:569], therefore repression acts as the defence mechanism which blocks the impulses which, having failed the screening process of the unconscious, prove harmful to our conscious psyche. There are also two types of repression, or at least two stages to it, “there is a primal repression…which consists in the psychical representation of the instinct being denied entrance into the conscious” [Freud, RP, pg:569], in other words the primary censorship of impulses. Then “the second stage of repression…affects mental derivatives of the repressed…or such trains of thought as originating elsewhere” [Freud, RP, pg:569], this latter act of repression censors impulses which bear some resemblance with the impulse originally censored to avoid any harm coming to the conscious.

Conscious is the remaining part of the psyche. It acts the system which contains the impulses we are aware of at a given moment in time. When we become aware of an impulse it means the impulse has discharged its cathexis from the preconscious system to the conscious. However the conscious only has a small capacity, due to the limited range of focus we possess, consequently when we become aware of another impulse the cathexis of the former is discharged back into the preconscious allowing the cathexis of the latter to be discharged into the conscious. This tripartite model of the psyche later gave way to a new topography, although still carrying these three systems, the new model had three new systems which acted as an extra layer on top of what Freud had already established.

One of these three systems is the Id which is entirely unconscious and is responsible for many of our impulses which come from two drives; Eros and Thanatos . The Id is completely egotistical as its only purpose is to achieve the actualisation of its impulses regardless of all other entities (both physical and psychical). The Id’s impulses are centred around obtaining pleasure and self-preservation for “the pleasure principle is proper to a primary method of working on the part of the mental apparatus…from the point of view of the self-preservation of the organism” [Freud, BP, pg:596].

The Eros and Thanatos drives were a late revision to Freud’s model where they replace the pleasure principle. The Eros drive takes the role of self-preservation, reproduction and directing the person towards higher states of existence. On the other hand the Thanatos drive takes the role of destroying unnecessary components of the entity and external entities which threaten the existence of itself. Or as Freud puts it “we put forward the hypothesis of a death instinct, the task of which is to lead organic life back into the inanimate states; on the other hand, we suppose that Eros…aims at complicating life and at the same time, of course, at preserving it” [Freud, EI, pg:645]. Hence the two drives often come into conflict as one tries to destroy the self whilst the other preserves it.

In order to keep the Id under control the psyche has another system known as the Ego which spans across all three regions of the old division, “the ego is not sharply separated from the id; its lower portion merges into it. The repressed is only cut off sharply from the ego by the resistances of repression” [Freud, EI, pg:635]. The Ego, like the Id, also has a drive known as the reality principle. The reality principle acts as a balance between the external world and the discharges of cathexis from the Id, the role of this principle is to resolves conflicts between incompatible impulses by way of a compromise which is acceptable within the external world for “when two wishful impulses…appear to us incompatible…they combine to form an intermediate aim, a compromise” [Freud, UC, pg:582].

Finally there is the Superego which develops later on as a consequence of the Oedipus complex. During the Oedipus complex the Id discharges its cathexis in hope of mating with the parent/guardian of the opposite gender. The Ego denies this as the reality principle deems it inappropriate but allows a compromise by taking on the essence of the same gender parent/guardian in order to win the affections of the source of desire. This becomes the Superego which represents the moral standpoint and social beliefs of the same gender parent/guardian. The role of the Superego is to act as a further level of censorship alongside the reality principle and repression to ensure that the Id never actualises its most destructive impulses within the external world.

Now Freud’s topography of the human psyche has been explained I can begin to address the question of whether free will is compatible with the psyche. Beforehand a definition of what is meant by free will is necessary since free will is a notion which has been a matter of debate for some time, with each thinker providing his/her own definition of the term along the way. I, however, shall take free will to mean what Spinoza defines it as, “that thing is called free which exists from the necessity of its nature alone, and is determined to act by itself alone” [Spinoza, pg.2]. By this what is meant is something possesses free will if it is self-driven, as opposed to being driven by a causal nexus. In this sense we can consider the Id to be free since Freud does not offer any explanation as to why it discharges its cathexis towards objects, it simply does, and hence it appears as if the Id does so by its own free will. Following this the Ego cannot be free as it acts only in response to the Id, therefore its actions are caused by the Id and so not caused by itself and consequently not by the Ego’s free will. Then there is the Superego which constantly behaves in such a way as to get the Ego to permit the discharges of cathexis that our parent/guardian of the same gender would permit without any consideration for the other two systems, thus the Superego could also be considered to possess free will. If this is true then the greater part of the human psyche is free but our conscious choices are not, meaning we are only free to choose what we do not know we want to choose as a portion of our free choice has been repressed. However so far this has been mere speculation to determine whether this is the case or not further evidence needs to be considered.

O’Shaughnessy argues that the Ego does possess free will as “the will, in the romantic sense of mental force, is the manifestation of an ego” [O’Shaughnessy, pg.110], he also believes the Id and Superego to possess free will as “those subordinate mental processes have a life of their own, and while they move only because we set them in motion they are not mere instruments of our purposes. They do our bidding but go their own way” [O’Shaughnessy, pg.111]. This is also supported by Thalberg who says that “when we perform an erroneous action…control over the body passes from one’s ego, and its will, to an opposing counter-will” [Thalberg, pg.243], this both the Id and the Ego possess free will but they also oppose each other. This gives rise to a further problem…if our psyche consists of separate systems each capable of free choice but disagree then which system can truly be called the self? It would seem absurd to argue that I, that is my ‘self’, wants X yet simultaneously wants not-X as this goes against the law of non-contradiction, which states “it is impossible for the same thing at the same time both to be and not to be” [Aristotle, 1005b]. So in order to answer the problem of free will within Freud’s model we need to clear up the problem of the self.

Kierkegaard was puzzled by the problem of the self but gave a explanation of it within Sickness Unto Death in which it is argued that “the self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relations relating itself to itself…a human being is a synthesis…of freedom and necessity” [Kierkegaard, XI:127]. By this it may be possible to see how we can resolve the problem with regard to Freud. If we replace the term itself with the names of parts of the mental apparatus then Kierkegaard reads as follows: ‘the self is a relation that relates Id to Ego or is the relations relating Id to Ego’. In the first part the self can be equated to cathexis as it is this which relates the Id to the Ego via its being discharged between the two systems. In the second part the self can be equated to Superego as it is creating out of the individual’s relations, as demonstrated above, and the Superego relates the Id to the Ego by means of a secondary screening process for the discharges of cathexis. Therefore the self is the Superego and the psychic energy which interacts between the Id and the Ego, and since the impulses originate in both the Id (from the Eros and Thanatos drives) and the Ego (from the reality principle) then by extension the self is also the Id and the Ego making the self as Kierkegaard stated ‘a synthesis’. Yet it appears that the problem of the law of non-contradiction still remains if this is the case. This is not necessarily the case as it was previously stated that “when two wishful impulses whose aims must appear to us incompatible…they combine to form an intermediate aim, a compromise” [Freud, UC, pg:582], this allows the Id and Ego to have their own free will without breaking the law of non-contradiction. It also solves the last piece of Kierkegaard’s claim that the self is a synthesis of freedom and necessity, the freedom comes from the free will of each part of the system in conflict but the necessity comes from its necessary adherence to the law of non-contradiction. And so the self can be considered the human psyche in its entirety capable of freely choosing a number of desires yet bound by the law of non-contradiction so only the desires which are compatible with each other are permitting, whilst the others become repressed.

To sum up what has just been said the self is a synthesis of Id, Ego and Superego relating to each other via the psychic energy of cathexis. Secondly each of the three systems contains its own free will but is bound by the law of non-contradiction so are determined to compromise whenever two opposing wills come into conflict. To put it another way we are free to do as we please so long as we do not contradict the actions and choices which have gone before, hence Freud’s model is compatible with soft determinism, also known as compatibilism.

But what is compatibilism? Compatibilism can be described as a solution to the free will problem as it allows free will to be compatible with determinism, thus enabling us to be held morally responsible for our actions even they we had no actual choice over what action we were to take [SP]. By actual choice I mean one that is chosen freely without any constraints on our choosing, as opposed to a perceived choice which is freely chosen from within a range of options from within a set of constraints. The former would be the exercise of total free will, libertarianism. The latter is the exercise of free will bound by pre-determined criteria, compatibilism. For example an actual choice is being able to choose between a cup of tea or a glass of fizzy pop whereas a perceived choice is being able to choose between the two but only being able to choose the cup of tea as every time this choice has occurred before you have desired the tea over the fizzy pop. Now it has been established what compatibilism is it can be discussed at which ethical systems work alongside Freud’s model.

Socratic ethics is built upon the notion that no man freely does evil they only do evil acts through ignorance, thus cannot be held morally responsible as it is stated within the Apology “you have discovered that bad people always have a bad effect…upon their nearest neighbours. Am I so hopelessly ignorant as not even to realize that…because nothing else would make me commit this grave offense intentionally” [Plato, 25e] and because the evil act was not committed intentionally Socrates claims “I cannot fairly be held responsible, since I have never promised” [Plato, 33b]. This would appear, at first, to be acceptable since evil desires are repressed into the unconscious, as demonstrated above, therefore become unknown to us so if we do act in an evil way it is because our unconscious has overpowered the Ego making us act in a way in which we were not aware of.

This view has been supported by some thinkers such as Sagan who argued “If reason were not fused with libidinal energy- the desires to love and create order- it would remain impotent against the destructive drive…without Eros, reason has as much commitment to morality and an orderly social life as a stick of dynamite” [Sagan, pg:139]. What Sagan refers to here when she uses the term reason could arguably be the Ego as it follows the reality principle, hence can be seen as the rational agent within the system ensuring the Id’s selfish desires are compatible with the external world. This would mean that the Ego and the Eros drive work in tandem to subdue our inner evil derived from the Thanatos drive. However there may be a hidden layer to the dynamite metaphor used by Sagan suggesting something beyond the initial reading which argues that an Ego without the Eros drive to support it cannot be adequate enough to stop the destructive desires of the Id. Dynamite can be used as a tool for good, as well as bad, as it can destroy objects with explosive force yet with that same destructive force act as a means to a greater end. For example when dynamite is employed within quarries so that marble (or some other mineral) can be excavated and used to construct monuments elsewhere. Therefore by using dynamite in her analogy there may be an implicit claim that an Ego working on its own can freely choose to work with the Thanatos drive or work against it. Only when combined with the Eros drive does the Ego lose this actual choice and replaces it with a perceived choice. Further supporting the notion that the psyche is one designed upon compatibilism. And because every psyche comes with the Eros drive, it is not something created later on as opposed to the Superego, and then the Ego can only ever be capable of actual choice if there is some fault within the psyche weakening the Eros drive, or strengthening the Thanatos drive. In either case evil can only be freely and intentionally committed by the psychologically abnormal as they are the only ones capable of being aware of their actions, following what was said above about Socratic ethics.

This idea is strengthened further by the idea that the Superego is the basis for morality within in the psyche as “he (Freud) consistently used the designation superego for the large psychical entity and assign it three basic functions: self-observation, conscience and maintaining the ego” [Sagan, pg:5], and it is conscience which makes us feel guilt when we have evil desires or act in a way which is socially perceived as evil. Consequently it is the conscience which aims at directing our choices towards the morally good, thus we are free to choose how to act but will only act in such a way as our conscience allows again feeding back into the notion of a psyche built upon compatibility.

Furthermore if we have a damaged psyche, one in which we failed to move beyond the Oedipus complex, thus not being able to construct a fully functioning Superego, then we become psychologically abnormal and therefore incapable of guilt and remorse which removes the limitations of our actions giving us the capacity of actual choice, or at least a wider range of options within our perceived choice. Hence evil can only intentionally be done through psychological abnormality for no normal psyche would permit the destructive desires of the Id to get through; a compromise would always be made. This is supported by Pears who argues “someone has reasons for judging a particular course of action best and yet he yields to the temptation to do something else. If he yields intentionally and freely, this counts as akrasia; not being in command of oneself” [Pears, pg:264] and if one is not in control of oneself then society commonly deems them as possessing some form of psychological abnormality.

In conclusion Freud’s psychodynamic model of the human psyche is one built upon compatibilism, when the psyche is functioning normally, in which case the agent will only ever act in such a way as is socially perceived as being morally good, for the Superego was created out of the social norms held by the parents during the time of Oedipus complex as demonstrated above. However should the psyche become damaged in any of the three ways mention, that is a weakening of the Eros drive, a strengthening of the Thanatos drive, or an absence/weakening of the Superego, then the psyche becomes imbalanced and therefore abnormal in which case the psyche becomes built upon libertarianism, hence capable of actual choice and perceived choice. Only then is the agent capable of evil which they can be held morally responsible for.

• BP- Beyond the Pleasure Principle
• EI- The Ego and the Id
• RP- Repression
• SP- Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy Online
• UC- The Unconscious

• Aristotle, (2004), Metaphysics (translated by Lawson-Tancred. H), London: Penguin Classics
• Freud. S, (1995), ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, in Gay. P, The Freud Reader, London: Vintage
• Freud. S, (1995), ‘Repression’, in Gay. P, The Freud Reader, London: Vintage
• Freud. S, (1995), ‘The Ego and the Id’, in Gay. P, The Freud Reader, London: Vintage
• Freud. S, (1995), ‘Unconscious, in Gay. P, The Freud Reader, London: Vintage
• Kierkegaard. S, (1983), The Sickness unto Death (translated by Hong. E and Hong. H), Princeton: Princeton University Press
• O’Shaughnessy. B, (1982), ‘The Id and the Thinking Process’, in Hopkins. J and Wollheim. R, Philosophical Essays on Freud, Bath: Cambridge University Press
• Pears. D, (1982), ‘Motivated Irrationality, Freudian Theory and Cognitive Dissonance’, in Hopkins. J and Wollheim. R, Philosophical Essays on Freud, Bath: Cambridge University Press
• Plato, (1954), The Last Days of Socrates the Apology; Crito; Phaedo (translated by Tredennick. H), London: Penguin Books
• Sagan. E, (1977), Freud, Women and Morality: The Psychology of Good and Evil, New York: Basic Books
• Spinoza. B, (1996), Ethics (translated by Curley. E), London: Penguin Books
• Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy Online, (accessed at 12:55 03/04/11)
• Thalberg. I, (1982), ‘Freud’s Anatomies of the Self’, in Hopkins. J and Wollheim. R, Philosophical Essays on Freud, Bath: Cambridge University Press

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