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Freud, Sigmund

  1. Jerome Neu

Published Online: 1 FEB 2013

DOI: 10.1002/9781444367072.wbiee058

The International Encyclopedia of Ethics

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Neu, J. 2013. Freud, Sigmund. The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 1 FEB 2013

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was the father of psychoanalysis, which is both a technique for exploring the mind and a method of psychological therapy. While some of his views remain controversial, many of his central concepts have become part of our common self-understanding. Whether talking about obsessive-compulsive and other neuroses, anal character traits, narcissism, transference and displaced feelings, sublimated instincts, the ego and the id, slips of the tongue, and on indefinitely, we use his language and his theories to describe and explain our lives. Whatever the controversies, as W. H. Auden noted in his poem “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”: “to us he is no more a person / now but a whole climate of opinion / under whom we conduct our different lives” – and there remains much to be learned from him about our moral experience in particular.

In the beginning, there is pleasure and pain. “Good” and “bad” (not to mention “justice”) have no independent meaning (see Goodness, Varieties of; Justice; Pleasure; Value Realism). Philosophers dispute the mature significance of such concepts (some insisting that the criteria remain rooted in the subjective experience of pleasure and pain, some insisting that the criteria must transcend the individual and the subjective). Yet almost everyone comes to recognize that good things can be painful (indeed, there are those who include difficulty of attainment among their criteria of value) and bad things can be pleasant. How is such recognition achieved and a conscience that enforces moral standards instituted (see Conscience)? Freud provides a developmental theory that offers an explanation of moral values and their internalization.

While for the infant there is only immediate pleasure and pain, parents and other supporting figures take a broader view. Children come to fear loss of love or punishment when they do what significant adults disapprove of. But so far, this amounts only to the fear of getting caught, which is not yet morality. As for justice, for Freud the sense of justice is rooted in infantile envy, our unhappiness when others have what we want (whether deserved or not). And the religion in which many find the source of morality is itself rooted in infantile fears and desires (Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, 1921; The Future of an Illusion, 1927).

Crucial to Freud's understanding of morality is the psychological mechanism of identification. Freud's instinct theory provides a developmental account of the emergence of morality, both in the development of the individual and (more speculatively, especially in Totem and Taboo, 1912–13) in the development of the species. His later structural theory (elaborated in The Ego and the Id, 1923) enshrines the observing and judging moral conscience in the superego, part of his tripartite division of the self. The superego provides an answer to the troubling question of the difference between having moral scruples and merely fearing punishment. Early on, the human infant experiences pleasure and pain. Those experiences provide primitive criteria for the difference between “good” and “bad” (and philosophical analyses of ethics as sophisticated as those of Spinoza and Hume in some ways return to those infantile criteria), but it quickly emerges that the infant's caregivers disapprove of some things that the infant likes and approve and encourage some things that the infant (sometimes emphatically) does not enjoy. So external standards for “good” and “bad” seem to take into account something more than the infant's pleasure and pain, and these standards are mediated for the infant through his or her attachment to the caregivers. That is, the infant desires the love and support of the caregivers and fears their loss. So what matters to the caregivers comes to matter to the infant as well. But so far, the fear of loss of love and of abandonment amounts to little more than the fear of punishment that motivates some adult criminals, who would do only what pleased themselves if they thought they could get away with it. (Some adults never move in their moral development beyond such infantile fear.) But there comes a point – according to psychoanalytic theory, during the Oedipal period when the 4- to 5-year-old child comes to identify with feared parental authority via internalization in order to ease conflict – when the child internalizes the standards of its caregivers. This is the beginning of moral principle.

In Totem and Taboo, Freud employs the myth of the brothers who band together and slay and eat (and so literally incorporate) the primal father, who had previously monopolized access to the women of the primal horde. The incest taboo emerges because their (ambivalent) love for the father comes to the fore after his slaying (Neu 2000 [1976]; see Incest). The sons then identify with his prohibitions (incorporated in their superegos). What is prohibited is what father would not have liked. The taboo emerges also because the liberated brothers might otherwise renew among themselves the conflict over the women that led to their revolt against their father in the first place – without the taboo they might all continue their strife for their father's role. The forces of aggression (which Freud later comes to regard as themselves instinctual) need taming. In individual development, the superego harnesses and turns inward the aggression against the frustrating but unassailable external authority figure (on whom the infant is dependent).

In “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), Freud notes various psychological manifestations of identification (including the demonstrative self-denigration and self-blame that emerge in the depressions that follow certain sorts of losses) and adumbrates the mechanism of internalization (modeled as physical incorporation in Totem and Taboo and perhaps in infantile fantasy) that he develops in later writings such as Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego and The Ego and the Id – writings that also shed light on the relation of identification to moral sympathy and to failures of sympathy, as in the “narcissism of minor differences” (Freud 1930; see Sympathy). It is processes of identification that give substance, psychological reality, to the ideals and prohibitions of morality enforced by the superego. In Freud's tripartite structural model of the mind, the superego is distinguished by the functions of self-observation and self-criticism. It contains an ego-ideal, derived from early social and familial influences, toward which the individual strives. As the agency of conscience, it judges and punishes the self for failing to meet ideals or for transgressing boundaries (the fundamental conditions for shame and guilt – that is, shame comes from failure to rise to the standards of the ego-ideal, while guilt comes from transgression of the prohibitions of the superego; see Guilt; Shame and Honor). According to psychoanalytic theory, it can operate unconsciously. Indeed, it is the unconscious operation of the superego that accounts for certain neurotic symptoms.

Out of and along with Freud's theoretical insights, he advanced a number of morally practical and important arguments. Freud was a great liberator, teaching people to question the conventional demands of morality and accept their own natures. His was not an argument for lawless egoism but for reasoned recognition of the proper place of instincts in our lives, the mutual accommodation required of the pleasure principle and the reality principle. In its primary process functioning, the mind seeks immediate pleasurable discharge of its instinctual drives. But since adequate discharge is only achievable under specific conditions, secondary process functioning calls for restraint and the delay of gratification until those conditions are realized in reality. The alternative is fantasy gratification, neurosis, and self-deception. (Issues about psychic energy and the principles governing its management are explored in Freud's early neurophysiological model of the mind as well as later writings – Freud 1950 [1887–1902], 1900, 1911; see Self-Deception.) But there is also risk in excessive restraint.

Freud's developmental theory of morality is rooted in a broader theory of psychosexual development and the place of instincts in human life. In “‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness” (1908), Freud argues that civilization demands repression of sexual desire (whether perverse, premarital, or extramarital) in the name of legitimate reproduction, imposing costs on individuals in the form of frustration and neurosis (see Sexual Morality). That is to say, the denial and diversion of natural sexual and other impulses by the demands of convention can lead to neurosis of various sorts, and these disorders are to be regarded as among the costs and “discontents” of civilization (Freud 1930). Some control of instincts (including aggressive instincts) is of course necessary, but how much control is justifiably called for needs examination and argument. And the nature of sexual desires themselves needs to be properly understood.

The instincts Freud is concerned with lie on the border of the physical and the mental and are internally complex; they are not to be equated with simple inherited patterns of behavior (like the migratory habits of birds studied by ethologists). After all, human sexual desires, far from being uniform, are as diverse as the human imagination (just about anything that can be thought of, someone gets off on). Whatever might be said of the sources of instinct, its aims and objects are thought-dependent, rather than being set by chemistry or biology. The sexual instinct must be understood as made up of components that vary along a number of dimensions (source, aim, and object). Otherwise, as Freud argues in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905; Neu 2000 [1987]), it would be difficult to understand how the various perversions are recognized as “sexual” despite their distance from the man-in-the-street's conception of sexuality (heterosexual genital intercourse between adults). Freud's broadened concept of sexuality makes intelligible sexual preferences emphasizing different sources (erotogenic zones or bodily centers of arousal), aims (acts, such as intercourse and looking, designed to achieve pleasure and satisfaction), and objects (whether of the same or different gender, or even other than whole living persons). It also allows for the recognition of infantile sexuality. Phenomena that might not on the surface appear sexual (e.g., childhood thumbsucking) share essential characteristics with obviously sexual activity (infantile sensual sucking involves pleasurable stimulation of the same erotogenic zone, the mouth, stimulated in adult sexual activities such as kissing), and can be understood as earlier stages in the development of the same underlying instinct that expresses itself in such various forms in adult sexuality. The standard developmental stages are oral, anal, phallic, and genital.

Understanding how human sexuality develops was central to Freud's enterprise, and had important implications for attitudes toward deviance and so-called “perversion.” He insisted “perversion” is not to be used as a term of reproach (1905: 160), but instead perversions are to be seen simply as variations along the dimensions of source, object, and aim of an underlying universal instinct, no single constellation of which is to be singled out and privileged as “normal.” Indeed, much perversion might be universal, not just developmentally but in unconscious fantasy and in foreplay and under the pressure of suitable external conditions (as when self-identified heterosexuals find pleasure in homosexual relations in single-sex institutions). Freud in effect normalized much of sexual variety – which is not to say there may not be good moral reasons for restricting (indeed, prohibiting and even punishing) certain sexual activities (such as child abuse), but it does mean that understanding and criticism cannot content themselves with unargued claims about what is “normal” or “natural.” (And the distinction between activities and fantasies is itself significant; Neu 2002.) This has had an enormously liberating effect on the sexual morality of much of the world. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and the political theory of writers such as Herbert Marcuse (with his critique of “surplus-repression,” 1955) and Norman O. Brown (with his call for a return to the “polymorphous perversion” of infancy, 1959) were in many ways inspired by Freud's insights. Freud's instinct theory continues to have important implications for both sexual morality and political theory.

Freud's contributions to the understanding of our instinctual and psychological nature have had further consequences. Consider the place of ambivalence in emotional life and views about what the virtuous person “ought” to feel. For a long time, many believed it was wrong to have or admit hostile feelings toward people we supposedly love, that it somehow belies the love. One of Freud's patients, the Rat Man, suffered from a host of neurotic symptoms because of his repressed rage (Freud 1909). He could not face his unconscious hatred for his deceased father (who had in certain ways interfered with his love life) and his lady-love (who had rejected his proposals). But through Freud's efforts to make the unconscious conscious, the Rat Man overcame his obsessive-compulsive symptoms, and it is arguable that through Freud's efforts society has come to accept ambivalence as natural, so that we can face the mixed feelings we all (arguably, inevitably) have toward our beloveds. (Indeed, we now tend to suspect any love that professes to be too pure, too unmixed.) It can even be argued that the recognition and acceptance of emotional ambivalence is a kind of moral progress, part of a larger trend toward self-acceptance and rejection of psychologically impossible ideals.

Some of what Freud has to teach us about the emotions and virtue does not depend on commitment to psychoanalytic theory, though even then that theory often deepens his insights. He famously ridicules Christ's call to love our enemies as not just difficult, but psychologically impossible – and perhaps even morally dubious (1930: 109–12, 142–3). After all, what has one's enemy done to deserve one's love, and, assuming that love affects what one actually does, doesn't it have costs in terms of the favor or preferential treatment that one owes and will have to deny to those who have loved one and treated one well? He suggests impartiality in love may be a kind of injustice. Crucially, for Freud, the special psychological difficulty in loving one's enemies is connected with natural human aggression. Its objects, like the objects of love, would seem fixed in human nature. You can't overcome hatred simply because society or religion tells you that you ought, you can't make yourself love someone because you think you should. If one accepts the place that Freud's later thought gives to an instinct of aggression, the problems with an injunction to love one's enemies are inevitable and perhaps insurmountable. Like recent “experimental philosophers” (and, for that matter, Aristotle), Freud insists on psychological realism in ethics (Neu 2009; see Experimental Ethics).

Even ideals of justice are subjected to Freud's psychological scrutiny. Freud suspects that it is infantile envy and defensive reaction-formation that lie at the root of calls for justice (1921: 119–21; Forrester 1996). It is a point also made by Nietzsche (1969 [1887]: First Essay § 14), who saw impotent hate, ressentiment, behind both retributivist justifications of punishment and the Christian injunction to love and forgive one's enemies. That is to say, there may be motives that we should mistrust lying behind what present themselves as calls for loving fellow-feeling and for equality, as demands for everyone to get respect and their just deserts. We may be self-deceived about what moves us. It does not follow that the principles of justice cannot transcend the passionate sources of their appeal, or that spiteful ressentiment cannot be distinguished from legitimate resentment (see Rawls 1971: 534–41). The dark forces envisioned by suspicious genealogies do not by themselves refute aspirational ideals, though insofar as proper motives are essential to true Aristotelian virtue or Kantian moral worth psychological realities and constraints remain inextricable from ethical value.

Freud's views developed and changed over time (a point often overlooked when later views are conflated with earlier, abandoned views in the discussion of his theories), but there remain certain important continuities. For example, while in the beginning he spoke about ego instincts versus sexual instincts and at the end of his life he opposed the life and death instincts, his instinctual theory was from beginning to end dualistic. Psychoanalysis is essentially a theory of inner conflict, and for conflict there must be at least two parties or forces at work. This has important implications for the hopes of social theories that wish to overcome the suffering of war and aggression through the amelioration and reform of social structures and interpersonal relations. Internal conflicts and suffering might well persist. That is part of the argument of Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). For any kind of social order, there is a price to be paid – a price in terms of the suppression, control, or diversion of instinctual forces, whether sexual or aggressive. The instinctual renunciation demanded by morality and often achieved by repression Freud regarded as essential to the order society needs to conduct its business. Civilization gets the energy for the achievements of art and science by sublimation of the same instinctual drives. But the costs of society and civilization to the individual in frustration, unhappiness, and neurosis can be too high. Freud's individual therapy was meant to lead to the liberation of repressed energies (which would not by itself guarantee happiness); he hoped it might also provide energy to transform the world and moderate its excess demands for restraint. But just as his individual psychology was founded on the inevitability of internal conflict, in his social thought he saw some limits (especially on aggression – the death instinct turned outward) as necessary and he remained pessimistic about the apparently endless struggle reason must wage (Freud 1930).


  1. Top of page
  2. References
  3. Further Readings
  • Brown, Norman O. 1959. Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
  • Forrester, John 1996. Psychoanalysis and the History of the Passions: The Strange Destiny of Envy, in John O'Neill (ed.), Freud and the Passions. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, pp. 12749.
  • Freud, Sigmund 1900. The Interpretation of Dreams. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey, vols. 45. London: Hogarth (1953–74).
  • Freud, Sigmund 1905. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Standard Edition 7.
  • Freud, Sigmund 1908. “‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness.” Standard Edition 9.
  • Freud, Sigmund 1909. “Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis.” Standard Edition 10.
  • Freud, Sigmund 1911. “Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning.” Standard Edition 12.
  • Freud, Sigmund 1912–13. Totem and Taboo. Standard Edition 13.
  • Freud, Sigmund 1917. “Mourning and Melancholia.” Standard Edition 14.
  • Freud, Sigmund 1921. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Standard Edition 18.
  • Freud, Sigmund 1923. The Ego and the Id. Standard Edition 19.
  • Freud, Sigmund 1927. The Future of an Illusion. Standard Edition 21.
  • Freud, Sigmund 1930. Civilization and Its Discontents. Standard Edition 21.
  • Freud, Sigmund 1950 [1887–1902]. “A Project for a Scientific Psychology.” Standard Edition 1.
  • Marcuse, Herbert 1955. Eros and Civilization. Boston: Beacon.
  • Neu, Jerome 2000 [1976]. What Is Wrong with Incest? in Jerome Neu, A Tear Is an Intellectual Thing: The Meanings of Emotion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 16676.
  • Neu, Jerome 2000 [1987]. Freud and Perversion, in Jerome Neu, A Tear Is an Intellectual Thing: The Meanings of Emotion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 14465.
  • Neu, Jerome 2002. “An Ethics of Fantasy?Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, vol. 22, pp. 13357.
  • Neu, Jerome 2009. An Ethics of Emotion? in Peter Goldie (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Emotion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 50117.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich 1969 [1887]. On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. W. Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Rawls, John 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Further Readings

  1. Top of page
  2. References
  3. Further Readings
  • Deigh, John 1996. The Sources of Moral Agency: Essays in Moral Psychology and Freudian Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lear, Jonathan 2005. Freud. London: Routledge.
  • Neu, Jerome (ed.) 1991. The Cambridge Companion to Freud. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ricoeur, Paul 1970. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Rieff, Philip 1979. Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Wollheim, Richard 1971. Sigmund Freud. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.