The Ethics of Psychoanalysis


The following is taken from one session in a series of introductory seminars as part of the Lacan Circle of Melbourne’s activities.


There is an interesting remark by Miller, in a paper from 2012 on the aims of psychoanalysis. ‘The psychoanalyst’s routine is therapeutic. His business is with the symptom that has to be cured.’ Psychoanalysts can put on airs, and ascribe lofty goals to their practice, but people come to consult with an analyst because something is causing them suffering. As Miller says, ‘If somebody goes to see a psychoanalyst for the sake of knowledge and not to get rid of a symptom it is not very certain that his demand can be received’.  So, whatever one may learn of oneself in the course of analysis, analytic praxis is not reducible to a quest for knowledge.

Still less, however, is it a matter of taking a sledgehammer to symptoms and attempting to knock them down, in the manner of a cognitive-behaviourist, or of attempting to tame them by way of mindfulness or some other fad. Directly trying to abolish a symptom always results in what Lacan calls a Master’s Discourse. The clinician adopts the position of saying to the patient – ‘Do as I say, see things my way, and you will get better’. It is authoritarian, even if this is concealed by reference to empirical data and benevolent intentions. There are at least two objections to the direct approach, one methodological, the other ethical. The methodological objection is that there are no guarantees that the patient will be better off for following the master-clinician’s mandates. There are no guarantees in psychoanalysis either, but the directive treatments tend to proceed by way of generalisation, and the pseudo-guarantee of survey data statistics. Psychoanalysis works differently. For instance, as a rule in neurosis, and despite the complaints and genuine suffering that may be expressed by the patient, something works, something sustains the symptom.. For a clinician to rush into extinguishing a phobia, or advising a patient to leave an apparently bad relationship, may result in effects that are even worse than the initial grievance. This risk is even more acute in psychosis where, as Freud says in the Schreber case, a delusion is an attempt at recovery, and not something to be dismissed or dismantled insofar as it may be the very thing holding a subject together.

The ethical objection is the more important than the methodological, however, and it is on ethical grounds that psychoanalysis is distinct from the other psy-therapies, and that distinguishes Lacanian analysis in particular from the other varieties. This is a point that was taken up by Veronique Voruz when she visited Melbourne last year, namely, that psychoanalysis is not merely psychology with a turbo-charged theory, but rather, aims at something fundamentally different at the level of ethics. More precisely, an analysis aims at something other than a form of adaptation or indoctrination. Lacan did not formulate and repudiate the Master’s and University Discourses until the 1960s, but the concern with the ethics of psychoanalysis can be found in all of his work. The very beginning of Seminar I opens with a reference to instruction in the Zen tradition, not because Lacan was a crypto-Buddhist but because he was preoccupied with non-authoritarian forms of teaching. The ethical differences between psychoanalysis and the other treatments under the category of ‘mental health’ are, I suspect, the reason that psychoanalysis is rejected, where it is not loathed or feared. The attempts to make psychoanalysis empirically valid are for this reason, missing the point to a certain extent. There is interesting work done on this front by Fonagy, for instance, and within the Lacanian tradition by some of our Belgian colleagues. Yet no amount of empirical validation will reconcile the coercive motives of policy-makers with the free association – with no guarantees – that characterises psychoanalytic work.

There are many places to which one could turn to get a sense of Lacan’s ideas on the ethics of psychoanalysis, but Seminar VII is arguably the best. By examining it, I hope to show in more detail what distinguishes Lacan’s project from that of other psychoanalysts, and also what distinguishes psychoanalysis from the philosophers who have tackled questions of ethics. The seventh seminar illustrates much of what makes Lacan’s teaching worth taking seriously. On the one hand, it features detailed readings of Freud’s early psychoanalytic theories, excursions into literature (by way of the troubadours, de Sade and Antigone) and critical examination of philosophers such as Kant, Aristotle and others. On the other hand, it pushes to its limit the theorisation of a desire-oriented psychoanalysis. Here is where the symbolic, in which the signifier previously reigned supreme, encounters a real that receives its first lengthy theorisation. This is where the concept of jouissance is properly introduced. Jouissance is a satisfaction beyond pleasure. Subjectively, it may be registered as something distinctly unpleasurable. It is the aim of the activity of the drives, whatever their object, and that which attaches to a symptom. Pleasure might be sipping a glass of fine wine; jouissance is quaffing the entire bottle, and then some. It should be added that in French, the term ‘jouissance’ has sexual connotations lacking in the nearest English equivalents (such as enjoyment, or satisfaction), which is why the term is generally left untranslated in the literature.

The key theme of the seminar on ethics is the attraction of transgression (p. 2), the link between desire and the law. In Seminar X, Lacan says, famously, that anxiety is the affect which does not deceive. I think that we should contrast this with guilt, an affect which is radically deceptive. Both guilt and anxiety can involve a relation to desire, though in guilt, this is most misrecognised when it involves a subject who self-punishes, or who gets him or herself punished. Self-administered punishment is likely to fail to expiate self-imposed guilt, since the result of the ‘trial’ or evaluation which the subject has manufactured is essentially rigged in advance. If we take the infamous Stalinist show trials as an analogy, even here there had to be an appearance of justice having been served. Meanwhile, legislator, judge and executioner are all on the same side, meaning that the real crimes are going unpunished. By the same token, self-imposed guilt and punishment is a means to jouissance rather than justice and, as Lacan says, the crime for which one is enthusiastically punishing oneself allows other crimes to go completely undetected.

What are the guiding principles of psychoanalysis, at least as far as ethics are concerned? Lacan gives an answer, but not before spending some time on the negative work of establishing that which does not constitute an ethics of psychoanalysis. For starters, Lacan identifies three ‘ideals’ which had crept into some forms of psychoanalysis and other psychotherapies. The first is the ideal of a treatment to promote human love. It is true that Freud was interested in erotic love, but Lacan does not endorse those followers of Freud who place ‘genital love’ as their ideal. This is a notion of ‘love as hygiene’ (p. 8), that was as brutally normative in 1960 as it is absurd today, and there is no guarantee that psychoanalysis or any other treatment is capable of harmonising different loves. Whence repression, splitting and debasement of love objects and the entire human comedy of love.

The second ideal to be repudiated is that of ‘authenticity’, a goal which enjoys a dubious resurrection in our times among fascists, hipsters and gurus. It is difficult to even conceive of an ‘authenticity’ that would hold for a subject irrevocably divided. Again, ‘authenticity’ in clinical practice involves the imposition of ideological norms, and here Lacan invokes Helene Deutsch’s notion of the ‘as if’ character. When the organisational principle of psychical life is shifted from the Name-of-the-Father to the norm (or even the Norm-of-the-Father), the result is what is called ‘ordinary psychosis’ by some of our colleagues. It is difficult to see how an analyst could promote any of this as an ethical model.

Finally, the third ideal that Lacan rejects for analysis is that of ‘non-dependence’. There is an extraordinary anticipation here of the principles of the neoliberal age. As the followers of Foucault, among others, have shown, ‘dependence’ is relentlessly pathologised and extirpated. At least, this is what happens when the dependence involves other people. Dependence on drugs or devices is an extension of the ‘self-management’ and ‘self-regulation’ prized by the bureaus of happiness that govern ‘mental health’ today. With his rejection of standardisation and generality, it is no surprise that Lacan’s ethics are not utilitarian.

Some guidance can be found here with reference to the ethical philosophy of Aristotle. Aristotle’s ethics and Kant’s categorical imperative were important references for Lacan throughout his teaching. In Lacan’s view, Aristotle is addressing his ethical philosophy to a society of masters (p. 24). Where ethical questions arise, there is orthos logos on the one hand, ‘right discourse’, and ‘intemperance’ on the other. The good which is the object of properly ethical conduct is happiness. To maximise this, according to Aristotle, one must pursue a kind of moderation or ‘happy medium’ in ethical matters. For instance, courage is a virtue. An excess of this virtue becomes a vice, namely, ‘rashness’, and a deficiency is cowardice. Modesty is a virtue when taken in the proper dose; in excess it becomes shyness, in deficiency, shamelessness. In a sense, Aristotle’s ethics are a precursor to Freud’s pleasure principle, which is itself oriented around homeostasis and the relief of tension. Or, as Zizek puts it somewhere, if you want to be a good hedonist and maximise your quantum of pleasure, you are obliged to take moderation as a principle. The life of a debauched rock star – booze, drugs, and orgies – may have effects that entail that the period of pleasure-seeking is rather short-lived. Thus, a hedonist can maximise his or her pleasure by way of Aristotelian principles of moderation, of some sex, drugs and rock and roll, but not so much as to cause the destruction of his or her bodily organism.

There are several points to critique from a psychoanalytic perspective, but there are two in particular that are worth mentioning, as they apply to Kant as much as to Aristotle. The foundation of Kantian ethics is to secure an ethical philosophy from reason alone, and to that end, Kant promoted the categorical imperative: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” First, neither Aristotle nor Kant have a conception equivalent to jouissance in their works. This is a much more serious problem for Kant, as evidenced in some illustrations of his ethics, cited by Lacan (see p. 188, for example). In one case, a man is presented with the offer of spending the night, unlawfully, with a desirable women, on the condition that he be executed on the way out. For Kant, a cost-benefit type analysis of the situation is sufficient to persuade him that it is utterly out of the question that any man would sleep with the woman. As Lacan points out, this example collapses once the night’s festivities are shifted from the category of pleasure to that of jouissance, since the latter ‘implies precisely the acceptance of death’ (p. 189). More immediately, however, both philosophers attempt to universalise their prescriptions, radically so in the case of Kant, who wants ethics to proceed from particular cases to universal law. In contrast, the Freudian Wunsch – the precursor to Lacanian desire – has the character of ‘the most particular of laws – even if it is universal that this particularity is to be found in every human being’ (p. 24).

The role of psychoanalysis is not to undertake some version of affective hygiene. ‘As guides to the real, feelings are deceptive’ (p. 30). Rather, at this point in Lacan’s teaching, the benefit of psychoanalysis lies in it bringing unconscious desire into signifiers. ‘We only grasp the unconscious finally when it is explicated, in that part of it which is articulated by passing into words’ (p. 32). This is because the unconscious is structured like a language, and unconscious desire must be sought in the signifier, and not the endlessly displaceable signified. In a detailed reading of Freud’s metapsychology, Lacan’s position is that repression operates on nothing other than signifiers (p. 44). Furthermore, whilst Freud posits the existence of thing-representations (Sache) and word-representations, the entry of a subject into language necessitates the existence of an unrepresented remainder – das Ding. This concept is the precursor to object a, which we shall turn to in a subsequent session, but for now it can be considered a point of entry into Lacan’s theorisation of the real, as a ‘beyond-of-the-signified’ (p. 54). In a sense, the signifier ‘beyond’ is the key to Lacan’s ethics, as he delves beyond the pleasure principle, beyond good and evil. For instance, Lacan says of nudity that ‘there is a beyond of nudity that nudity hides’ (p. 227).

Das Ding is the original object that is lost upon entry into the symbolic order. One is obliged to find it again and again (p. 52). Lacan calls it the ‘absolute Other of the subject’, which one does not actually find per se, but knows by way of ‘pleasurable associations’. The hysteric is organised around this object as a support for an aversion, as the primary object of the hysteric was one that failed to satisfy. The obsessional neurotic, on the other hand, has a primary object which gives too much satisfaction, and it is in defence of this excess that the obsessional works (p. 54). This accounts for the sadism in the obsessional’s relations to the Other, and whose defences, Lacan says, ‘take the form of an iron frame…in which he remains and locks himself up, so as to stop himself having access to that which Freud somewhere calls a horror he himself doesn’t know’ (p. 203).

Representations, whether symbolic or imaginary, operate by way of the signifying chain (p. 62). Das Ding is beyond this. In contrast to Klein’s theories, ‘there is not a good and a bad object; there is good and bad, and then there is the Thing’ (p. 62). ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ already belong to representations; ‘they exist as clues to that which orients the position of the subject, according to the pleasure principle’. The first Other to occupy the position of das Ding in the life of a subject is the mother. According to Lacan, Freud’s manoeuvre is to posit the mother as both ‘Sovereign Good’ and object of incest and thus, necessarily a forbidden good. ‘Such is the foundation of the moral law as turned on its head by Freud’ (p. 70). The Law and desire are inextricably linked, and revolve around das Ding. With reference to Levi-Strauss, this is perhaps one reason why paternal and maternal incest differ considerably as to both their frequency and clinical sequelae.

The introduction of these terms – jouissance, das Ding, and an interlinked desire and Law – allow for a critique of Kant’s deontological ethics. (The ‘deon’ here means ‘Duty’, and is radically anti-consequentialist). Freud had already observed in Civilisation and its Discontents, in the psychology of the saint, for example, that to exercise moral action, or even to renounce pleasure brings with it its own satisfaction. Kantian ethics is absolutely detached from any Good. The goodness or badness of an action is entirely to be found in its intent, and the consequences of it are a matter of indifference as far as its moral standing is concerned. The insistence on Duty, taken to the point of pain, or even death, marks Kant’s philosophy as an ethics of the superego. We should be wary of those American textbooks which represent the superego as the ‘moral conscience’ in Freud’s second topography. Freud himself is clear that the superego is an overseer, and obscene and ferocious figure concerned with jouissance, and not morality. Or, as Bob Dylan put it once in a song, it is a conscience itself which is ‘vile and depraved/ You cannot depend on it to be your guide/ As it’s you who must keep it satisfied’. From here, Lacan draws the comparison with the Marquis de Sade, particularly with reference to the text Philosophy in the Boudoir. If this latter text were to be condensed into an ethical principle, Lacan articulates it as ‘Let us take as the universal maxim of our conduct the right to enjoy any other person whatsoever as the instrument of our pleasure’ (p. 79). De Sade is perverse, but like many perverts, he is a good moralist, and in this regard he resembles Kant both formally and in terms of the superegoic nature of his imperatives. Pain is the consequence of both philosophies, and Lacan makes a very interesting point in passing about the difficulties that neurotics have in disclosing certain of their fantasies. A neurotic is, after all, a kind of failed pervert. Some fantasies cannot bear the revelation of speech (p. 80), especially when the fantasy in question hovers around the ‘outer extremities’ of pleasure.

Lacan turns to St Paul’s epistle to the Romans (7:7) to elucidate some connections here. I shall quote the verse in full:

What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”

Lacan says that if we exchange the term ‘sin’ for ‘Thing’, then we will have arrived at his conception of desire, which ‘flares up’ in relation to the Law (p. 83-84). The real is not transcendental with regard to the symbolic order. What is knowable about the Thing is knowable only by access via the law, and law and desire are two sides of the same coin here. The prohibition necessitates a desire to breach it, just as a desire for certain goods necessitates a prohibitive law. At least two consequences can be deduced from these premises. First, unconscious desire is set in opposition to the law, even as one necessitates the other. For this reason, if for no other, one may have good reason not to want to know too much about one’s unconscious desires. Second, access to the real – in the form of jouissance, for example – is inherently transgressive. This is a thesis of Lacan’s which is quite specific to Seminar VII, and in fact, Lacan revises it on several occasions later in his teaching. Nonetheless, desire – which we should recall is coextensive with lack – comes across as a defence against jouissance and the deathly machinations of the drives. The drives are on the side of demand, and desire arises from what is lacking in demand. It should be added that the Law is not purely prohibitive, but also productive. It exhorts as well as forbids.

Lacan discusses sublimation in the context of ethics by way of a detour into the invention, by the troubadours, of courtly love. I will not spend much time on this discussion here, and to do so would merit another paper altogether. A few points are worth noting, nonetheless. Courtly love belongs to a Romantic tradition in which the troubadour takes a Lady as his object, and pours his idealisations into her. The relations between poet and Lady may not have been entirely chaste, but sex was by no means the object of the troubadours’ labours, which were many and varied, and certainly the relations had no element of domesticity or conjugal commitment to them.

Romantic love of this sort was a world-changing invention, to the point that in many parts of the contemporary West, it may be difficult for some to imagine that things happened any other way. Whilst the courtly love practiced by the troubadours constitutes an extreme version of this, it was instrumental in effecting a re-codification of social relations between men and women in matters of love. Lacan makes some observations on this, relying on Freud. First, this form of sublimated love was a specifically European Christian invention. Or rather, elements of Islamic chivalry were absorbed the Christian world in parts of Southern Europe such as Spain, Sicily and up to Languedoc. In any event, such love is in complete contrast with the Greeks. The Greeks did not need to idealise their love-object since it was the drive to love which was the thing to be revered. In the Islamic and Christian worlds, such a drive was insufficient on its own, and needed to be ratified by an object that was worthy of it (p. 98).

Second, for courtly love to function as a ‘paradigmatic’ form of sublimation, it requires that it be given social recognition (p. 107). I think that there is a foreshadowing of Lacan’s later work on the sinthome in this. James Joyce, for example, may have been writing, ultimately, for his own enjoyment. Nonetheless, that he presented his finished works at Shakespeare & Co rather than keep them unread in a basement somewhere may be a significant point in understanding the stability of his artistic arrangements. And perhaps it is not incidental that, as Lacan notes, the idealisation of the figure of the Lady coincided with a period of European history when liberty for women was exceptionally restricted, and the role of women in many social relations was that of chattel (p. 147).

Lacan does not labour this point, but it is clear in my view that courtly love is not very compatible with the other kinds, such as those that we might characterise by eroticism on the one hand, and domesticity on the other. Perhaps all love requires a degree of fantasy, but idealised Romanticism in particular requires a hefty dose of Vaseline on one’s lenses. The role of psychoanalysis is not to attempt to harmonise these different forms of love or, more precisely, to participate in the popular illusion that such disparate loves are, in principle, unifiable. All desire is called into question in psychoanalysis, how self-evident it may initially appear to its bearer.

Returning to Freud, we may note that he presents two different mythical fathers. One is the father of the Oedipus complex, who prohibits incest between mother and son. He eventually presents an identificatory model for said son. The other is the obscene father of Totem and Taboo, who regulates access to the women and who is murdered by the sons. In their horror, the sons establish a link between the dead father and the Law.

There is an apparent paradox here that Lacan notes, namely, that not only does killing the father not open the path to jouissance, it strengthens the barriers in its way (p. 176). This is reminiscent of Lacan’s inversion of Dostoevsky’s famous maxim in The Brothers Karamazov, in which if there is no God, then everything is permitted. On the contrary, Lacan says, without a God, nothing is permitted. Dislodging or even killing the father is by no means the same as clearing a path to one’s satisfactions. We might turn to the history of revolutions for confirmation of this, where, as if often the case, the new regime is even bloodier than the one it replaced. In the clinic, the decline of paternal authority is more or less typical, and many analysands are the children of well-meaning, permissive parents, who supply their children with the imperative to enjoy themselves. The results of such an imperative are not necessarily cheerful libertinism, but rather, subjects crippled with anxieties and inhibitions, often unable to act at all. Prohibition is a means of satisfaction, and if, colloquially, there is such a thing as ‘Catholic guilt’, we should add that the same theological support provides a system capable of producing Catholic jouissance as well. ‘What is the goal jouissance seeks if it has to find support in transgression to reach it?’ (p. 195). Lacan asks but does not answer the question, and I raise it again here in the interest of further discussion.

The beautiful, according to Lacan, is closer to evil than the good in the same sense of the old saying, namely, that the perfect is the enemy of the good (p. 217). The pursuit of perfection, as is evident in the clinic, produces jouissance rather than the good. It is a set-up designed to fail at reaching its suppposed object. On this point, both Lacan and de Sade are in agreement that tyranny rather than anarchy is on the side of Law (p. 221). Or, too put it somewhat differently, too much enforcement of the law quickly ventures into something illegal, and certainly far removed from the good. Lacan shares the views of Freud and Nietzsche that the so-called good keeps desire in check (p. 230), but disagrees that this has anything much to do with fear, for instance. Fear, even of the religious variety, is a ‘localisable defence’ (p. 232), against something beyond which is unknown to us, and which is correlated with anxiety.

Much ink has been spilled on Lacan’s take on Antigone, which constitutes the latter portion of Seminar VII. In Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone is the daughter of the ill-fated Oedipus. The King, Creon, has ordered that Antigone’s brother be refused a proper burial. Antigone defies the king, thus condemning herself to being entombed alive. Certainly, there are Kantian elements to Creon’s position, whose ‘innocence’ in applying the universal law ‘crosses over into another sphere’ (p. 259). Antigone is, as Lacan says, an ‘incarnation of desire’ (p. 282), but the desire in this case is a desire for death. Antigone’s refusal to yield on her desire has led some Slovenian commentators such as Zizek, and more significantly, Alenka Zupancic, to herald Antigone as an exemplar of psychoanalytic ethics, or even an example of ‘ethics of the real’. I myself am unconvinced of this thesis, and am more sympathetic to the view of another Melbournian, Justin Clemens, who underscores the hysterical basis to Antigone’s rebellion, her wish to rule over a master.

In any case, whilst the tragic element of psychoanalytic ethics may be disputed, there is no question that psychoanalysis is not aiming at happiness. Freud brought the Americans the plague, not the glad tidings of positive psychology (which have since been appropriated by the military). Psychoanalysis can alleviate suffering through the method of free association, but not in order to promote ‘genital objecthood’ or ‘adjustment to reality’ (p. 293). The best possibility for a non-lethal jouissance or sublimation appears to be in the ‘activity of the artist’, but even here, things are far from assured. Sublimate as much as you like, but you have to pay for it with something, and this something is jouissance (p. 322). Happiness and the Sovereign Good are closed questions. Not only does the analyst lack them, but they do not exist, except fantasmatically (p. 300).

This is the point at which Lacan concludes his seminar on ethics. The only thing of which one can be guilty is of giving ground relative to one’s desire (p. 319), of not having acted in conformity with one’s desire (p. 314). The interiorisation of the law is not itself lawful, and the superego is a demanding overseer, a voice for the drives, and not a support for morality. All attempts at correction, ‘growth’, a ‘conflict-free ego’, indoctrination, imposing ‘self-regulation’ or adaptation consequently lapse into authoritarian discourses, whatever their pseudo-scientific garb, and fall a long way outside of psychoanalytic ethics.


Clemens, J. (2013). Psychoanalysis is an antiphilosophy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Lacan, J. (1992). The ethics of psychoanalysis. 1959-1960. The seminar of Jacques Lacan Book VII. (Trans. D. Porter). New York, NY Norton.

Miller, J-A. (2012). Psychoanalysis, the city and communities. (Trans. P. Dravers). Psychoanalytic Notebooks, 24.

Zupanĉiĉ, A. (2000). Ethics of the Real: Kant, Lacan. London: Verso.



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