Books

The Foundations of Morality by George Frankl

Michael Williams has a problem with George Frankl’s psychoanalytic ethics.

What a fine mess we’re in at the beginning of the twenty-first century! We inhabit a moral vacuum where there is no firm foundation for moral action. The violent catastrophe of the twentieth century has shattered the hopes of the European Enlightenment leaving us without a future. In psychoanalytic terms we have murdered the superego, the ego has been shorn of all its integrative power, and the id reigns supreme. No wonder our society represents the breakthrough of the repressed anger, hate, fear, greed and sex that leaves no room for compassion and altruism.

Traditionally it was the fire and brimstone preachers who predicted that the end is nigh. Now it is a psychoanalyst. Frankly, Frankl is just as cranky as the preachers. I began to wonder whether it was even worth finishing this book, but I did so because it gave me a chance to ponder some fundamental problems with evolutionary and psychoanalytic ethics in general.

If we tell the story of evolution, as Frankl does, starting with the primitive brain that simply processes motor functions and instinctive reactions but which, over time, evolves into a more sophisticated organ that can plan, predict, and calculate, it is very easy to introduce teleological and rational terms which, lo and behold, produce the moral rabbit out of the evolutionary hat. The same rabbit is pulled out of the psychoanalytic hat when we are told that the failure of the mother to suckle the baby with love means that the child cannot develop a fully functioning brain which, in turn, means that a morally deficient adult is produced who cannot control their anger and violence.

Another way of expressing the same trick is to confuse the language of brain development and the story of the mind, the ego, and the self. Today, the philosophical problem of mind is in great confusion. Much of what is written is technical and dense, but often the mistakes are the same as Frankl’s much simpler version. For him, brain function, particularly the function of the frontal cortex, is said to be the seat of the foresight, choice and freedom which the self needs to produce a stable ego. If we simply put into the recipe words like ‘self’, ‘mind’, and ‘person’ and mix them together with physical descriptions of brain functioning, for example synapses and connections, then it is no wonder that we can extract moral language from naturalistic description. The naturalistic fallacy is still at the root of much muddled thinking on moral philosophy and the philosophy of mind.

As part of his ‘horror of the id’ scenario, Frankl takes the logical positivists to task for emptying reason of all proper moral categories. He also attacks continental philosophy, in particular that of Derrida and Foucault, for what he calls the meaningless vacuity of deconstruction. The ordinary emptiness of modern life is paralleled, according to Frankl, with a philosophical emptiness. What is needed is a new metaphysic as a foundation for morals. Psychoanalysis, where the balanced individual has an ego that can, in a rational way, integrate the more primitive desires of the id, provides him with the metaphysic. His reading of Kant provides him with a categorical rational set of maxims upon which life can be lived. It is not that I disagree with his maxims, most of which are eminently sensible, but rather that his defence of them seems to be built on sand.

The moral is that if you include in the story of evolution or the story of psychoanalysis enough words like ‘love’, ‘ego’, ‘self’, ‘mind’ and ‘purpose’, you can easily create a moral theory which springs, like magic, out of the hat.

© Michael Williams 2002

Michael Williams is the Vicar of Bolton Parish Church.

The Foundations of Morality by George Frankl (Open Gate Press) 1-87-187152-2 £10.95 UK

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