Is Everything Permitted? Reconnecting Psychology and Ethics

By Lowen, Jeanette | Free Inquiry, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

Is Everything Permitted? Reconnecting Psychology and Ethics


Lowen, Jeanette, Free Inquiry


The age of psychology was born almost a century ago, and its influence continues. With Sigmund Freud and his school at the helm, the lens through which most people view the world began to change. The belief that there are "universal human values" that determine the goodness of a person lost its hold. "Good adjustment" became the norm by which one's mental health rather than one's character was measured. Psychoanalysis, adopting the value-free model of science, took a giant step away from the humanistic ethicists of the past--thus reinforcing a growing individualism that was becoming the modern philosophic view. Today, the divorce of psychology from ethics, with all the limitations implied therein, is being seriously questioned. More and more social scientists are seeking to counteract the trend toward an "anarchy of values." By reestablishing the connection between moral judgments and mental health, the way is being paved for a much-needed reordering of priorities.

Modern psychologists, particularly psychoanalysts, borrowed from the model of science: the value-neutral, value-avoiding model. Like the scientists, they believed that to get to the truth--in the case of psychology, the truth of a person--personal moral beliefs and judgments could not be considered. While illuminating the what and the why of ethical judgments, they did not increase our knowledge of how humans ought to live and what they ought to do. The newly recognized social scientists failed to go beyond mere criticism. They ignored that to understand the total personality, we must also understand the human need to find an answer to the meaning of existence. They failed to see the necessity for discovering "norms" according to which we ought to live.

Thus, the task and the goal of psychology became to describe, to define, to explain, and to understand--with the purpose of helping the person "to adjust." One's mental health was evaluated on the basis of how well he or she was adjusting to the world around. By implication, the adjustment was always in terms of what the particular group or culture was dictating; the mores and customs set the norms, with relatively little room for deviation.

We have accepted the modern insight that human evil is largely human weakness and is therefore forgivable ("He's only human!"), understandable, and, in principle, curable. We are the product of living in the scientific age, when science--and psychology as well--has tried to be purely neutral and dispassionate. Values have been seen as idealistic, and they were therefore turned over to the poets, the philosophers, the artists, and the religionists. It has been a time when values have become individualistic--a matter of one's own opinion.

This assumption of a relativistic position with respect to values has had an adverse effect not only upon ethical theory, but also upon the progress of psychology itself. The psychoanalytic orientation contributed to the growing subjective view that redirected the focus from absolutes and universal values to the sovereignty of each individual's domain. It began to look as though we no longer had any shared values--as though there were a complete chaos and anarchy of moral standards.

A Changing View

But then, in the third or fourth decades of this century, new questions and opposing views began to emerge. Psychologists like Gordon Allport, A. H. Maslow, and Eric Fromm came on the scene. There is more to the human being than psychological explanations, they declared.

Allport, prominent in psychological circles after World War II, was interested in connecting the newly influential social sciences to the ethical concerns of earlier social and psychological scholars. He stressed the distinction between character and personality, maintaining that what Freud ignored was "a moral center," and that psychoanalysis can provide insight and help us overcome inhibitions, but that it was never meant to be an instrument of character-building. …

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