Ethics and the Moral Law, Part III: Paul and Psychoanalysis

In this final post, I want to explore a psychoanalytic interpretation of St. Paul, developing suggestions by Slavoj Žižek amongst others as to how Paul can be read in this fashion. One way to frame this approach is in terms of this question: what, if anything, constitutes the distinctiveness of moral norms? One answer to that question would be to say that they are individuated by being categorically binding on us, holding irrespective of our desires or projects. The way of taking Paul outlined here would warn against dangers attendant to this conception of moral norms which, in setting up an inflexible standard against which we are judged, leads to unproductive results: namely, a psychic economy ruled by the principle of guilt which encourages us to remain submerged in an unhealthy obsession with our own transgressions of law. As he is presented here, Paul seeks to retain the spirit of an engagement with law—the sanctity of the content of what the law demands—while avoiding the problematic effects of the unconditional injunctions that are imposed through the articulation of this spirit in law. To borrow a phrase from Hegel, his aim is thus taken to be “to strip laws of legality, of their legal form.”

All this raises the question of why, if law is so problematic, it arises in the first place. It is often claimed that moral norms have a special role in regulating our relationship with others. A framework of moral norms introduces a common reference point to allow for planning and co-ordination of actions, especially amongst strangers, as well as supporting valuable behaviour such as reciprocity. Insofar as these norms are articulated in laws—whose formal properties introduce universality and unconditionality to them—then this adds a further measure of stability, increasing the degree and predictability of responsiveness to them. Žižek’s explanation of the origin of law takes this to be important, though not for simple prudential reasons, but rather because it helps erase the traumatic contingency present in the actions of others:

the advent of Law entails a kind of ‘disalienation’: in so far as the Other itself appears submitted to the ‘absolute condition’ of Law, the subject is no more at the mercy of the Other’s whim, its desire is no more totally alienated in the Other’s desire … it opens our access to desire by enabling us to disengage ourselves from the rule of the Other’s whim.

So, the specific problem of negotiating our relation to others calls for a system of law that makes obedience unconditional, seeking to dissociate compliance from our whims. Yet this creates a new problem, for the nature of the injunctions imposed is superegoic. As Jodi Dean explains this aspect of law:

This traumatic, senseless injunction is also the psychoanalytic notion of the superego. Superego issues unconditional commands, telling us what to do, refusing to take no for an answer, refusing even to consider our specific circumstances, needs, or desires.

Here we find a description that seems to be of a piece with morality as construed categorically.

A misconception that it would be easy to arrive at would be to suppose that, insofar as we accept there is a superegoic dimension to law—some oppressive moment within it such that we are brutalised by an insistent challenge to fulfil a set of absolute demands—then Paul’s problem with law would be that it leads to such a stark and demanding task for us. However, matters are more complex given the superego’s equally important ties to enjoyment which arise in two ways. Firstly, the absolute injunctions of the superego are not just occasions for guilt, for there can be a perverse satisfaction in the very act of renouncing one’s ‘official’ desires. Examples of this narcissistic attachment to asceticism abound, from the stereotype of the old Irish woman who is prepared to go to preposterous lengths to accommodate the smallest desires of her guests, to the Nazis described by Arendt who got a kick out of committing acts they genuinely considered to be disgusting and unspeakable but were carried out all in the name of the greater good of the Fatherland. Secondly, one of the injunctions of the superego is itself ‘Enjoy!’, such that we can find ourselves feeling guilty and inadequate if we do not squeeze every drop of satisfaction out of our leisure time, if our social calendar is not brimming over with enticing engagements, and so on. Thus, the superego stands in a complex relation that ties together both guilt and enjoyment. So, on the one hand we have the public moral law whose presuppositions are that although we may find enjoyment in transgressing the law, we will feel guilty if we do. However, the peculiar logic of the superego means that our attitude to the public law is accompanied by an ‘obscene’ underside such that we can equally find enjoyment in renouncing our desires and not transgressing the law, and so too we can feel guilty if we do not follow through on our desires and fail to break the law.

Along these lines, the problem for Paul might then be construed not simply as the fact that we are averse to the weighty impositions of the law but rather that we are simultaneously too attached to them in other respects. Not only does law prohibit sin, it orders our psychic life around what is forbidden—sin becomes a structure for organising one’s enjoyment, which given the haywire network of relations between duty, transgressions of the law, guilt and enjoyment, makes the sinful at once abhorrent and desirable. The way to escape this problem would be to find a way of carrying out the task of the law, which is to manage interpersonal relations, while suppressing the ‘obscene’ underside to law.

Žižek’s suggestion as to what Paul’s solution to this problem is picks up on Paul’s opposition of the law to love. We are to be reconciled to our neighbour by loving them as themselves. Žižek opposes other modes of reconciliation to this model, most notably any approach that tries to bridge the gap between me and others based on the rights of the other. As Dean puts it:

The symbolic neighbour is the abstract subject of rights. Here my respect is ultimately my respect for law, my sense of duty to the law. And this of course reconnects me to my complex relationship to law, my enjoyment of law as well as the enjoyment I get from transgressing it.

Paul’s solution is supposed to be a recommendation to embrace one’s neighbour in their very giveness—including their strangeness, unintelligibility, wickedness, and so on—and not as an abstract subject whose place is delineated by law.

Given that we now begin to relate to our neighbour outside of the framework of law, does this mean that we can simply transgress the law? Perhaps the best way of taking Paul here would be as saying that by radically refusing to interact at a disengaged level, willing only to do one’s duty, to contribute no more than what is due, our relations with people are no longer appropriately measured by the yardstick of law. No doubt we will end up conforming to what the law would have required of us if we fully embrace the maxim of love for one’s neighbour. However, the mode of engagement with the world that made talk of law intelligible will have been superseded—it will be ill-fitting and, moreover, even judging oneself at all by the old standard of law, even if not cleaving to it, risks rehabilitating an unhealthy relation to the notion of sinfulness.