Tag Archives: Psychoanalysis

Conscience: Its Risks and Returns

In Logotherapy, there is a strong emphasis on conscience. In Frankl’s lexicon, the word differs from what many call conscience, which is closer to Freud’s concept of superego (I’ve mentioned this in a previous blog post). The logotherapeutic conscience refers to the mechanism, as it were, that exists in each human being, that enables him or her to perceive what life demands of him or her. This could mean perceiving meaning in a situation, sensing one’s own responsibility in that situation, or detecting one’s own sense of mission in life. The point is that in logotherapy, the idea is the conscience detects or receives these messages from beyond the self, as opposed to from within the self. Frankl illustrates this by pointing out the fact that, very often, situations arise where, due to the demands of one’s conscience, one goes against all of the didactic, parental, moral, and societal “rules”.

The person who comes from a conservative, patriotic family whose members have served in the military, but who becomes a conscientious (note the term) objector to an army draft, is a classic example of this. Here, it is possible to see the distinction being made between conscience as Frankl sees it and the superego proposed by Freud. If the conscience and superego were identical, this person should not be able to muster the strength to avoid army service, as all of the inputs in his life that have contributed to his superego have told him that serving in the army is a positive, even obligatory item. Yet, for reasons of conscience, the CO is able to take a stand against the values of the people around him and choose an alternative that he feels is right.

Does the fact that the conscience detects meaning from beyond mean that the person will always understand the message being delivered to him or her accurately and do what is objectively “right”? Isn’t it dangerous to live according to one’s intuition. What if is one is wrong? The Taliban also believe in their mission of conscience.

The mechanistic alternative, of course, is to view oneself as a collection of synapses and ego drives, taking every step to satisfy one’s desires and thereby bringing homeostasis to one’s system.

This is a topic that has come up recently in our training meetings. I have come to an idea that being right in an empirical sense is not the issue; rather, it is living one’s life according to one’s conscience that is of value in and of itself. A conscience-based life. Being directed by conscience, rather than mechanistic ego drives, has value in and of itself. It puts people in touch with what they believe in, enables them to live more congruently with their values and to detect their missions in life as they see them. The world we live in, influenced by mechanical materialism, does not allow people to listen to their consciences; it’s too “pre-scientific” and “metaphysical”. But this has brought about a world that suffers from a sense of meaninglessness. It’s not the being right that is meaningful; it is getting attuned with, and acting according to, what one perceives to be right. This is what can restore meaning to a person’s life

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Frankl’s Conscience Versus Freud’s Superego

In the course of my training in Logotherapy, I have been asked to define my perception of the difference between an experience of true conscience and superego-type pressures. First, let us define the two things according to their respective models.

Frankl’s notion of conscience is a spiritual mechanism possessed by every human being for detecting the transcendent meaning that comes from beyond him or herself and his or her situation, that enables him or her to make the one right choice in that moment. Note that several assumptions are implicit in this idea. One, that there exists an objective meaning that transcends the subjective context in which an individual finds him or herself. Two, that there is a realm called “beyond”. Three, that there can be one right meaning, decision, task or exercise of responsibility in a given moment.

Of course, Frankl’s use of the term “spiritual” accords with a more secular understanding of that term that the more specific manner in which a religious person understands it, and I am personally wrestling with the question as to whether it can be adapted to accomodate the Torah’s definition of spiritual. At present, I have concluded that Frankl’s spirituality is a step down from religious spirituality, but his model can be stepped up, or a new dimension added to it based on Torah.

Freud’s superego is the third character in his structural model of the personality, the others being the ego and the id. The id is the conglomerate of all the raw drives that demand satisfaction in a human being, whereas the superego is its opponent, an internalized policeman or a father figure, that subdues this id through guilt and allows the person to thus function normally within the context of society, according to that which is deemed acceptable behavior in society. The superego is fueled by the didactic instruction we have received in many forms, whether through parental discipline, religious training, school, etc. Although the superego has two divisions, the ego ideal and the conscience, we will focus here on the conscience.

Clearly, Freud’s model does not allow for there being an objective meaning (read: morality), but rather, what is right and wrong depends on the cultural or societal context in which the individual is. In addition, a person’s ability to manifest right or good is essentially only a function of the repression of their animal-like id drives. This is how Freud defined conscience. For this reason, we might view a criminal as being unable to make moral decisions because of his impaired–or absent–superego.

Frankl would disagree. A criminal is no different from any other human being in his or her ability to tune into meaning and hear the demands that meaning makes upon him or her! Hence, Frankl’s emphasis on the uncovering of responsibility in the client. Freud’s client, by contrast, can plead insanity. There was a notable incident in Frankl’s life when he spoke to a group of prisoners who were slated for execution, and he prefaced his remarks by telling them, in no uncertain terms, that they were all guilty of their crimes. Here, Frankl was demonstrating his idea that becoming guilty is one of the prerogatives of man, and therefore functions as a result, not of his being disadvantaged, but of his freedom to choose. The inmates indicated that they had never felt so understood by any of the psychological professionals who had addressed them previously.

But then, the question, which appears in my mentor Dr. Teria Shantall’s book The Quest for Destiny (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2003) is: how do you differentiate between an experience of true conscience (i.e. according to Frankl’s model) and superego-type pressures? In other words, how do you know that you are not simply acting out of guilt or because of demands, but are responding to a call to meaning where your desire to do what is right is authentic?

It seems to me that if we are to be able to answer this question, we would have to subvert some basic paradigm assumptions that we customarily make about life. Also, the difficulty in answering this question on highlights just how deeply embedded Freud’s model is in the subconscious of the average Westerner.

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