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Ethics and the Discovery of the UnconsciousReview - Ethics and the Discovery of the Unconscious
by John Hanwell Riker
SUNY Press, 1997
Review by Irene Harvey, Ph.D.
Jan 11th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 2)

The intent of this book is to give the reader both a background in the history of ethics from Plato and Aristotle to the present day as well as to show the challenges to all ethical theories the 'discovery of the unconscious' now poses.

At issue principally is the rethinking of ethics to include unconscious dimensions of the psyche without thereby absolving persons of all responsibility. If we accept the fact of the unconscious, as Riker does, then does this not, he asks, demolish all possible ethics?  This, in a sense, was both Nietzsche's and Freud's question to traditional ethical theory based on intent and agency.

We are responsible for what we intend, Riker says of traditional ethics and insofar as we do not intend actions which are driven by a fundamentally unconscious dimension, we would not then be responsible. For Riker this argument, while powerful and needing to be addressed, does not provide a reasonable response we can live with.

Instead, Riker develops a theory of the mature self whereby our first ethical task, he says, is to become acquainted with and delve into our own unconscious selves. The source of evil deeds, he claims, following Scott Peck's work in, The People of the Lie, is our unconscious and driven selves and which is for the most part diametrically opposed to our conscious intentions or anything we would wish for or defend.

The model for this new mature self which takes stock of itself at all levels, is the Alcoholics Anonymous strategy of both turning one's self over to a higher power as well as taking a moral inventory of who one truly is by coming out of denial and letting go of rationalizations and defenses for past behaviors and attitudes. This rethinking of the self involves a synthesizing of Aristotle's notions of character and responsibility based on virtue as well as Freud's concept of the ego, id and superego each of which is revamped by Riker's analysis.

The level of analysis here should be accessible to those without backgrounds in either Greek philosophy or contemporary psychoanalytic theory since Riker takes great pains to explain his terms and to provide good introductory summaries of the theories he is addressing.

The results of this text are disappointing, however, since the claims and expectations for its conclusions are set so high. In the end we are charged with 'amor fati' --  loving one's fate, accepting things we cannot change (in and about the unconscious) and taking responsibility for changing those things about ourselves that we can. The age old Serenity Prayer surfaces here to seemingly close the analysis but it also begs the question that is asked at the outset and that is how to deal with the unconscious in us and in others when it is precisely this part of the human psyche that we do not and will not have total control over. Making peace with one's fate seems hardly a solution for ethics and the charge to take responsibility rather than resign oneself to an essentially tragic world. Riker does not do the latter but he does not in the end come up with more than Aristotle's virtue ethics cast in the light of the mature self with some immature aspects. This is not to say that the project is not needed at this time and that Riker has not pinpointed the dilemma that does indeed face contemporary ethics and with it psychoanalytic theory and therapeutic analyses. Ethics cannot become a variation on therapy and Riker sees this clearly. He does not however get us beyond the problems that AA itself never dealt with.

© 2002 Irene Harvey

Irene Harvey, Department of Philosophy, Penn State.


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