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Moral Consciousness

Jerome Bernstein

The following is a short-but-important piece excerpted, with permission from it's author, Jungian analyst Jerome Bernstein, from an on-line membership discussion list for Jungian scholars.  It's a strong argument for ego-Self dialogue, and I think it deserves as wide an audience as possible. 
                                                                                                ~April Barrett


Our ego is our only organ of consciousness, unlike our lungs or kidneys of which there are two.  It is also the organ that exercises conscious executive function – making decisions and sometimes reflecting on those decisions made.

Unconsciousness is what it says.  But at the same time, there is the question of the ego’s attitude toward the unconscious function in our psyches.  The primary energic principle of the ego is psychic inertia – it is addicted, in my view, to staying with the familiar and resisting change; i.e. in its natural state it is lazy.  The ego can and does use (the excuse of) unconsciousness as a defense to preserve its own psychic inertia. If this weren’t true, analysts would have no analysands.

In a Jungian frame, moral consciousness (not to be confused with morality – a devised code that is fixed [in stone] – or with Freud’s superego) is not a characteristic of the ego.  It is more a characteristic of the Self; that is, its presence or absence is a function of a transpersonal connection between the ego and the Self.  An example would be what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962; when both sides were ready to engage in nuclear warfare, it was moral consciousness that gripped Premier Khrushchev and compelled him to rise above what his ego had committed to, namely, nuclear engagement with the U.S., which is what all of his advisors and virtually all of President Kennedy’s advisors (except his brother Robert) had concluded was the right course.  Without doubt General Secretary Khrushchev knew that this action would cost him his job, if not his life.1

Left to its own devices, the ego is much more susceptible to regressive forces, such as greed, callousness toward human suffering, etc.  It takes a connection between the ego and the Self to keep the ego ethical, that is, beholden to the moral consciousness of the Self.

The decoupling of the western ego construct from its transpersonal roots is the source of the dissociation and depersonalization of western culture that Jung talked about in his "Healing the Split” essay and is the root of so much of the dissociation and psychopathy that we are now witnessing in Western culture.

It seems to me that “consciousness” and “unconsciousness” must be viewed in the context of the degree of connection/disconnection and thus dissociation, from a depth-psychological point of view, not independently of Jung’s concept of the Self.  I don’t think the question is whether or not it is a conscious or unconscious act to, for instance, shoot a child. I think the question is that if a child has been shot – murdered – what is it that made that act possible.  Surely there is some connection between that question and the fact that the debate by “the other side” revolves around (soul-less) statistics and abstract political arguments or simply bought off with “campaign contributions” and avoids, at all costs, acknowledging the human tragedy to that child’s family and to all of us collectively as well as questions of moral consciousness. Without the latter we drift toward psychopathy.

1 See Bernstein, Jerome S. Power and Politics: The Psychology of Soviet-American Partnership.(Shambhala Publications, Inc. 1989), Kennedy, Robert F. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crises. New York: W. W. Norton, 1969 and “Beyond the Individual: Analytical Psychology Applied to Groups and Nations,” in: Carl Gustav Jung: Critical Assessments, Renos Popadopoulos, ed. (Routledge, 1993).

Jung Society of Washington

5200 Cathedral Ave., NW Washington 20016


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Jung Society of Washington

Directions: The Jung Society of Washington is located in the educational building of the Palisades Community Church, From MacArthur Blvd., turn east (away from the Potomac River) onto Cathedral at the light between Loughboro and Arizona.  We are accessible via the Metro D6 bus line.  Entrance to the Jung Society library and office is from the side street, Hawthorne Place.

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