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Economics, Morals and the Work of Sigmund Freud


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Given the kinship of economics with the psychological terrain, especially referring to the subjectivist tradition of the Austrian School, it is useful to explore some of the paths and derivations in this field of study. I referred earlier to this prolific author whose name I have included in the title of this article, but due to recent debates about his writings, I feel it is appropriate to return to the subject. It’s a delicate matter to do justice to his legacy, and for this reason, in a journalistic article, it’s necessary to focus on the trunk of his contributions and avoid slipping through the branches.

Undoubtedly, as is the case with practically all renowned authors, Freud has made contributions that have been useful for various purposes, for example, his concern that people who repress the subconscious facts and images that they deem inconvenient may assume these problems putting them on the level of the conscious. He was also the one who initiated the method of association of ideas resorting to per analogiam even for the interpretation of dreams, moving away from a strict exegesis and getting into a sort of oniric hermeneutics and of the events of life in general.

But these two examples are controversial, since there are those who maintain that often so-called “repression” is in fact a defense mechanism to avoid greater damage and that this is only constructive when problems arise if they can be effectively solved, and not simply by the mere fact of bringing them to light. At the same time, there are those who maintain that the analogical interpretation of different events leads to tortuous and erroneous conclusions, when, in fact, a direct (or, if you will, literal) interpretation leads to a better understanding of what is being analyzed.

It is very difficult to judge a writer in toto and the greater the number of his works, the greater the difficulty, of course. To give an opinion about an author, one generally refers to what is considered to be the central axis of his or her contributions. In any case, the task is not always easy since in some cases the contributions are mixed with aspects considered positive and negative.

In the case of Sigmund Freud it seems pertinent to us to cite some of his thoughts in order to arrive at rigorous conclusions. For example, in Problems of Civilization he maintains that, in the human being, it is necessary to “discard the principle of an original and, so to speak, natural faculty, apt to distinguish good from evil.” even more, in Totem and Taboo he writes that “the prohibitions dictated by the customs and morals which we obey, have in their essential features a certain affinity with the primitive taboo” and, in the same book, he states that the denial of incestuous relationships constitutes “perhaps the bloodiest mutilation ever imposed on the erotic life of the human being”.

“A delicate matter indeed in order to do justice to his legacy for which, in a journalistic article, it is necessary to focus attention on the trunk of his contributions and to avoid slipping through the branches”. (Flickr)

This goes for morals and customs, but it also goes against the very sense of freedom. For instance, in his Introduction to Psychoanalysis, where he refers to “the illusion of such a thing as psychic freedom […] that is unscientific and must yield to the demand of determinism whose rule extends over mental life.” In the words of C.S. Lewis, this perspective, which would turn human beings into mere machines, would mean “the abolition of man,” a position -that of Freud- which adheres to the philosophical materialism or physical determinism so criticized by Karl Popper in Knowledge and the Mind-Body Problem and seconded, among other prominent intellectuals, by the neurophysiology Nobel Prize winner John Eccles in The Human Psyche and before that by the physics Nobel Prize winner Max Planck in Where is Science Headed? Popper and Eccles coauthored a book with the suggestive title The Self and His Brain.

In the epilogue to the third volume of his Law, Legislation and Freedom, Nobel Laureate in Economics Friedrich Hayek writes: “I believe that humanity will look upon our era as one of superstitions basically connected with the names of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. I believe that people will discover that the most widespread ideas of the 20th century–those of a planned economy based on redistribution, driven by deliberate arrangements rather than the market and the abandonment of repression and conventional morality and the pursuit of permissive education–were based on superstition in the strictest sense of the word.”

Hans Eyseneck points out in Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire that “what is true of Freud is not new and what is new is not true.” Thomas Szasz and Richard LaPierre come to the same conclusion in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis and Freudian Ethics, respectively. Ronald Dabiez in his voluminous treatise The Psychoanalytic Method and the Freudian Doctrine points out that the ideas that Freud does not share are considered “neuroses”, which opens the door to dangerous persecutions under the mantle of “treatment”. For example, Dabiez explains that “Freud’s attitude towards religious beliefs has evolved in the sense of an increasingly accentuated hostility, at least by the frequency of its manifestations, since, for Freud, the fundamental equality of religionand obsessive neurosis has been found since 1907.”

Also Henry Hazlitt concludes in The Fundamentals of Morality that, according to Freud, “society” must compulsorily finance the irresponsibility of permissive homes and schools and that “the criminal is ‘sick’ and, therefore, must not be ‘punished'” and that “the observance of moral norms only leads to neurosis.”

Among the 673 pages of one of Richard Webster’s works entitled Why Freud Was Wrong, we read that “Freud was convinced that the mind could and should be described as if it were part of a physical apparatus […] Freud made no intellectual discovery of substance […], his habits of thought and his attitude toward scientific research are far from any responsible method of study. James Liberman writes of this book in the Journal of the History of Medicine that “as far as I know, it is the best treatment of the subject in both content and style.”

On the other hand, Lecomte du Noüy emphasizes in Human Destiny that “from top to bottom on the whole scale, all animals, without exception, are slaves to their physiological functions and their hormones and endoctrinal secretions” but, with man, “a new discontinuity appears in nature, as deep as the one that exists between inert matter and organized life. It means the birth of consciousness and freedom […] Freedom is not only a privilege, it is a test. No human institution has the right to deprive man of it. The outcome of this test depends on each of us and not on the pseudo-determinism of the Viennese professor, which would be outside the human sphere.”

What has been said is not at all a refutation of psychoanalysis in general, nor does it intend to deny valuable help from psychology in understanding the possible problems of some people and psychiatry, which aims to solve distortions in neurotransmitters and chemical imbalances in general, for which Freud was largely a pioneer. As it has been stated, it doesn’t follow that his conclusions on a good part of the subject matter are pertinent or free of contradictions and inconvenient derivations such as those pointed out in this summary.

Alberto Benegas Lynch (h)

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