The Moral Autonomy of the Psyche

In his book, The Eternal Drama, Jungian psychologist Edward F. Edinger shares the dream of a man who was contemplating leaving his wife and children to pursue a relationship with a younger, wealthy woman:

I stand in the middle of the street looking up at gray, fast-moving skies. Behind the stormy façade I catch momentary glimpses of sunny, clear weather. Apparently I am deciding some sort of trip and the weather is an important factor in the decision. On my right a group of elders are gathered in discussion. I ask them, ‘Do you think I should leave? The sky seems clear to me.’ They shake their heads collectively. I refuse the advice and I begin to walk straight toward the dark clouds. I move two steps when the sky cracks open and a huge, brown hand reaches down, picks me up, and points me in the other direction.

I especially like this dream for the way it so boldly reveals the moral autonomy of the psyche. This dream was not created by the man’s ego. It was not consciously chosen or devised. In fact, this spontaneous product of the unconscious carried a message the dreamer did not want to hear. It was the voice of a higher moral authority within him, a manifestation of God within the psyche. If the dreamer ignored the directive given to him and instead pursued his ego’s goals, the results would have been predictably negative. This is the case for all of us when we pursue a path that goes against that of our deepest self and destiny.

The psyche communicates through many channels, dreams being just one of them. If the dreamer ignored the guidance of his dream, he might have received more dreams of even greater warning: perhaps dreams of being chased, of dying children, or of being in a car crash. In his outer life he might actually experience an auto accident. He may develop anxiety symptoms or have panic attacks. His relationships with his wife and children would become more disturbed. One of his children may get sick or become rebellious, reflecting his own attitude towards God. Some of these events would be causally related to his decision and actions. Others might be synchronistic. What is certain is that he will encounter a growing number of negative events and frustrations if he ignores the moral directives of his deeper self. Needless to say, his relationship with the wealthy woman would be ill-fated.

Moral relativism is the philosophical viewpoint that all moral perspectives are equally valid or “true.” This position rests upon the argument that because a person’s morality flows from his/her value system, and because people have different values, all morality is subjective with none any better than another. While there is no denying that different people may possess different values, not all values are equivalent. For example, some values promote a life of psychological and spiritual development. Other value systems lead to a pretty much wasted life. Not all values are of equal worth, and neither are the moral perspectives that flow from them.

But the deeper issue here, and perhaps the more paradoxical, is that what is right, or moral, for one person in a particular situation is not necessarily right for another person. This difference is not due to differences in their values systems, but, rather, extends from the fact that what is required for one person’s growth as an individual may not be the same as what is required for another’s. For example, quitting your job because you can’t get along with one of your co-workers could be a morally responsible decision if you are in the wrong line of work and the co-worker is just one more prodding from life to start doing what you really love. Conversely, your decision to quit could be morally irresponsible if life is trying to teach you to stand up for yourself and you are just trying to avoid this challenge by quitting.

The deep reality is that we are morally accountable creatures whether we want to be or not. This is the case because there is a moral structure to our psyche that transcends our conscious mind and conscious values, and is often in disagreement with them. We can run from this inner authority, but we cannot hide from it. We can try to fool ourselves with concepts like moral relativism, but dreams don’t lie, and life doesn’t lie, and they will always reflect back to you the moral code written upon your soul.

Copyright © Andy Drymalski, Ed.D.
Excerpts may be used provided full and clear credit is given author with link to original article.

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