Friday, December 12, 2014

Superego and Morality

A few days ago, I had a stimulating discussion with a friend about finding and adhering to one's core values.  We wondered about the modern predicament of having no strong values to guide one's actions.

This predicament naturally leads itself to pleasure-seeking, short-term, impulsive behavior.  With no long-term goals, the pleasures of stimulation, attention and validation (the infantile pleasures) become prominent drivers of one's life.

Humans are unique in some ways.  The most important obviously being the role our frontal cortex, the conscious mind, plays in our survival and genetic success.  The training of a human mind takes twenty to thirty years.  This training imparts linguistic, social and vocational skills important for becoming a stable, synergistic and useful part of the human society.  This education is, at its core, utilizing the present for the future.  It is an investment of time.  "Delayed gratification", "planning" and working toward a better future are some of the hallmarks of being human.

This essentially human perspective about time and that the future is in many ways more important than the present requires a moral, frictional apparatus that prevents one from just going after immediate enjoyments and addictions.  This apparatus propels us to do the right thing even if that is difficult, rather than what just seems pleasant and comforting.

This apparatus, colloquially termed as the "conscience" prevents us from becoming self-serving, hedonistic, sociopathic individuals who live for nothing more than the next "fix".  Society, culture, religion, family all instil in us that certain behaviors, even though pleasant, are not "good", and that harm will come to both oneself and others in the longer term if one just follows the path of pleasure.

Freud divided the human intentional apparatus into three parts: the id, the ego and the superego.  Even though Freud's theories are not scientific in the strict sense, they are useful and illustrative to analyze and understand human behavior.

In simple terms, the id is the "animal" in us which seeks gratification, the ego is the "individual" what gets trained to become a social individual with feelings of pride, guilt and suchlike, and, and the superego is the "influence" which keeps the ego from collaborating with the id.

The ego has to be prevented from becoming the id's partner, because then the individual can become a cunning animal who seeks gratification via manipulation and dishonesty, for example.  The superego ensures that the ego suffers pangs of guilt and shame if it tries to go that way, and that it feels pride and the pleasure of righteousness if it refrains and resists temptation.

The superego is the conscience.  The superego, to be effective, has to have a basis which is larger than the individual.  It can be based in loyalty to one's family, in devotion to one's religious tradition, in one's sense of honor of being part of a group of people, and in an imprinted belief that the universe is not just random, but that it is fair and that righteousness carries a reward.

From the Wikipedia description of the Superego:
The super-ego aims for perfection.  It forms the organized part of the personality structure, mainly but not entirely unconscious, that includes the individual's ego ideals, spiritual goals, and the psychic agency (commonly called "conscience") that criticizes and prohibits his or her drives, fantasies, feelings, and actions...
The super-ego works in contradiction to the id...
The super-ego's demands often oppose the id’s, so the ego sometimes has a hard time in reconciling the two.
Modernity, for all the good it does, demolishes wholesale the bases of a healthy superego.  Family gives way to individuation, religion gives way to atheism, community gives way to atomization, and metaphysical beliefs are realized as truthy but false.

Modernism, Existentialism, Nihilism, Atheism are all related in the sense that their guns are all pointed in the same direction: at a derived conscience and morality.  All proclaim, in various ways, the absence of a meaning higher than oneself.  Atheism claims that there can be nothing but "individual morality", existentialism claims that there can be nothing but "individual meaning", and Nihilism claims nothing really matters.

Some individuals are alarmed at this lack of conscience in themselves, and wonder if there is a way to nurture a conscience in them as an adult.  In other words, whether an adult can undergo "moral education".

I believe the answer is in the negative.  The ship has sailed by the time it is seen from the harbor and when its ugliness makes you want to repaint it.

Values and meaning cannot be consciously created because the ego cannot sustain itself.  In the ego's battle with the id, it needs something that it considers higher, sacred or sacrosanct in its battle.  The ego can convince itself and train itself to be opposed to the id, but it's not designed to work that way.  It is too much work for the ego to be moral on its own.  If it has created some rules, it knows that those rules are self-created and it can also therefore break those rules.  The ego can be trained to fear legal consequences, but that is legal education, not moral education.

The conscience cannot be conscious.

Many consider the modern age to be a "moral vacuum".  They are not wrong.  The response to them that one can create one's own morality ignores difference in emotional force between the ego-based-morality and the superego-based-morality.  Ego-based-morality is much, much weaker than a morality based on a deep, subconscious sense of right and wrong.

The "hero" is absent in the modern world because the basis of heroism is the superego, and that is weaker than ever.

The destruction of the superego is partly due to the advances in human knowledge.  We know a lot about the hollowness of culture, the hokey bases of religion and spirituality, and the fraud that is patriotism and nationality.

But what is behind the destruction of the family?  I believe that the reasons for the breakdown of family in the modern world are economic.  This is a far more complex topic than I wish to cover in this essay, but in short: technology, globalization, industrialization, and urbanization has made it financially untenable for a family of many generations to live together.  From a default of grandparents+parents+children+grandchildren living in one house, we have now "progressed" to a single individual earning, cooking and sleeping by himself/herself.  Pets are not the answer.

While one is still young and under the supervision of one's parents, the parents (hopefully) act as tangible enforcers of the superego.  They act as moral guardians to the id of the child.  They act as the custodians of its future.  As soon as one is eighteen and anonymous and unaccountable, say in a large city or in college, what is to prevent the id from taking over?

In the absence of superego, morality will break down and it is breaking down.  Law will take the place of morality.  Increasingly draconian laws will become common.  Mass surveillance by large institutions will take the place of community supervision.  Addictions and mental disorders born of loneliness and boredom will reach epidemic proportions and will be controlled by media, chemicals, threats of financial ruin, and prisons.

It is not possible to go back to a past in which God and Country still rule our hearts and minds.  The battle between the ego and the superego has been won.  The battle between the ego and the id is going to be a stressful, uphill struggle for the modern individual.  The ego is now burdened not just with function, but with supervision.

Most will be defeated, a rare few will drop out and form alternate communities and bow to new gods, and the ones who manage to overcome will need to continually overcome, and thereby feel perennially exhausted.

1 comment:

Pankaj said...

very good analysis as usual. i am partly in agreement. especially the force of the beliefs of the collective over us as opposed to practicing an individual morality.

i think the following i wrote has some slight overlap -