Carl Jung and the Nietzschian Ethic

Carl Jung, most likely without intending to, expands vastly on the Nietzschian understanding of ethics in his essay on Good and Evil. At the same time, he repeatedly dodges the question of what good and evil actually is, although he does let it slip near the end. Finally, while engaging in some excellent philosophical work, he undermines himself by revealing a fundamental misunderstanding of what philosophy is, and what role it plays (a mistake shared by Freud, I might add).

The Grand Tradition of Closeted Philosophers

A photo of Carl Jung from the Ortmuseum Zolikon.
A photo of Carl Jung from the Ortmuseum Zolikon.

So first of all, Carl Jung, in the grand tradition of the most influential psychologists who are all closeted philosophers (beginning with Sigmund Freud), strongly affirms his desire to not engage in any sort of philosophy. He says that, rather than being interested in engaging in the philosophical aspects of good and evil, he would prefer to only engage the empirical aspects of it. This is an attitude left over from Francis Bacon and Rene Descarte, whose influence it is otherwise very clear that he has outgrown, here (e.g., his understanding and integration of the concepts of Tao, and Brahma very much put him more in line with what can be thought of as being a precursor to the now ongoing emergence of the Heideggerian tradition). But even if we were to agree with him that he is being empirical (and I would argue that that isn’t strictly true), that choice, in and of itself, is a philosophical stance. He says he chooses not to engage in philosophy (even as he does so) in order to be able to speak on the subject of good and evil while avoiding having to define his terms; which, ironically, is a perfectly valid philosophical approach, when you are dealing with such complex, normative concepts whose meaning tends to become the center of a kind of normative condensation, rather than being something easily delineated in a nominalistic sort of way.

Jung on Ethical Judgment

Jung does, however, near the end, in response to a question, let his general concept of good and evil be known: “…good and evil are only our judgment in a given situation, or, to put it differently, that certain ‘principles’ have taken possession of our judgment.” This idea is consistent with his treatment of the subject throughout the essay, so I am inclined to view it as a stable, consistent conceptual definition for him. Throughout the essay, he conflates/compares good and evil with more general, broad normative systems of judgment. Like Friedrich Nietzsche, Jung does not see good and evil as being in any way actually distinct from the more general ideas people have about good and bad. The main difference seems to be that, while Nietzsche described a qualitative difference between the two normative systems that the majority falsely cling to, Jung simply glosses over that distinction entirely, and takes it for granted that the one is not actually qualitatively distinct from the other – it only seems to be, due to excess of affect.

The Jungian Ethic and the Genesis Trees

Whether intentionally or not, Jung, ultimately plays into the tradition of looking at good and evil, as well as that which is beyond it, in terms of the metaphor of the Genesis trees; the one being related to life and God, and the other related to Good and Evil, and death. I am inclined to believe that he is aware that he is doing this, and is keeping his deeper philosophical insights close to his chest; only hinting at them. For example, as soon as in the third paragraph, he mentions the snake from that story: “‘Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil,’ whispered the serpent. Only the gods know, not us.” Throughout the essay, he doesn’t so much say, as much as subtly reveal, his understanding of ethical truth – and that is this: the duality of good and evil are, ultimately a useful illusion; one which, through insurmountable challenge and the pall of death, leads us back to the Tree of Life; that center of what is, in which the female nothingness and recession of beingness of the Tao, and the male assertion of the drawn-into-being-from-the-nothingness God are reunified. Here, of course, I am reading my own religious and philosophical views onto Jung; however, whether he saw this or not, and whether he meant anything like it or not, his essay resonates with it. He even mentions, anecdotally, one of the most effective ways in which God is drawn out into beingness: “From the East comes the humorous question: ‘Who takes longer to be saved, the man who loves God or the man who hates Him?’ Naturally we expect that the man who hates God takes much longer. But the Indian says: ‘If he loves God, it takes seven years, but if he hates Him only three. For the man who hates God thinks much more about Him.’ What ruthless subtlety!