Carl Jung and the Nietzschean Ethic
Carl Jung, most likely without intending to, expands vastly on the Nietzschean 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
Carl Jung stays true to the grand tradition of the most influential psychologists who are all closeted philosophers (beginning with Sigmund Freud); he strongly affirms his desire to not engage in any sort of philosophy. He says that 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.
Jung 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 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; I view it as a stable, consistent conceptual definition for him.
Throughout the essay, Jung conflates/compares good and evil with more general, broad normative systems of judgment. Jung’s take on good and evil is similar to that of Friedrich Nietzsche. According to him, they are not actually distinct from the more general ideas people have about good and bad. There is one significant difference. 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. He also observes that which is beyond it. He expresses these ideas 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 believe that he is aware that he is doing this. I think he 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; 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 being of the Tao, and the male assertion of the drawn-into-being-from-the-nothingness God are reunified.
My Projection onto Jung’s Work
Here, of course, I am reading my own religious and philosophical views onto Jung; however, whether he saw this or not, his essay resonates with it. He even mentions, anecdotally, one of the most effective ways in which God is drawn out into being. “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!”