The Moral Center: A Second Response to Viktor Frankl’s Letter

I wrote a blog post in February, 2012, titled, An Ethical Viewpoint, Collective Guilt and an Unpublished Letter from Viktor Frankl. This post focused on an unpublished letter that I had in my possession from Viktor Frankl. Frankl’s letter to my friend and classmate, ended with a comment that I felt I needed to re-examine in more detail, in a separate post. Dr. Frankl ended his letter by saying, “As you see, sometimes psychotherapeutic interventions are senseless and not effective as long as an ethical viewpoint is not introduced, to begin with.” An ethical viewpoint is indeed a viewpoint that is absolutely essential for the psychotherapeutic process to have any hope of succeeding. This idea coupled with the philosophical and psychological notion that we each have a moral center, to begin with, inspired me to write a separate article about Frankl’s comment in his letter to my friend.

Upon reflection of Frankl’s idea of an ethical viewpoint, my thoughts on this topic circled around the larger psychological idea of the components of the psyche itself, and my belief in the psyche’s moral center. Before going any further, I feel a need to qualify this idea of a moral center. Countless others throughout history have written and expanded upon morality and the interplay between good and evil. When writing or speaking about the idea of a moral center, one cannot but touch upon the concepts of good and evil. This article will attempt to outline my own thinking of our moral center, without being, 1) a treatise on the philosophy, theology and etiology of good and evil, or 2) a final summary of the intricate interplay of good and evil as they relate to the Jungian archetype of the Self. Furthermore, when I write of a moral center, I am not writing about the personality and characterological traits inherent in the extreme sociopathic or anti-social personality.

I am deriving my idea of a moral center starting with a passage from the late John A. Sanford, Episcopal priest and Jungian analyst. Sanford (1981) discussed his idea of a God-given center of the psyche in his book Evil, the Shadow Side of Reality. He said:

On the psychological level, this destructive power drive can be seen as an archetypal quality of the human ego that wants to set itself up in the place of the Self. It is the dark tendency built into our ego structure that tries to establish the ego’s domination over the whole psyche, rather than allowing the God-given Center of the psyche to rule. (p. 115)

As a psychologist, one of the hats that I have worn in my career thus far is in the role of writing forensic psychological evaluations for inmates serving life prison sentences for first and second degree murder. Included in these evaluations is a section called “Assessment of Dangerousness.” In addition, I have also provided psychotherapeutic treatment for these men. Evaluating and treating these men has provided me a glimpse into the psyche of men who have committed acts of extreme violence.  The reason that I am bringing this up now is because I think that the work with these men may help to illustrate the idea of how the psyche does indeed have a moral center that it operates from.

It is common for these “Lifer” inmates to seek to change their behavior in an effort to get a favorable review from the prison board and hopefully, parole from prison. Many of them do in fact make positive behavioral changes. Many do not. There is also a third group of men. These individuals make “simulated” outer behavioral changes, but there is a lack of corresponding inner changes in attitude. I have seen night-time dreams from this third group of individuals that clearly point at wanting them to deeply examine their crimes and make whatever amends their dreams, seemingly originating from a moral center, deem necessary. I am using this example from incarcerated men found guilty of murder because it demonstrates how serious the psyche can be about individuals living from a moral center. The psyche, in cases such as this, does not seem to care so much about simulated outer behavioral changes that may have been made. It does care that an individual examines the crime deeply, and if he is lucky enough, he learns to bear the weight of his actions, and becomes a more caring and productive member of society whether released from prison or not.

I received a comment on my blog post about Viktor Frankl’s letter from Jungian analyst, Brian Collinson. His comment noted that he was also drawn to Frankl’s final thoughts in his letter about psychotherapeutic interventions being senseless unless coming from an ethical viewpoint. Collinson said, “This would seem to me to be very much in harmony with Jung’s emphasis on taking one’s own individuality and unique experience with absolute seriousness, and so really living in the uniqueness of one’s own life and story, as opposed to some more general story about human existence.”

Similar to Frankl’s idea about psychotherapeutic interventions being senseless if not starting from an ethical viewpoint, Collinson makes the point about taking one’s individuality and unique experience with absolute seriousness. In reference to the incarcerated men I have worked with and discussed above, some of who are attempting to make amends for their crimes, it is even more essential to begin work with them from Frankl’s notion of an ethical viewpoint and from Collinson’s idea of taking one’s uniqueness with absolute seriousness.  Rather than siding with the egos of some of the men as they make certain simulated behavioral changes in efforts to demonstrate change, it is necessary to begin with their own life story, which will in these cases, often include acts of extreme violence. In such cases, one must examine the psyche’s perspective on the crimes in relation to those efforts made at true rehabilitation. This perspective can present itself in an inmate’s night-time dreams and comes from the moral center, separate from the ego, which often has an agenda of its own.

For most of us, there is a moral center that can be an anchor and guide in helping us with both important decisions and with achieving our psyche’s goals for us. We almost always know the ethical and moral decisions to make on our life path. These decisions are often not easy ones, and they may carry with them a kind of suffering that is agreeable to the soul. Similarly, Wright (1994) quotes Martin Luther who said that chronic moral torment is a sign of God’s grace. I believe that Martin Luther is suggesting with this idea that we do have a deep moral core, because at times, we do suffer the burden of moral torment, and this type of suffering is not necessarily something to avoid at all costs. This type of suffering can also be an indication of one leading an examined life.

The ethical and moral decision is the decision that coupled with courage, helps us to closely examine the psychological and moral consequences of our crimes.  I am writing now of both literal crimes committed, such as with the inmates in this article, and crimes against the Self. Crimes against the Self, such as when a gifted and talented artist chooses law school at the expense of their art, because being a lawyer “runs in the family,” can have inner psychological consequences similar to those of a true crime against the State and others. When we begin at the moral center, we have a much better chance of making the deep and necessary changes for the good of the greater Self, not the ego.

Wright (1994) discussed “the moral animal” in his book about evolutionary psychology when he said, “We do have a foundation of decency to build upon…Indeed, if you ponder the utter ruthlessness of evolutionary logic long enough, you may start to find our morality, such as it is, nearly miraculous.” Like Sanford’s God-given center of the psyche, Wright also seems to posit that there is a moral center to build upon. For the incarcerated men that I have discussed in this post, as well as for the rest of us, it is vital to not allow the ego’s domination over the whole psyche, but rather to allow the moral center, the God-given center of the psyche to rule.

Sanford, J. A. (1981). Evil: The Shadow Side of Reality. New York: Crossroad.

Wright, R. (1994). The Moral Animal, Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. New York: Pantheon Books.

© 2012 – 2013, Dr. Jeff Howlin. All rights reserved.

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