Sigmund Freud and His Ethically-controversial Works


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Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) left a complicated and controversial legacy regarding the clash between ethics and his pioneering work of psychoanalysis. The most ethically-controversial work of Freud was his assertion that all human actions are motivated by human sexuality. Freud postulated that actions including decision-making and moral behaviors are sexually determined (Koenane, 2014). The theoretical perception that human sexuality controls human behavior led Freud to perform controversial experiments including performing nasal surgery to treat compulsive masturbation because Freud believed that human sexual organs were connected to the nose (Sousa, 2011). Freud’s controversial works did not stop at the nasal surgery. Rather, Freud continued to develop and experiment on controversial theories on children, gender, and sexuality. Most of Freud’s theories were thought plausible or rather acceptable in the late 19th century and early 20th century (Kenny, 2016).

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However, Freud’s works received intense criticism and even rejection following the advancement of moral philosophy from the 1950s onwards. Particularly, Freudian theories presented a dark side of human psychology that is monstrous and unacceptable in the light of present-day social and ethical concerns. Humans would probably become horrible beings if they believed in the majority of Freud’s theories. Freud particularly overlooked the centrality of moral dilemmas in decision-making (Kenny, 2016). Freud understood that human behavior is influenced by unconscious, impulsive, and self-serving desires, and that these desires are natural biological instincts that serve to maximize the pleasurable experience (Ahmed, 2012). Freud also said that human behavior is controlled by the conscious perception of reality whereby humans have the ability to consciously think, plan, and choose a course of action that allows individuals to coexist in harmony within society (Sousa, 2011).

However, Freud asserted that the unconscious and impulsive desires were naturally stronger than the conscious perception of reality and that it is natural for humans to act on any pleasurable experience they perceive because of the predominance of the unconscious desires. This conceptualization of the human mind whereby Freud allows the free reign of impulsive, pleasure-seeking and self-serving desires within a society encourages bad morals (Koenane, 2014). For example, Freud seemed to suggest that it is natural, rational, and even understandably acceptable for pedophiles to act on their impulsive urges to sexually molest children because humans are designed to surrender to the unconscious and natural urges (Kenny, 2016). Freud’s assertions lowers the moral threshold so much so that a society that believes in Freudian theories would be anarchic at minimal. A utopic Freudian society would allow any person to act on their alleged ‘natural’ impulses including murdering other people, stealing, and destroying property without consequences because Freud termed such pleasure-seeking impulses as rational and natural biologically.

However, I believe that Freud’s understanding of the role of the unconscious urges in controlling human behavior is not only unacceptable because it portrays humans as impulsive and pleasure-seeking creatures, but is also erroneous and intolerable in today’s society because ethics and morals now govern the global society. Besides Freud’s questionable postulations on the impulsiveness of the unconscious mind, Freud also developed morally repulsive theories on infantile sexuality. Freud claimed that the pursuit of sexual pleasure among humans begins at birth and not at puberty as understood today (Koenane, 2014). Freud described that infant sexual feelings and sexual relations develop from birth to the age of six years old and that during this period, infantile sexuality progresses from the oral phase, the anal phase, and to the genital phase (Sousa, 2011). What is particularly disturbing about Freud’s claims on infantile sexuality is the perception that the pleasure of an infant to satisfy hunger is equal to the pleasure of an adult to achieve orgasm during sex.

However, I believe that an infant’s yearning for food after birth is a survival instinct that has no association with sexual development. Thus, this Freudian portrayal of children as sexually-active is perverse and would promote pedophilia and sexual molestation if the society believed in Freud’s claims. Moreover, Freud raised a controversial and unethical claim regarding gender and sexuality. Freud introduced the term Oedipus complex to explain the children’s attraction towards parents of the opposite sex. Freud claimed that girls develop ‘penis envy’ between ages three years and six years because girls perceive the sexual organs of boys as being desirable (Ahmed, 2012). Freud particularly explained that girls unconsciously blame their mothers for not giving them penises and girls naturally transfer their affection from their mothers to their fathers (Kenny, 2016). Freud further explained that the perpetual desire for girls to have penises triggers the girls’ desire to have babies at puberty (Kenny, 2016).

However, Freud’s theories on child sexual development and gender identity have been disapproved by rigorous scientific studies and are considered imprecise in today’s development theories. Besides the inaccuracy of Freud’s claims on sexual development, I believe that the claims on gender and sexual identity would arouse fierce criticism from gender-based social movements including feminism. Therefore, Freud’s claims about penis envy and the Oedipus complex are unacceptable because of the portrayal of children as preoccupied with sexual gratification. In conclusion, Freud’s assertions and theories of the human mind and infantile sexuality have received criticism on the grounds of social and ethical concerns. Freud’s assertions are unacceptable because they are considered morally wrong. Nonetheless, Freud’s rationalizations are still important to understand in the field of psychology, and still find application in clinical observations and in psychotherapy, (Kenny, 2016).

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