Monday, January 26, 2009

Justice as Compromise Formation

“Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice.”

-H.L. Mencken (1880-1956)

“Nobody wants justice.”

-Alan Dershowitz

Justice refers to the proper or fair ordering of things and persons within a society. Another meaning involves conformity to truth, fact, or reason. In describing justice Socrates used an allegory about a ship:

"The unjust city is like a ship, crewed by a powerful but drunken captain, a group of untrustworthy advisors, and a navigator who is the only one who knows how to get the ship to port. The only way the ship will reach its destination – ie., the good or the just – is if the navigator takes charge."

In the statue of Lady Justice – we notice “evil” - in the archetypal form of a snake - is being held to the "letter of the law" (a legal book of societal laws). Justice is "blind" to all but the proper balance. This is the criminal justice view.

As with any great metaphor, there are alternate views. Another view – for those psychologically inclined – is to see the snake as humanity’s unrestrained instinctual impulses, its natural passions. This raw, animalistic desire is restrained against and by man’s rules and regulations. In other words, his morality, or super-ego - the term Freud used to describe man's internalized conscience. Justice, here, is overseeing this operation - but note carefully that she has given up some freedom in doing so.

She no longer has a true free range of movement – she has made a compromise, which is essentially what life in free society requires. In fact, her compromise formation has left her in a potentially dangerous situation. Should she ever become weary or distracted, and let up on her foot, the backlash will be quite unpleasant. She is, in a sense, a prisoner to humanity’s passions, just as so many criminal offenders are prisoners of their own passions and egoic dysfunction.

In the criminal justice system, as in psychiatry/psychology, it is extremely difficult to confront strong egoic dysfunction and remain objective. The "evil" (ie., selfish) deeds of man’s false sense of self scream out for a dramatic reaction, and our own egos are eager and hungry to comply.

The inescapable and recurring formula of the compromise formation was beautifully illustrated by Nietzsche ("But the knot of causes in which I am entangled recurs, and will create me again"), and was later expanded upon by Freud in his writings about the "repetition compulsion."

Wo Es War: Control & Surveillance as Foundation

“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.”[i]

- Jean Jacques Rousseau

That absolute or “total” freedom is incompatible with sustained life is difficult to refute. Rather, this fantasy harkens back to a form of infantile omnipotence and narcissism only viable for a very brief, early period in human life. The study of childhood development has long held that “the child is born feeling omnipotent and only gradually and reluctantly…turns to and accepts reality” sometime by the first 18 months of life.[ii] Thus, life turns toward a process of compromise, and the exertion of whatever control is feasible. The energy of the id, or instinctual impulse, must be harnessed, monitored and controlled by the super ego. Concomitant with the introjection of parental limits, the super ego retains other model features such as the parent’s “severity, [and their] inclination to supervise and punish (p. 167).”[iii] This internalized model then serves as a template for “the endeavors of the ego,” becoming a source of man’s ethics and morality.

These “structures” of the mind are seldom distinguishable until situations of conflict arise.[iv] While man’s ego is greatly concerned with organization and consistency, the id will have little concern with the environment or logical cause and effect. Therefore, the ego must “bring the influence of the external world to bear upon the id.... For the ego, perception plays the part which in the id falls to the drives p. 25).”[v] Thus, the ego has reason to “keep an eye on” the id’s drive for gratification, which has little regard for the limitations or consequences of external reality.[vi] Efforts to strike some acceptable balance require a “compromise.”

It has been noted that this pattern of internal mental surveillance is “the result of a long and painful development over the course of millennia, a development that must be transmitted anew to each new member of society.”[vii] Wherever man’s quests have taken him, he has required efforts to “oversee” his impulses – or, as Freud famously put it: “Wo Es war soll Ich warden” (Where the id was, the ego shall be).

Freud believed that civilization mirrored the individual in terms of super-ego development. Powerful leaders and iconic tales of heroism left an “impression” behind that molded and reinforced the ethical systems of an epoch.[viii] From a cultural perspective, one may think of “ethics” as a command of the extant super-ego of a civilization. Yet similar to the impossible demands of the individual super-ego, cultural ethics has always pressed for “something which has so far not been achieved by means of any other cultural activities (p.90).”[ix]

Ethical systems, like an individual’s super-ego, make unrealistic demands that will have no truck with either reality’s demands or the id’s unrelenting instinctual drives. The impasse, essentially life against instinctual, self-preservation and aggression, led Freud to consider it “the fateful question for the human species,” – the successful outcome depending entirely upon cultural development (p.92).[x] But what kind of cultural development may be required? An ethic of internal virtue for virtue’s sake, or one built upon the scaffolding of a "prosthetic" super-ego? Of course, here I am speaking of society's increasing use of surveillance. The prospect of man's "soul training" via surveillance will be the topic of my next esssay.

[i] Rousseau J: The Social Contract. 1762, Translated by G. D. H. Cole, public domain. At: Accessed on: 5/12/2008
[ii] Novick J, Novick K: Some Comments on Masochism and the Delusion of Omnipotence from a Developmental Perspective. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 1991; 39:307-331
[iii] Freud S: The Economic Problem of Masochism. In: The Collected Works of Sigmund Freud.
[iv] Freud A: The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence. New York: International Universities Press, 1966.
[v]Freud S: The ego and the id (1923). Standard Edition, 19:1-60. London: Hogarth Press, 1961.
[vi] Brenner C: The Mind as Conflict and Compromise Formation. At: (accessed: 3/29/2008)
[vii] Brenner C: The Mind as Conflict and Compromise Formation. At: (accessed: 3/29/2008)
[viii] Freud S: Civilization and its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1961.
[ix] Freud S: Civilization and its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1961.
[x] Freud S: Civilization and its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1961.


[i] Nietzsche F. Thus Spake Zarathustra. In: Kaufman, W ed. The Portable Nietzche. New York, NY: Viking Penguin Books, 1982, p. 333.

No comments:

Post a Comment