Three Essays in Psychoanalysis: The Categorical Imperative Entrenched in Ideology: Kant and Zupančič

This is the first of my series of essays in, rather than on, psychoanalysis. In preparing these pieces, I hope to provide for myself fertile ground from which to grow additional thoughts and reason through some of the evergreen problems in psychoanalysis and ethics. It is worth noting, also, that these three essays were written in the span of about sixty minutes

In reading Kant, Lacan and Zupančič engage in moderately disingenuous renderings of the Categorical Imperative. Zupančič, at least, is quite up front about this and indeed accomplishes a great deal in her front-loaded critique of Kant’s failures in reasoning. She outlines this in argument in Ethics of the Real: Kant and Lacan (2000). Zupančič criticizes Kant due to the fundamental error in his ethics which, according to Zupančič, are supposed to exist only on the level of the Categorical Imperative. That is to say, all the content of morality is determined by the maxim followed for no reason other than duty. Zupančič writes of Kant’s ethics, “a sharp break, a ‘paradigm shift’, is required to move from the logical to the ethical” (Zupančič 10). And yet Zupančič accuses Kant of failing to achieve this sharp break that his ethics require. Zupančič points to Kant’s unwillingness, first elucidated by Lacan, to admit to the possibility of the perverse subject motivated by jouissance to fuck the object of his or her lust and then submit themselves to death immediately afterwards. In Kant’s view, surely this is absurd. No one would exchange their life for one sexual act, a momentary pleasure. But jouissance and the death drive suggest precisely the opposite, there is nothing to preclude this potential and nothing to suggest it is an impossibility other than the regulatory forms of ideology in the Athusserian sense or civilization in the Freudian sense. Zupančič, again, takes Kant to task for his discomfort with the violent execution of a king. To narrate it briefly, Zupančič says:

“‘diabolical evil’ inevitably coincides with ‘the highest good’, which is precisely why, in his discussion of the formal execution of the monarch, Kant is forced to describe it in the same terms as he would describe a pure ethical act.” (Zupančič 91)

Zupančič goes on to say:

diabolical evil, the highest evil, is indistinguishable from the highest good, and that they are nothing other than the definitions of an accomplished (ethical) act. In other words, at the level of the structure of the ethical act, the difference between good and evil does not exist. At this level, evil is formally indistinguishable from good.” (Zupančič 92)

Zupančič, still, falls short of saying precisely what the issue Kant encounters is. There should be no ethical framework beyond the categorical imperative, and yet there is: ideology. Or, if you like, civilization. Zupančič posits (quite powerfully and productively) that Kant’s Categorical Imperative offers a radical freedom if, as she says, Kant’s ethics are only those that require the space of form (in this case, duty) expand into the space of content (in this case, ethics). This is a zero-degree ethical moment in which the structure of ethics can be formulated in relation to any such maxim that can be discharged for no reason other than duty (eliminating the pathological). This is ethics outside of ideology, ethics that produces ideology insofar as ethics is an inherently relational system. But, for Kant, the Categorical Imperative is not the zero-degree ethical moment. Kant’s trepidation about the execution of the monarch, his denial of jouissance, his inability to conceive of the perverse subject, Kant’s Categorical Imperative is already oriented in the direction of propagating ideology and/or civilization. For Kant, “diabolical evil” can never be the source of a maxim that is ethically permissible because such a maxim would threaten ideology. An example might be, “one must always lie.” Such a notion would be generalizable and thus a maxim which is morally permissible. To lie, however, to always lie and never for even an instant speak the truth, this is certainly threatening to the fabric of an ideology or civilization. Another example that Zupančič actually cites is that of Sade. Sade’s maxim, “that anyone can do what they wish to my body, and I can thus do anything I wish to any other body” is also generalizable in the same way but even more striking in its threat toward relationality and what I have described as ideological fabric, a description to which I am indebted to metaphor and colloquialism.

What makes Kant shudder in the face of these maxims when his own ethics establishes a space for them to be the source of morally good action? It is, as I have said, ideology. Zupančič’s immeasurable value, then, is her desire to extricate Kantian ethics from ideology and raise them to the full value that is promised by their potential. The only ethics worth following is the one that is completely free. The ethics of the lie or the ethics of Sade, where the potential space for radical freedom opens up in the form of an incalculable number of maxims and moralities.


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