A New Ethics for a New Era

A New Ethics for a New Era:

The Esoteric Ethics of Depth Psychology


“It is said… that the psychology of the unconscious leads to an esoteric form of ethics….”
                                                                                    Carl Jung (1959)[1]

“Good does not become better by being exaggerated, but worse, and a small evil becomes a big one through being disregarded and repressed. The shadow is very much a part of human nature, and it is only at night that no shadows exist.”
                                                                                    Carl Jung (1948)[2]

“But to live outside the law, you must be honest.”
                                                                                    Bob Dylan (1966)[3]


            It is not often that I think of Carl Jung and Bob Dylan at the same time, but as I mulled over the opening quotes for this essay, Dylan’s quote came to mind. I first encountered it on a poster that hung in a hallway at College of the Atlantic, where I taught back in the 1980’s. That encounter was years before I got interested in Jung but the quote stuck with me, and now—thanks to my years of analysis and immersion in Jung’s thought—I interpret it in a whole new way.

            I assume that Dylan was speaking to the flower-power hippies of the 1960’s, who flouted convention, questioned authority and sought to re-create the world with New Age utopian idealism. Dylan recognized that being an outlaw—“living outside the law”—did not mean “Anything goes.” Rather, choosing outlaw status means adhering to a higher ethical standard: honesty. To Dylan, “honesty” probably meant what we usually think of when we use the term: not lying; telling the truth.

            Jung understood that “honesty” has much a deeper meaning beyond just telling the truth, and herein lies the “esotericism” in the ethics of depth psychology.  What is meant by “esotericism”? by esoteric ethics? by ethics? We begin this essay by defining some terms, then we’ll consider some components of the “old” ethics, and examine the new ethics that Jung and his followers propose for the new era that is aborning. Finally we will consider why a new ethics is needed.


Some Definitions

Our English word “ethics” comes from the Greek ethos, which meant “custom,” “habit,” or “moral character.” The dictionary defines “ethics” as:

the study of standards of right and wrong; that part of science and philosophy dealing with moral conduct, duty and judgment;… formal or professional rules of right and wrong; system of conduct or behavior; [as in biomedical ethics]… moral principles by which a person is guided.[4]

“Morals” comes from the Latin mos, “custom,” and its plural, mores, “manners.” The dictionary defines “morals” as:

principles, habits or behavior with respect to right or wrong conduct; …[5]

Something is “moral” or “ethical” when it is

in agreement with a standard of what is right and good in character or conduct. Moralrefers to the customary rules and accepted standards of society. Ethicalrefers to the principles of right  conduct expressed in a system or code, especially of that branch of philosophy that deals with moral conduct or of a profession or business.[6]

            Like “ethics” our English word “esoteric” comes from the Greek. Its root is eso(“within”) and esoterikosis the comparative form of the word, meaning “more within,” or “deeper.”[7] As a modifier of “ethics” it refers to that version of ethics that goes deeper, or deals with the hidden (unconscious) aspects of being and life.

            We used the term “depth psychology” in the title of this essay. That merits definition as much as ethics, morals and esoteric. By “depth psychology” we mean that form of psychology associated with the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and their followers. Freudians and Jungians go “deep” in their focus on the unconscious processes occurring below the radar screen of the ego’s awareness. Given the orientation of the Jungian Center, we will deal in this essay with Jung’s version of depth psychology.

            Finally, let’s define the “new era.” Previous essays[8] have considered Jung’s sense that the world is on the cusp of a new eon. For the past 2,000 years we have been living in the Age of Pisces. As the precission of the equinox shifts the first point of Aries, we are moving into the Age of Aquarius. This is not some idea Jung cooked up: Plato mentions it and other ancient observers of the stars were aware of it too.[9] It has a long history in Western thought. But Jung was one of the most vocal of modern scholars to mention this shift and to point out the

            … dark end [of the aeon of Pisces] which we have still to experience, and before whose—without exaggeration—truly apocalyptic possibilities mankind shudders.[10]

Esoteric ethics addresses this prospect, and we will consider how it does so in the final section of this essay.


Components of Our Current Ethical System

            Since ethics and morality are now rarely taught or even discussed outside academic courses in philosophy and in some business schools, we need to examine in some detail what is meant by the “old” ethics, so we can understand how it differs from the ethics of depth psychology. What is implied when we speak of “ethics” in our modern world?

            Values is one implication. Integrity, competence, responsibility, diligence, reliability, respect, concern, honesty, fairness, justice, excellence, accountability, self-control, discipline, tolerance, empathy—these are just a few of the ideals or behaviors that our society regards as desirable, and that are part of our ethical system.[11]

            Closely linked to values are choices. When we strive to be fair, when we exercise self-control, when we manifest tolerance we are making choices as to how to behave, think or respond to persons or situations. Being ethical or unethical implies making choices.[12]

            Context—the situations we find ourselves in—is another component of ethics. Recognition of the importance of context has given rise to an approach to ethics known as “situational ethics,” in which there are no absolutes, and “right” and “wrong” are seen as relative to the time, place, cultural background and expectations of the situation. The opposite stance is “absolutism,” which insists there are specific rules of behavior that apply regardless of time, place, culture etc.

            Situational ethics and absolutism are just two of a variety of approaches to ethics that have developed in Western history. Others include : egotism (“If it feels good, do it.”), utilitarianism (“If it works or is useful [has utility], it’s the right thing to do.”), the social contract (“Without a formal and informal understanding of what is expected in public and private behavior, we would have chaos.”), the common goods approach (“What serves to promote the common good is what is ethical.”), the rights approach (“Every human being has certain rights that should be protected and promoted.”), the justice approach (“All persons should be treated in ways that are fair, respectful and reasonable.”) and the virtue approach (“We should all strive for those qualities or personal characteristics that we value.”).[13]

            Notice the “shoulds” here. Oughts and shoulds are a feature of ethics. There are things we shoulddo, obligations we oughtto fulfill etc. The reverse is also true: there are things we should notdo, temptations we ought notto succumb to.

            When faced with temptations, we might suppress the urge to give in, leading to guilt and denial. These—suppression, guilt and denial—are other features of  our current ethics.[14] Generally, these are conscious: we are aware of feeling tempted and then suppress the feeling.

            By contrast, repression is unconscious. We are not aware of what we are doing when we repress something. To maintain our persona—a positive sense of ourselves—we then are likely to fall into splitting (becoming divided, with the negative side in the unconscious) or denial.[15] Denial takes many forms, some of which were discussed in the essay “The Faces of Denial,” archived on this blog site. Repression, splitting and denial are other components of our current ethical system.

            This system fosters the formation and maintenance of the persona—the mask we wear to conform to the expectations of others, and to uphold our “good name.”[16] Such conformity often leads to inauthenticity—not being who we really are, which Jung felt was a form of dishonesty.

            But the ego-based conscience, which is another component of our current ethics,[17] cannot recognize this dishonesty, focused as it is on conforming and following the crowd, and living up to others’ hopes and desires for us (especially to what our parents and peers expect).

            Repression, splitting, denial, the growth of the persona and the ego can lead to inflation[18]—a situation where we get puffed up and come to think too highly of ourselves, how smart/good/moral/right/pure/perfect we are. The danger of inflation and the quest for perfection[19] are other elements of our contemporary ethics.

            Often inflation and perfectionism are accompanied by judgmentalism, in which we see the “speck in our brother’s eye,” but fail to see the “log” in our own eye.[20] This phenomenon is known as “projection,” which occurs when we “project” what is actually in us out on to others.[21] Then we see others as bad/wrong/evil etc.[22]

            Implied in judgmentalism is bi-polar thinking: seeing reality in terms of black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. The Western world tends to think in this either/or way. This tendency toward stark dualism is another feature of our ethical system.[23]

            Inflation, judgmentalism and projection can lead to scapegoating—the tendency to identify a person or group as the source of our troubles, to hang guilt on someone or some collective and then punish them.[24] Scapegoating and punishment[25] are other components of our current ethics.

            What is common to these components is externality. This is the essence of the “old” ethics. It is from the outside. It is exoteric, not esoteric.[26] The values our ethics now espouses are values we acquire outside, from the collective. The “oughts” and “shoulds” we grow up hearing from the outside, from our parents, teachers and other authority figures. The ego-based conscience develops by conforming to external pressures. While the roots of our persona lie within the personality, the form it comes to have as we grow up derives from the outside, in relation to what others expect of us.[27] Our projections we see “out there,” carried by those who have the “hooks” necessary to carry our projections. We scapegoat others, without ever entertaining the notion that they might represent energies within us.

            Because it is external, the old ethics is a partialethics. Jung and his followers recognize that our current ethical system deals only with externals, with conscious reality, neglecting the whole reality of the psyche and our unconscious side.[28] As such, it has lost its efficacy and cannot help us now, in this time of transition, as we stand on the cusp of the new era.[29] We need a new ethics, a more complete ethics, an ethics that recognizes the full reality of being human, an ethics capable of addressing the crisis of our time. What does such an ethics look like?


The New Ethics of Depth Psychology

            To facilitate contrasting the two ethics, we’ll keep the same structure as above, considering components of the new ethics, some of its features, and how it differs from the old. Whereas the essence of the old ethic is externality, the essence of the new is internality, so we can expect to see some major differences.

            Let’s start with values. What are some values in the new ethics? One key value is something almost totally ignored in the old ethics: the unconscious, and the various elements that lie within it, like the shadow (all those parts we do not recognize as “us”),[30] our inner partner (the animus in a woman, the anima in a man), the psyche (soul), and the Self (our divine core). The new ethics puts value on these aspects of our humanity.

            Valuing the shadow implies accepting the reality of imperfection. As human beings we are not perfect and will never become perfect and striving to be perfect is a fruitless endeavor packed with all sorts of dangers—like addiction and inflation. Rather than striving for perfection the new ethics encourages us to aim for wholeness or completeness—to reach the fullness of our unique being.[31]

            Jung coined a word for this fullness: “individuation.” This is another value in the new ethics. By working with our dreams, delving into the unconscious, confronting our shadow, getting to know and integrate our contrasexual side, and endeavoring to develop our unique set of talents and abilities, we strive to become whole, “individuated.”[32]

            Such a goal implies personal growth, change, struggle, suffering and increasing self-awareness, as well as increasing Self-awareness. The ego must confront the Self, and this is not pleasant. Jung was emphatic about this:

            … the experience of the self is always a defeat for the ego.[33]

The ego does not like to relinquish control, does not welcome the realization that it is not meant to run the show. So the new ethics is heroic: Only for “heroes,” those with the stamina, courage, determination and tenacity to endure the process, to “hold the tension of opposites”[34] that inevitably arises when we confront our shadow side and face the “conflicts of duty”[35] that are other components of the new ethics.

            As in the old ethics, in the new we also make choices, in various life situations, but we do so from a very different viewpoint—that of the Self, not the ego. This can present a host of problems, since the Self does not operate with the societal or collective constraints that the ego has. Ethical systems and moralities are human creations. The Self transcends human limitations, and so it transcends what we think of as social mores. What does this mean, in terms of our daily living? It means what Jung called “conflicts of duty.”

            Conflicts of duty arise when the outside world lays a “should” or “ought” on us, but the Self demands some other behavior or action. Some examples from Jung’s life come to mind to illustrate this concept:[36] Conventional ethics said he should be faithful to his wife, but the Self led him to take Toni Wolff as his muse and mistress. Morality demanded that he spend time with his family, but the Self demanded that he tend to its promptings and spend long hours in the evenings wrestling with his inner energies. The dictates of professional ambition told Jung that he ought to conform to Freud’s demands, but the Self required that Jung break with Freud, and then work through the painful father-related issues that break brought up.

            In each of these instances Jung obeyed his inner voice, in each case enduring opprobrium, criticism, ostracism and professional problems for doing so. The inner voice—given to us in the form of dreams, intuitions, hunches or “knowings”—is another component of the new ethics, and one “ought” in the new ethics is listening to and obeying this inner voice.[37] We ought to follow our inner guidance, even when it violates the conventions of our society.

            This is hard. Equally hard is accepting the reality of evil and especially the reality of our ownevil. We like to think well of ourselves. We don’t want to face our shadow side—that we have within the liar, the cheat, the burgler, the terrorist. We don’t want to see the “log in our own eye,” as Jesus called it. We really don’t want to take back our projections.[38]

            But the new ethics asks us to face the fact that evil is real. Even more, it asks that we recognize the Devil as psychopomp.[39] What??? Some definitions and explanations are in order. Let’s consider “psychopomp” first. It’s Greek (psyche, “soul” and pompos, “conductor”) for the figure (Hermes or Charon) who conducted souls to Hades, the home of the dead.[40] As used by Jungians it refers to that energy within us that will carry us into the unconscious, so we can get in touch with the figures in our “inner city.”[41] Given that the new ethics is all about going deep within, to the hidden sources of our moral being, the psychopomp is a valuable ally.

            But (you may well ask) how can the Devilbe our psychopomp??? To tackle this question we must first define “Devil.” From the Greek word for “slanderer,”[42] or liar, the Devil is the personification of evil. What is the opposite of “evil”? Holy. Our English word “holy” comes from the Anglo-Saxon hal, which is also the root of our words “hale” (as in “hale and hearty,” i.e. in good health) and “whole.” To be “holy” is to be whole. To be “evil” is to be broken, fragmented, dis-integrated. The Devil is that energy within us that fragments, resists our becoming integrated, fights our efforts to get our act together.

            Jung regarded good and evil as principles, and he felt “principles” were aspects of God.[43] In a previous essay[44] we examined Jung’s criticism of Christianity for its truncated sense of the Divine, allowing God to be only good. Jung’s God included both the good and the bad, the holy and evil, Jesus and Lucifer. To those who aspired to overcome evil, Jung retorted that, as an aspect of God, evil was not something we could ever hope to overcome. Rather than try to overcome evil, Jung asks us to recognize the valuable role it can play. How so?

            In identifying the Devil as our psychopomp Jung was realistic: What gets us to think about change more—when things go well, or when things fall apart? When are we more inclined to be reflective—when our lives are working well, or when we have hit the wall? The very force—the Devil—that would keep us broken and unfulfilled is the very inner energy that serves as the goad to our waking up and working on ourselves. Therefore in the new ethics the Devil is not something we try to push away or repress, but rather is recognized for the impetus it can provide to our growth and change.

            In this way, the core of the new ethics is the relationship between the individual human being and the Divine. This relationship has primacy of place in our lives. The demands of the Self override all other considerations, difficult though this may be to live out, amid the “shoulds” and “oughts” of the old ethics. Especially in this time of transition, as the old age of Pisces shifts into the new age of Aquarius, those “heroes” living in the interstices between the old ethics and the new face criticism and uncomprehension from family, friends and foes.[45] Why bother? We consider this question in the final section of this essay.


Why a New Ethics?

            Jung’s student Erich Neumann recognized that, in this transitional time, we are living with the ever-present danger of annihilation.[46] If overuse of antibiotics doesn’t unleash an epidemic of “superbugs,” then some lunatics with nuclear weapons could unleash an atomic holocaust. Or our greed and materialism could bring on global warming and massive dislocations of the living systems that make up the “web of life,”[47] to the point that life as we know it becomes unsustainable. What is at the root of all these dangers?

            Neumann says it is the problem of evil, the reality of that force that divides, breaks down, creates hatred, destroys integrity. The old ethics has lost its ability and efficacy to handle evil.[48] We see evidence of this all over, from the broken, polarized political system, to the overweaning egotism and greed on Wall Street and the dehumanization of the health care system. The level of our collective ethics is very low,[49] so low that it is no exaggeration to say that we have lost our moral moorings.

            What’s to be done? Jung and Neumann agree that we, as individuals, have to step up to the plate.[50] We have to become conscious of the unconscious. We have to take up the challenge of recognizing our shadow side, wrestle with it and integrate it. We have to take on the moral responsibility for our own evil—to own, as St. Paul did, the fact that “the good we would do, we do not, and the evil we do not want, is what we do.”[51]

            In addition to accepting the reality of our own evil, our shadow side, we need to internalize a locus of control, and a locus of authority. These are key components of individuation and were discussed in depth in two previous essays on this blog site.[52] When we internalize a locus of control, we recognize that we are responsible for our lives. We refrain from playing the “blame game.” We refuse to turn over control to others, feeling ourselves stuck or stymied, unable to change, because of some other person and his/her actions. When we internalize a locus of authority, we make our own moral and ethical decisions. We do not look without, to a priest, parent, teacher or others, to find out what to do. Rather, we look within, and listen to our inner guidance.

            Lest you respond to this with the thought “But I’m just one person. What impact could I possibly have on the ethical situation of my community, much less the world?” Jung would reply that you are the only thing you can change.[53] In any situation, it is only yourself that you can change. When you look without, to try to change others, you externalize your locus of control. This is disempowering and gets you nowhere. But by looking within, by working on yourself, by becoming conscious of the unconscious, you take back control, own your power and this has an impact on the world. Inner work to heal yourself shifts the energies in your field, and that in turn affects all the people with whom you have contact. One by one, these inner shifts accumulate, are accumulating now, as the old eon shifts into the new, and slowly we are creating a new world.

            Just as we must not put new wine in old wineskins,[54] so we cannot move into the new world with an old, outmoded ethics. The new reality demands a new ethics built on consciousness, a level of honesty that transcends Dylan’s sense of not lying—honesty rooted in authenticity, the recognition of the shadow and the acceptance of our imperfection. To handle “the truly apocalyptic possibilities”[55] that confront us now, we need a new ethics, the “esoteric ethics” of depth psychology.



Jenkins, John Major (1998), Maya Cosmogenesis 2012: The True Meaning of the Maya Calendar End-Date. Rochester VT: Bear & Company.

Jung, C.G. (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Liddell & Scott (1978), An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Neumann, Erich (1990), Depth Psychology and a New Ethic, trans. Eugene Rolfe. Boston: Shambhala.

Plante, Thomas (2004), Do the Right Thing: Living Ethically in an Unethical World. Oakland CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Sharp, Daryl (1991), Jung Lexicon: A Primer of Terms & Concepts. Toronto: Inner City Press.

Stray, Geoff (2005), Beyond 2012. Lewes UK: Vital Signs Publishing.

von Franz, Marie-Louise (1980), Projection and Re-Collection in Jungian Psychology: Reflections of the Soul. La Salle: Open Court.

Weidner, Jay (2007), “The Alchemy of Time: Understanding the Great Year and the Cycles of Existence,” The Mystery of 2012: Predictions, Prophecies and Possibilities. Boulder CO: Sounds True.

Woodman, Marion (1982), Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride. Toronto: Inner City Press.

Yandell, James (1990), “Foreword,” to Neumann, Erich, Depth Psychology and a New Ethic. Boston: Shambhala.


[1]“Good and Evil in Analytical Psychology,” Collected Works10, ¶886. As has been the convention in these blog essays, hereafter Collected Workswill be abbreviated CW.

[2] CW11, ¶286.

[3] This is part of the lyrics in “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” in Dylan’s 1966 album “Blonde on Blonde.” My source for this quote is http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Bob_Dylan.

[4] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary,I, 675.

[5] Ibid., II, 1259.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lidell & Scott (1978), 234.

[8] See, e.g. “Jung’s Prophetic Visions and the Alchemy of Our Time,” “Jung’s Challenge to Us: ‘Holding the Tension of Opposites’;” and “Jung and the Archetype of the Apocalypse.”

[9] Cf. Weidner (2007), 185-202; Stray (2005), 39,90,196,280,289; Jenkins (1998), 42,163.

[10] CW11, ¶733.

[11] These values are discussed in Plante (2004), 35-46.

[12] Jung’s ideas on how to make good choices are discussed in the essay “Jung and Buridan’s Ass,” archived on this blog site.

[13] These 9 approaches are discussed in Plante (2004), 15-33.

[14] Neumann (1990), 33,34,50,55.

[15] Ibid., 34-37.

[16] Ibid., 37-41.

[17] Ibid., 35-37.

[18] Sharp (1991), 72; cf. Neumann (1990), 42.

[19] See Woodman (1982) for a thorough treatment of our “addiction to perfection.”

[20] Matthew 7:3-5.

[21] Sharp (1991), 104-106.

[22] It should be noted that we can project positive aspects of ourselves also. This is especially true when people get “addicted to perfection,” and then see themselves as too fat, too weak, too inadequate, etc. Jungian analyst Marion Woodman has written eloquently of this; see Woodman (1982).

[23] Neumann (1990), 44-45,47.

[24] Ibid., 50-58.

[25] Ibid., 31,57.

[26] Exosis Greek for “without” or “outside.”

[27] The persona is part of every person, but the form it takes varies due to the unique life experiences of the individual. As these demands and expectations of parents, teachers etc. resonate with the innate persona, the “mask” we wear is formed.

[28] Neumann (1990), 72; cf. Jung, CW18, ¶1414.

[29] Neumann (1990), 27.

[30] Ibid., 78-99.

[31] Ibid., 134.

[32] Sharp (1991), 67-69.

[33] CW14, ¶778.

[34] Sharp (1991), 93-95.

[35] CW18, ¶1417.

[36] See the previous 6 blog essays for the particulars of Jung’ biography, his infidelity, family life and relationship with Freud.

[37] Neumann (1990), 105,110,122,131,133.

[38] On the process of taking back projections, see von Franz (1980).

[39] Neumann (1990), 116,138,145.

[40] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1568.

[41] Jung felt we had an entire world of living energies within. Daryl Sharp took up this idea in naming his Jung-related publishing house the “Inner City Press.”

[42] The Greek is diabolos.

[43] CW10, ¶859.

[44] “The New Dispensation,” archived on this blog site.

[45] Some of the specific difficulties that heroes can anticipate are discussed in the essay “Pitfalls of the Path,” archived on this blog site.

[46] Neumann (1990), 27.

[47] Yandell (1990), 5.

[48] Neumann (1990), 25-27.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Jung (1975), 301; Neumann (1990), 102.

[51]Romans 7:18-19.

[52] In “Components of Individuation” and “How to Internalize a Locus of Control, a Locus of Authority and a Locus of Security.”

[53] CW10, ¶586.

[54] Matthew 9:17.

[55] CW11, ¶733.


  1. This is a really interesting article. The difference between individualism and individuation is important. It is too easy in the rejection of egosim to move towards individualism and fail to recognise that we are people in relation to other people – umuntu, ngumuntu, ngabantu.
  2. umuntu, ngumuntu, ngabantu
    translation (thank you Google)
    A person is a person because of other people

    Right, so we shouldn’t be beating up on one another but realize that we are all telling our stories, living our stories and need to learn deep listening of each other’s stories. The better listeners we become as a society, the better healers we become.

  3. Very thought provoking. Especially the notion that trying to change others, you externalize your locus of control, and are disempowered. However, and with all due respect to depth psychology, the last comment positing the new ethics into the box of depth psychology, would be limiting. You may wish to consider that the new ethics would likely transcend all academic disciplines.
  4. It is certainly true that the new ethics will transcend all disciplines, but I think–to be true to Jung and Neumann–the essence of the new ethics will be self-awareness, which requires inner work of the sort that depth psychology fosters. Depth psychology is not the only way to achieve such self-awareness (various forms of meditation can accomplish the same thing) but whatever method is used, the new ethics will be based on the realization that we are all one.

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