Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.
Jung’s Moral Relativism
… man is a morally responsible being who, voluntarily or involuntarily, submits to the morality that he himself has created.
… In the end good and evil are human judgments, and what is good for one man is evil for another. …
“… there is absolutely no truth that does not spell salvation to one person and damnation to another.
… in our day we are beginning to understand that out of evil comes good and out of good comes evil, the relativity of things.
Carl Jung was a moral relativist. What does “moral relativist” mean, and why do I make this claim? This essay defines the term, offers justification for the claim, and then examines Jung’s sense of human nature in the context of morality. The final part offers Jung’s thoughts on conventional morality.
What is meant by “moral relativism”?
Our English word “moral” comes from the Latin mos, mores, the “custom or manners” of a particular culture or society. “Relativism” means “the philosophical doctrine of the relativity of knowledge, truth or certainty.” More explicitly, a moral relativist asserts “… that there are incompatible ultimate moral beliefs in different cultures, … Moral beliefs, that is to say, are relative to a particular culture, much as the rules of etiquette are.”
Given the phenomenon of globalism that has marked the last few decades, thanks to the Internet and social media, we are much more aware these days of just how different are the customs in different cultures, e.g. the Taliban sequester women, while multiple countries have elected women as their leaders; the Chinese honor the elderly, while Americans honor the young; Jews mourn the dead by “sitting shiva,” while the Irish hold a “wake.” It is obvious that different cultures have different moral beliefs and customs.
Philosophers get their knickers in knots over whether different cultures have different ultimate moral beliefs. Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, and Bertrand Russell are just some philosophers who have argued this point. Jung refused to engage in this debate by stating that he was not a philosopher, but a physician. He recognized that “morality as such is a universal attribute of the human psyche,” but he also understood that the same was not true for a “given moral code.” As a physician, Jung’s focus was on helping his patients, rather than getting into debates or arguments that would not relieve their suffering. It is important, in this regard, to remember that Jung saw patients from many different cultures all over the world. Which brings us to the second part of this essay: the justification for claiming Jung was a moral relativist.
Jung’s Statements on Morality
In his discussion of dream analysis with his students in his 1928-1930 seminar, Jung was quite clear in his advice to them:
It is dangerous to use that word moral. It is not a good word, for it has no definite meaning. It is moral to sacrifice children, to torture, to buy and sell slaves in certain societies. The word moral comes from the Latin mores—habits, customs. We connect it with the idea of good and evil, but we must always keep in mind that the word has a relative meaning. The idea of good and evil is not the same in different centuries or in different countries….
Since many of the students sitting in the room when Jung said this came from different countries, they surely understood the truth of what he meant.
In later sessions of the seminar, Jung was more explicit: “… in our day we are beginning to understand that out of evil comes good and out of good comes evil, the relativity of things.” and “ One can say nothing that it is right or wrong. How can one judge? Human life and human fate are so paradoxical that one hardly can make a binding law….”. Why paradoxical? Because of the principle of the enantiodromia, as Jung explained to the students:
This is an extraordinary relativation of the ethical problem—that having been high you will be low, having been low you will be high. Out of the darkness comes the light, and after the light comes again the darkness, so evil is not so bad and good is not so good because they are related and only together by a mistake which remains inexplicable….
Jung urged his students to “get more oriented in our moral values,” by which he meant that they were to learn
that there is nothing very bad without a bit of good, and nothing very good without a bit of bad. We shall be improved by that truth, by that relativity, and get a little of the attitude of the Eastern man, who was always close to the earth and never dreamed of being absolutely superior to the laws of nature….
Twenty-seven years after his seminar on dream analysis, in a 1957 letter to Roswitha N, Jung was equally clear about the relativity of morals: “… In the end good and evil are human judgments, and what is good for one man is evil for another….” Several years after this, in an extemporaneous address to the Stuttgarter Gemeinschaft, Jung cautioned his audience about making moral judgments:
… to regard our judgments as absolutely valid would be nonsensical; it would mean wanting to be like God…. Our judgment… as to what is good or evil in practice will have to be very cautious and modest, not so apodictic, as though we could see into all the darkest corners. Ideas of morality are often as widely divergent as are views on what constitutes a delicacy for the Eskimo and for ourselves.
Clearly Jung did not hesitate to express his moral relativism to his students, his correspondents and in public venues.
Jung’s Sense of Human Nature
Jung’s belief in moral relativism derived in part from his sense of human nature. Jung recognized that, as humans, we have an inner animal, which is a valuable part of us, to be respected (despite “the Christian prejudice against the animal in man”): “… for us to kill the [animal] would be blasphemous, a sin, it would mean killing the natural thing in us, the thing that [can get us]… back to a condition where we are right with nature….”
Besides having an animal side, human beings have a shadow side: They are sinners:
He [the human being] is forced to admit that under no circumstances can he avoid evil absolutely, just as on the other side he may cherish the hope of being able to do good. Since evil is unavoidable, he never quite gets out of sinning and this is the fact that has to be recognized. …
And thus we humans are guilty. But, unlike many moralists, Jung did not regard sin, evil or guilt as an unmitigated failing. Rather, he recognized the felix culpa, i.e. the ‘good/fortunate failing,” or “final guilt,” “without which a man will never reach his wholeness.” No person can be wholly good, just as no one is wholly evil. If we hope to become whole we must recognize that “bitterest foe, or indeed a host of enemies,… the ‘other self’ who dwells in [our] bosom.” This “other self” is our shadow.
Jung had little patience for the poseurs who tend “to seek good motives for their behavior, instead of saying: I have been a pig.” So often we try to defend, explain or make excuses for our mistakes or failings, when Jung would have us just admit we messed up: “A little less hypocrisy and a little more self-knowledge can only have good results in respect for our neighbor; …”, i.e. if we were able to be honest with ourselves and more conscious, we would do less projection of our own shadow on to others.
Jung recognized that individuals each have a destiny, and are meant to fulfill it “according to nature’s laws,” and therefore “People who have to live a certain fate get neurotic if you hinder them from living it, even if it is appalling nonsense….” Jung was here warning the students in his dream seminar not to judge their patients, for “… the doctor cannot afford to… say, ‘Thou shalt not.’…”. This is not to say that Jung dismissed the idea of moral judgment. Not at all. He was clear that “Man cannot live without moral judgment…” since, as human beings, we contain “an unequal mixture of good and evil.”
So Jung felt that, containing both good and evil, ego and shadow, “… man is a morally responsible being who, voluntarily or involuntarily, submits to the morality that he himself has created.” Jung recognized that we, human beings, are the source of our moral systems. Which brings us to the final part of this essay: Jung’s thoughts on conventional morality.
Jung on Conventional Morality
Those readers who know something of Jung’s biography, or have read the six-part essay on “Jung the Man” archived on this Web site, know that Jung had scant appreciate of conventional morality. He lived life on his own terms, even when it caused scandal, tongue-wagging and the social ostracism of his family. He spoke bluntly on this score to the students in his dream seminar:
I have no use for a man who believes in conventional morality. He can be a criminal just as well, but be within conventional morality and consider himself respectable. The man who does wrong and knows that it is wrong can change. He is not wronging his own soul. It is murderous for the human soul to help people to make these compartments. It is a sin against the Holy Ghost to have such a morality. There is no development under the law of conventional morality….
By “sinning against the Holy Ghost,” I think Jung was referring to his believe that the soul intends for us to grow. Life is meant to be about becoming more self-aware, more conscious of both our capacity for good and our capacity for evil. But the conventions of the morality we develop often provide “cover” or justifications for the evil that we do, and thus, we don’t know when we are doing wrong.
One example, from Jung’s own life, is his very unconventional ménage à trois with his wife Emma and his mistress, Toni Wolff. Jung justified this scandal-causing situation by saying that he did not want to injure his children. He knew that parents’ unconsciousness is carried by their children, and he did not want to do this with his children. Rather, he lived out the relation to his anima via Toni, his muse. To Jung, it would have been a greater evil to inflict his unconsciousness on his family than to openly take an “other wife.” A person of less independence of thought might have taken a mistress but relegated her to a sub rosa existence, so as to lessen the tongue-wagging. Jung, however, was not much for polishing his persona, nor did he care for the conventional morality of the Zurich burghers.
Independence of thought is one requirement to stand against conventional morality. Another is the possession of a keen sense of personal conscience, “which rises above the moral code and refuses to submit to its dictates,…”. Jung posed the rhetorical question of where a person would get the justification to do this, and his answer was that, in those situations where such refusal occurs, it is the result of a “divine intervention,” i.e. the moral decision is made via what Jung called “vox Dei, the voice of God.” As the “voice of God,”
this voice must possess an incomparably higher authority than traditional morality. Anyone, therefore, who allows conscience this status should, for better or worse, put his trust in divine guidance and follow his conscience rather than give heed to conventional morality….
In this, as in so many other areas of life, Jung practiced what he preached. He was able to do this because he had “… unusual courage or—what amounts to the same thing—unshakable faith…[which allowed him] simply to follow the dictates of his own conscience.” Jung knew how difficult this is for most people since, “as soon as the moral code ceases to act as a support, conscience easily succumbs to a fit of weakness.”
Besides “sinning against the Holy Ghost,” conventional morality was, to Jung, a negative because it tends to “blot out” the “individual factors,” and with them the morality
which rests entirely on the moral sense of the individual and the freedom necessary for this. Hence every man is, in a certain sense, unconsciously a worse man when he is in society than when acting alone; for he is carried by society and to that extent relieved of his individual responsibility. Any large company composed of wholly admirable persons has the morality and intelligence of an unwieldy, stupid, and violent animal. The bigger the organization, the more unavoidable is its immorality and blind stupidity…
Jung’s problem with conventional morality derived from his valuation of the individual and his abhorrence of the “mass man,” and large groups. He put emphasis on individual conscience and personal morality, in his recognition of the relativistic nature of moral principles.
Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.
Hannah, Barbara (1976), Jung: His Life and Work, A Biographical Memoir. New York: G.P. Putnam.
Jung, C.G. (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1954), “The Development of Personality,” CW 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1977), C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, ed. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1984), Seminar on Dream Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Munro, D.H. (1973), “Relativism in Ethics,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas, IV. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Collected Works 8, ¶465. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW. Jung wrote this statement in 1916, but the English edition of volume 8 was published in 1960.
 “Letter to Roswitha N.,” 17 August 1957; Letters, II, 384.
 CW 12, ¶36.
 Jung (1984), 239.
 World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1259.
 Ibid., 1644.
 Munro (1973), IV, 70.
 E.g. Argentina, Germany, Great Britain, and Norway.
 Munro (1973), 70-73.
 “Letter to Swami Devatmanananda,” 9 February 1937; Letters, I, 227.
 CW 10, ¶833.
 E.g. the United States, United Kingdom, Guatemala, Palestine/Israel, Australia, France, Argentina, Italy, as well as Switzerland; Jung (1984), xviii-xix; and Jung (1977), v-ix.
 Jung (1984), 193.
 In the three years that Jung gave his dream seminar the participants included people from the U.S., U.K, Germany, Australia, Guatemala and Palestine; ibid., xviii-ix.
 Ibid., 239.
 Ibid., 450.
 Ibid., 482.
 Ibid., 471.
 Ibid., 239.
 CW 10, p. 456.
 Ibid., ¶871.
 Jung (1984), 37.
 “Letter to Erich Neumann,” 3 June 1957; Letters, II, 364-5.
 CW 12, ¶36.
 CW 7, ¶43.
 Jung (1984), 306.
 CW 7, ¶28.
 Jung (1984), 450.
 CW 12, ¶36.
 CW 18, ¶1603.
 CW 8, ¶465.
 The most definitive biography of Jung is by Bair (2003). For a brief overview of Jung’s life, see the six-part essay “Jung the Man; His Life Examined,” archived on this blog site.
 Jung (1984), 213-4.
 Hannah (1976), 119.
 CW 17, ¶84.
 Bair (2003), 266.
 CW 10, ¶838.
 Ibid., ¶839.
 Ibid., ¶840.
 Ibid., ¶835.
 CW 7, ¶240.
 CW 18, ¶1351. For more on Jung’s aversion to large groups and mass-mindedness, see the blog essays “Jung’s Timeliness and Thoughts on Our Current Reality,” “Jung and the Social Implications of Individuation,” and “The Future of Our Too-Big-to-Fail Institutions: A Jungian Perspective,” archived on this blog site.