The Relativity of Morality in the Contemporary World
by Anna Ornstein, MD
Utilizing the author’s personal experience and applying psychoanalytic theory, this article explores the similarities and differences between the rise of Fascism in the 1930s and our current political climate, with special attention to the role of morality, both on an individual and collective basis. The article explores the way in which an individual’s morality is shaped by political and social circumstances. Likewise, this article describes the impact of a collapsing social moral order on the individual. Using Heinz Kohut’s self-psychological theory of development, personal morality is linked to internalized values and ideals rather than a Freudian model of the super-ego. The article examines how perpetrators can be motivated by their own ideals and morality while committing heinous crimes. Integrating Theodor Adorno’s ideas and self-psychology, the powerful role of the fascist leader appealing to the psychological needs of his followers is explored. Using the example of Kristallnacht, the article shows how the gradual loss of a moral order can lull citizens into accepting stepwise consequences until it is too late. From the point of view of those who are victims of fascist ideology, the article describes the challenges of holding on to ideals and values under a range of oppressive circumstances. The article highlights the value of a psychoanalytic understanding of our current political situation both for the individual and for society as a whole. A call for us to be mindful of the fragile but vital nature of our collective moral order.
Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 40:4, 223-233, 2020.
About the Author
Anna Ornstein, MD, is a Supervising Analyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, Professor Emerita of Child Psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati, a Training and Supervising Analyst at the Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute, a Lecturer in Psychiatry at Harvard University. She was born in Hungary in 1927. She survived deportation, ghetto imprisonment, the Auschwitz concentration camp, and the Parschnitz labor camp. In 2018, Dr. Ornstein received the Kravitz Award in recognition of her dedication to teaching about the Holocaust and the dangers of intolerance: follow this link to watch Anna Ornstein’s Kravitz Award Interview recorded in 2019. On Nov 9, 2020, she received the Terezin Legacy Award for her lifelong dedication to Holocaust remembrance and education – click here to watch the 2020 Terezin Music Foundation Gala and Award Ceremony.
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