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Merkur, D. (2009). Interpreting the sense of Badness. Psychoanal. Rev., 96(6):943-982.

(2009). Psychoanalytic Review, 96(6):943-982

Interpreting the sense of Badness

Dan Merkur, Ph.D.

Clinically, we have no evidence of evil. We have evidence of love, pain, and aggression. Balint (1935) remarked: “Ill-nature, malice, wickedness, even sadism can be analysed, cured, or what comes ultimately to the same thing: they have their antecedent. It is suffering that makes one wicked” (p. 62). Over the years, Freud published a series of theories concerning the psychology of evil, which included innate biological endowment (Freud, 1920), the genetic inheritance of guilt incurred by ancestors in prehistory (Freud, 1913), and social instincts (see Merkur, 1992). Freud's superego concept was the most successful and plausible of his theories, and the closest to clinical experience. Unlike Freud's other theories of the psychology of morality, the superego concept was not deduced from ideas about morality or ethics that were stipulated a priori, and it cannot be understood when approached with a priori assumptions about the nature of ethics. The concept has its basis in clinical manifestations of guilt and is improperly understood when viewed through the prism of ethics. “The superego concept is from first to last a clinical concept. It was founded on clinical analysis, and retains throughout a clinical connotation” (Glover, 1947, p. 489).

A passage in Civilization and Its Discontents well illustrates the shortcoming of the superego concept. Digressing briefly from a discussion of the superego's origin, Freud (1930) mentioned the circumstance of “a person feeling guilty because he really has done something which cannot be justified” (p. 131).

When one has a sense of guilt after having committed a misdeed, and because of it, the feeling should more properly be called remorse….

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