In discussion of the influence of an unconscious or hidden motive upon the morality of human action, the term has been applied to two quite different situations, sometimes with no clear recognition that between them there is a difference that is, from the moral point of view, one not only of degree but also of kind. Sometimes the hidden motive is understood to be more or less deliberately or culpably excluded from consciousness by a kind of self-deception; at other times it indicates a motive that an automatic psychic mechanism has buried deeply in the unconscious, where it is inaccessible under ordinary circumstances to the conscious mind but exercises a notable influence upon an individual's conscious behavior.
Self-Deception. This is common enough in human experience. "It is a common and often repeated conviction of the ascetical writers through the ages that human beings are all too apt to allow their behavior to be determined by motives quite other than those which they think to be operative; and unless that assumption is accepted, all the warnings of the ascetical writers against self-deception become meaningless" (Vann 118). In this kind of situation the hidden motive is the true end for which the agent acts, and the motive that is consciously asserted is no more than a fabrication invented by the individual to permit himself to appear in his own eyes and in those of others in a more creditable light. The motive he invents is not in any true sense the cause of his acting as he does, but is simply the excuse with which he attempts to justify his action. His inadvertence to his true motive is voluntary and culpable, and it does not in any way prevent his action from being attributable to the motive that is truly operative. In this type of case, therefore, there is no question of double motivation in any proper sense of the term. There is one true motive, and the other is falsely pretexted and asserted by the conscious mind. One cannot generalize, however, and say that wherever there is self-deception that is in any degree culpable, the hidden predisposition to act in a particular way always constitutes a true end or motive in the sense in which the moralist understands the term. But it can be reasonably said that if a person does in fact act for an end that he culpably excludes from consciousness, then the camouflaged objective is the real motive of the action. There is no theoretical difficulty in harmonizing such a falsification of motivation with the teaching of Catholic moral theology regarding the structure of the human act. It is a possibility of which moralists and ascetical writers have always been aware.
Strictly Unconscious Motive. The difficulty lies rather in integrating into the traditional concept of the human act the motive that is alleged by depth psychologists to lie in some cases more deeply buried in the unconscious through the operation of nonvoluntary psychic mechanisms. The existence of such motivation has not been established beyond doubt, but it is assumed by many and, indeed, is asserted to be a common if not indeed a normal phenomenon and one by no means reserved to those suffering from psychic disorder. It may appear difficult, however, to reconcile this assumption with the view of the human act taken in traditional Christian moral thought, according to which a man is normally capable of knowing and indeed of choosing the ends for which he acts.
To avoid equivocation, a distinction must be made between the meaning given to motivation by the psychologist and by the moral theologian. The moralist generally uses the term in the sense of an end, or causa finalis, to which human action is directed, whereas for the psychologist a motive is more likely to signify a drive, a tendency, an urge, or an impulse to act—a meaning that is, incidentally, nearer to that given the term by St. Thomas Aquinas, for whom a causa motiva, or a principium movens, or simply a motivum, was identified with efficiency rather than finality. This distinction makes it possible to see that the operation of an unconscious motive (psychological) does not necessarily invalidate, or contradict, or make unreal the motive (moral) asserted by the conscious mind. The two can coexist, each contributing in a different order of causality to the same human activity but without negating the reality of the influence of the other (see Ford and Kelly 1:126).
If there exists a kind of knowledge or volition below the level of consciousness, this cannot be sufficient to account for proper human motivation or the finalization of the human act in the full sense of the word. The unconscious desire, if it exercises any influence at all, must do so in the form of impulses or urges toward activities in conformity with its bent. Impulses or urges, however, account for one's feeling like doing something, but they do not at all account for why he does it.
In the past the vagaries of individual impulse were regarded as mysterious, and it was considered sufficient for moral judgment to evaluate an act simply in the light of what appears in the conscious mind. Modern depth psychology has not essentially altered this situation. If its assumptions are valid, these simply make clearer the causes of the predispositions and inclinations that precede moral decision. That these influenced moral decision in some cases was not a thing unknown to the older theologians or even to the ancient philosophers. But from the fact of influence it cannot be inferred that they normally dominate or control human behavior. The conscious mind, aware of an urge or an impulse to something though unaware of its cause, evaluates what one is attracted to and considers whether it can be harmonized with one's interests as these are consciously recognized, whether it can be integrated into a pattern of life one consciously wants to realize. This rational deliberation leads to the acceptance or the repudiation of the impulse. If it is accepted, its satisfaction becomes a human motive and end; if it is rejected, it does not. The rejected impulse may continue to be felt, but its satisfaction is desired only on a level below that of deliberate volition. If it is so strong that it cannot be resisted, the hidden motive does actually dominate and control behavior, but what one does in such a case is neither human nor moral, and so has no human end or goal. But where deliberation is not frustrated, the hidden motive will do no more than account for something seeming desirable. It may explain desire on the level of sense, or perhaps even velleity in the will, but it does not account for actual choice. This must be explained in terms of the end to which one's activity is consciously directed.
Rationalization. Unconscious motivation is sometimes expounded in such a way as to make the deliberation of the conscious mind appear simply a rationalization. The conscious mind looks for and finds acceptable pretexts for doing what the unconscious wants for different and less creditable reasons, the mind's deliberation being simply a bit of stage play to hoodwink the conscience. This, however, is an unfounded assumption. The conscious mind not only finds justifying reasons to act upon some impulses, but it also finds cause to reject others. A man does not live in blind submission to his impulses and urges, whatever their source. Consider, for example, a man who has an unconscious desire to dominate and subdue others and experiences in consequence consciously felt impulses to aggressive behavior of one kind or another. Sometimes he may yield to these impulses because he judges aggression to be appropriate and reasonable in the circumstances, as well it may be; but at other times he will reject them because he sees that aggression would he unreasonable and would serve no good end. That such judgment can he sound and honest is plentifully evident from human experience.
Nevertheless, one should grant the possibility of unconsciously motivated impulses being rationalized by the conscious mind in an objectionable sense of the term. It is possible for a person to deceive himself more or less culpably in thinking that his activities are directed to the good end he alleges. But when such is the case, the spurious character of the pretexted motivation should be perceptible to the conscious mind, however deeply in the unconscious the source of the impulses may be hidden; a good examination of conscience should bring to light the fact that one's behavior is not reasonably related to the lofty ends one claims to serve.
It may also be granted that the existence of an unconscious motive can predispose an individual to rationalize his behavior in an objectionable sense. Before the time of modern psychology it was well known that men incline to find reasons to justify what they feel inclined to do. A strong unconscious motive may therefore prove an obstacle to sound moral judgment and rectitude of will, but it does not follow that these are normally made impossible.
Bibliography: j. c. ford and g. a. kelly, Contemporary Moral Theology, 2 v. (Westminster, Md. 1958–63) 1:174–200. a. plÉ, "L'Acte moral et la pseudo-morale de l'inconscient," La Vie spirituelle suppl. 40 (1957) 24–68. e. tesson, "Moral Conscience and Psychiatry" New Problems in Medical Ethics, ed. p. flood, v. 3 (Westminster, Md. 1957) 85–102. c. h. nodet, "Psychoanalysis and Morality," ibid. 103–117. c. odier, Les Deux sources consciente et inconsciente de la vie morale (2d ed. Neuchâtel 1947). g. vann, "Unconscious Motivation and Pseudo-Virtue," Homiletic and Pastoral Review 57 (1956) 115–123. j. c. ford, "Reply to Father Vann," ibid. 124–127. k. rahner, "Uber die gute Meinung," Geist und Leben 28 (1955) 281–298.
[p. k. meagher]