As indicated at the end of the recent blog Cosa vuoi? on desire in Jacques Lacan, I wish now to reflect briefly on the implications of this line of thought for moral theology.
Let me say at the outset that I have been for many years, and remain to this day, a fervent disciple of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas on this question. Their programme could be summed up in the phrase “educating desire” (A. MacIntrye). The human being is seen as an essentially rational being who has the redoubtable task of controlling his (or her) various desires so that they do not wreck havoc in his life and that of those with whom he intimately associates. The only way to do this is to practice individual acts of moderation etc. so as to develop the corresponding virtues, which make the moral life possible. All this constitutes a theoretical and practical model of human thriving which has served generations of human beings in various cultural contexts.
The thought of Lacan, inspired by Freud, however, puts this schema into what is technically known as “epistemological crisis”. An epistemological crisis occurs within a discipline, such as ethics or moral theology, when new data emerge which the discipline cannot explain with its traditional theories. Those theories must be abandoned or transformed if the new data prove to be irrefutable. As I do not think there is any question of abandoning the traditional model outlined above, I am wondering how it might be transformed…
he first step in such a process (which will take decades of assimilation, if indeed it is ever undertaken in the first place) is to identify and verify the irrefutable new data. Of many possible options, I propose beginning with this key lesson of Lacan: human life is more a question of being educated by desire than of educating desire. Dynamite! It is my desire, my impossible desire, and only this unique personal desire, that invites me to be who I am. Not through mindless, futile indulgence but by humble openness to what so massively surpasses me. If I limit myself to educating my desire I risk imagining myself to be a self-sufficient subject (the question of divine grace complicates natters here but does not ipso facto resolve this problem). If I allow my desire to educate me, that is, to lead me out of this illusory self-possession, then I will discover some disturbing but salutary truths about what it means to be human, which is a much more precarious affair than generally depicted in moral theology.
Fr. Martin McKeever, C.Ss.R.