“If we take the implications of psychoanalysis [for moral responsibility] seriously, we are responsible in several different ways for our multiply motivated conduct. We are responsible retrospectively, in the sense of deserving modest praise, reward, or punishment for what we have consciously intended, unless we have been impeded in our decision making or action by a mental aberration, such as an irresistible compulsion, neurotic conflict, or serious mental illness. There is nothing in psychoanalysis that refutes this ordinary, everyday meaning of moral responsibility for past actions.
What Freud teaches us is that because our actions are multiply motivated, their voluntary aspects tend to be mixed with behavior that is involuntary. [….] The ratio of the voluntary component of an action to its involuntary elements varies both among persons (in accordance with differences in basic personality configuration) and in the same person from moment to moment. Even in the relatively healthy individual, the fact that so much in the mind remains unconscious makes it exceedingly difficult to be confident that we know enough about an individual’s inner mental life to be sure about the degree to which an act is voluntary or involuntary. Nonetheless, Freud felt that in the absence of evidence of mental aberration, ordinary judgments of intentional actions normally suffice. ‘Actions and consciously expressed opinions are as a rule enough for practical purposes in judging men’s character.’
Psychoanalytic understanding would also have us be prospectively responsible for increasing our self-knowledge and gaining control over those unconscious motives that contribute, perhaps decisively, to our conduct. This is similar to the time-honored notion that a person must take responsibility for his own character, though psychoanalysis expands the realm with which one is morally charged to include typical unconscious motives, spontaneous reactions, and settled behavioral patterns that were previously consider beyond conscious control.* [….]
[There is thus another mode of retrospective moral responsibility, for psychoanalysis holds that we are responsible for actions that we did not consciously intend.] If, in acting as I consciously intend, I also do something harmful that I unconsciously wished to bring about without being aware of it, I am responsible—that is, I deserve some degree of disapprobation—for the desire to injure and for any actual deleterious consequences that my conduct may have inflicted, once the causal consequences of my unconscious mental states become clear, even if, before I acted, I did not know that I wanted to do anything injurious and therefore did not form a conscious intention to do it. Responsibility for unconsciously guided actions that do harm is justified because the behavior is in fact my own (it proceeded ‘out of me,’ not some alien force). The action was self-determining in the broader meaning that depth psychology confers on the term ‘self.’ Freud even holds that I have no real choice about accepting responsibility for past unconsciously motivated behavior. ‘I am somehow compelled to do so’ as soon as I am aware that actions proceeded out of me. I own the action retrospectively by sincerely acknowledging that I caused it to happen and by sincerely regretting that I did not know myself well enough to succeed in monitoring my motivation so as to prevent the injury from occurring. Such sincere regret normally entails prospective responsibility in that in the act of acknowledging my responsibility for the regretted behavior I commit myself to do what is necessary not to act out of such motives in the same way in the future.
Psychoanalysis more fully supports assigning moral responsibility in such instances than does the Western moral tradition generally, because it reveals that the person who acts thoughtlessly or without any conscious intention to do harm unconsciously ‘intends’—in the sense of ‘aims at’—these consequences. The harmful behavior, though thoughtless, was not a random compulsion that must remain forever outside the agent’s ability to control. Rather, it was motivated by unconscious reasons for action that should be understood as aspects of the ‘self’ that acts. If these motives have not been subjected to conscious guidance, they should have been or should be, and the agent should assume responsibility for what he or she has failed to accomplish in this regard, even though the failure may be perfectly understandable.
In using the term moral responsibility in several senses, and broadening its usual limitations, Freud generally avoids such terms as guilt, guilty, and morally blameworthy. This is not because he denies the appropriateness of what might be referred to as realistic remorse for actual misdeeds. To the contrary, Freud clearly differentiates the ego-based sentiment of remorse from irrational guilt. He is leery of the term guilt and its variants because it connotes [for him] an indiscriminate self-punishment that is often irrational either because it is excessively harsh in light of the actual deed or because it is triggered by mere fantasies. Terms like guilt and blame are also avoided by Freud because they tend to be used intrapsychically against the self in ways that end up being morally self-defeating. This is likely to happen because the belittling, disparaging, and condemning connotations of these terms in combination with the superego’s proclivity for applying them indiscriminately to the entire self tend to trigger self-defensiveness. And self-defensiveness functions intrapsychically as an obstacle to the very self-understanding that is essential to responsibility. The accused ego feels like a terribly naughty or totally bad child, and these feelings in turn fuel motives of denial, repression, and revenge, rather than honest self-scrutiny and efforts at self-improvement.”
*As Wallwork explains in a note, “This prospective responsibility for our character is one reason why we hold persons retrospectively responsible for certain acts they were powerless to change at the moment of acting. We think they had something to do with the development of the characteristic style of behavior out of which they acted. Even if they did not directly choose it, we consider it possible that they may have had a part in choosing to be unconscious of both it and behavioral consequences.” No doubt a genetic explanatory role for self-deception would be necessary to fill out the reasons why one has such prospective responsibility and can thus be held retrospectively responsible.
—Ernest Wallwork, Psychoanalysis and Ethics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991): 92-96