AWAKE TO THE WORLD: Jung’s Ethical Stance

Feb 23, 2023

A young warrior stands in front of a wilderness image to illustrate Jung's ethical stance.
Image Credit: Joseph Lee with AI assistance

Despite volumes written on morality and ethics, how do we determine what’s right?

Values distilled over time by family, faith, and nation define and denounce wrong, but the effort to banish shadow only allows it to emerge as projection onto others. We decry in ‘them’ what we deny in ourselves. Jung says, “The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality…for to become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects [of oneself]…as present and real.”

We have all faced a moral dilemma at some point in our lives, questioning our own judgment and rectitude. This internal conflict is a result of our shadow self, the parts of ourselves we keep shamefully hidden and refuse to acknowledge. In order to make ethical decisions, we must discover our shadow and integrate it into our decision-making process. This is called shadow work, a psychological practice that requires facing our fears, insecurities, and doubts. We can genuinely understand our moral philosophy only when we engage our inner conflicts.

Sages have long debated the nature of ethical decision-making. Some argue that morality is objective and universal, while others argue that it is subjective and relative to each individual. The ancient Greek philosophers reasoned it is crucial to consider the impact of the decision on others, both in the immediate situation and in the broader community. This involves empathizing with those affected by the decision and seeking to minimize harm while maximizing societal benefits. Jung believed that religious codes provide an initial framework for the developing child and facilitate cultural adaptation. As our ego individuates from instilled norms and submits to the Self, our allegiance shifts, and our attitudes become increasingly unique.

Making ethical decisions is not always easy. We often face conflicting duties and obligations, and we must weigh the consequences of our actions. In these moments, it is essential to approach the situation with humility and consciousness. We must recognize that our decisions may have unintended repercussions and be willing to take responsibility for our actions. Careful deliberation requires us to embrace uncertainty and trust our intuition.

The definition of morality is not fixed but rather constantly evolving. It is influenced by cultural norms, religious doctrine, personal beliefs, and individual experiences. As such, it is vital to approach ethics with tolerance, curiosity, and courage. We must be prepared to challenge our own beliefs and biases and be open to new perspectives. Only then can we make truly ethical decisions that are grounded in empathy, insight, and compassion.

Jung’s ethical stance is rooted in recognition of our disowned qualities and the influence of the emerging Self. Morality may be relative but requires thoughtfulness, humility, and a willingness to explore ambiguity. As we navigate the complexities of decision-making, we must approach the world with an open mind and a readiness to learn. Only then can we awaken to the world and make truly ethical decisions that honor our larger Self.

~ Joseph R. Lee


“I am at the entrance of a hospital in the U.S. There are two women, immigrants and cleaning ladies there, fixing the entrance with white cement. I look at how they are working with this kind of white clay on the floor. One woman is older than the other and more experienced. I enter the building. I have an appointment with a well-known psychologist. I go to the second floor and see him downstairs very worried, looking for his parrot. I see the parrot on the roof. It is beautiful, light blue. Its beak calls my attention. I shout at him, telling him it is there, I found it. Then I enter the psychologist’s office very quickly. I sit down on a chair. I close my eyes. After a couple of minutes he tells me, okay, why are you here? I’m surprised. I had not noticed he was there. I apologize. He tells me to do some relaxing exercise with my arms. I want to talk, but he interrupts me. He says that a psychiatric patient must be brought to the room for some special healing. Two nurses bring this woman lying in a bed. I’m afraid–she looks dangerous. They are going to put her in another room, but the doctor says she must be placed behind me. I’m scared. I think she might kill me. She’s crazy.”


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  1. Melissa Collard

    What kind of precautions for shadow work are there for someone with persistent negative self talk and low self esteem? What is the antidote for poisonous self-doubt?

    • Thomas Gitz-Johansen

      Dear Melissa. I know what you mean (at least I think I do). I hope it is ok, that I reply to you (not being one of the hosts but merely another listener of the podcast). I have worked many years in Jungian analysis looking for my shadow and trying to convince my analyst that I am actually a bad person. I even felt quite deflated when she refused to confirm my strong feelings of actually being a really bad person. For me, I have had do quite a few years of work to accept and value myself (still working on it), before actual shadow aspects of me started to show up. My sense is, that when one feels intense self-hatred the most important task is to learn to cherish, accept, and feel good about oneself, although shadow work can feel almost attractive in order to satisfy or feed a low self esteem (finally having the “truth” validated that one is a really bad person). So, I think that in cases of low selfesteem and lots of negative feelings about oneself the most important (and really difficult) job is to learn to love oneself.

      • Simcha

        Dear Thomas,

        I find Melissa’s question and your answer fascinating. A great discusion.

        Thomas, I wonder how you knew that you had identified “actual shadown aspects” of yourself and not just negative feelings of the past?

        • Thomas Gitz-Johansen

          Dear Simcha
          Thanks for a good question.
          I’m not really sure I have the answer.

          I would perhaps say that actual shadow aspects tend to show up in dreams as shady same-sex figures.
          How does low self-esteem and negative self-image show up in dreams? Perhaps as tormenting (super-ego) figures?

          Also, in my experience, low self-esteem is a persistent feeling of guilt or personal “badness”, which need loads of self-acceptance and self-love.

          Shadow on the other hand tends to come from unexpected places and realising it feels more humiliating (“oh, dear, is that really me?”) rather than feeling guilty and a bad person.

          Perhaps there is not a definitive answer. I just feel that if one is carrying early and / or intense trauma, shadow work can be a bit complicated if one already feels like a bad person (turning the traumatic experience inward).

  2. Haris Mehmed

    Hey thx for this amazing episode. May I ask the exact origin of the quotation at min 51.44 which begins with: “I am of the opinion that in working on a difficult problem…”

  3. Max Reif

    In relation to Dr. Jung’s ethical stance, I frequently contemplate his oft-paraphrased but difficult-to-find quote regarding, “If a person is able to remain independent from identifying with either of a pair of opposites, and bears the tension of that, then sooner or later the Self, via the Transcendent Function, will send a symbol that unites those opposites!

    My question about this is in relation particularly to the extreme political currents these days in the US and perhaps some other places. I find it very difficult to simply “stay in the middle” when the choices presented are the compassion, inclusion, diversity, and what has been called the “social gospel” on one side, and, well, guns, white supremacy, Qanon, book banning, etc on the other.

    I DO indeed with to encounter the “Transcendent Function” and NOT be stuck in a partial identification…but how to do it when one choice appears sane and the other, well, not. Is it just my projection that things are that extreme and polarized? Am I being plocked by my Shadow from “standing in a neutral ground”? I have an Australian friend who was fond of saying, “So many of you Americans are projecting your owh Shadowss onto Tump!” I feel I HAVE “seen the Trump in myself”, and what I’m responding to is actual demagoguery, madness and danger.



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