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A Psychological (Lacanian) Ethics of Management: A Case from the Care of the Elderly

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Starting with a case in the elderly care in which the ethics of care broke down, I will examine the relevant (social-)psychology of perception, identity and responsibility. The Lacanian distinction between the “imag(e)/inary” and the “symbolic” will be explored as root metaphor for the dilemmas of “care.” I will address whether the phenomenal directness of experience, leading to “care” and ethical response, can coexist with the abstract conceptualized (self-)identity necessary for organization. And I will demand: Is managerial responsibility (social-)psychologically possible once “self” and “other” are separated in maturation? Ethics begins with psychological openness to “other”; it demands relationship, concern and care. Ultimately, is an “ethics of care” (social-)psychologically really possible?

The denial and negation in an elderly care organization by management and at least some of the professionals and staff, of any responsibility or involvement with their clients, is what triggered this writing. In the organization, called here LifeTogether, there was neglect, irresponsibility and even manslaughter or murder; but no effective ethical outcry ever ensued. At best, management reacted to the elderly with indifference. Those in control were interested in market share, bureaucratic control and corporate identity. Macro-moral statements were written into annual reports, but micro-moral considerations were totally ignored, with life-endangering and destructive effects.

Commonly, psychological development and ethics are brought together by making use of Piaget (1948) and Kohlberg (1981). I believe that this tradition has got the relationship wrong. Kohlberg argues that moral development moves through six stages, which Rest et al. (1999) have simplified to: (i) personal interest, (ii) maintenance of norms, and (iii) postconventional thinking. Kohlberg's system went from the Pre-Conventional concerns of: (i) obedience and punishment (How can I avoid punishment?), to the (ii) self-interested orientation (What's in it for me?), and onto the Conventional concerns of (iii) interpersonal norms and conformity (Good boy/good girl), to reach (iv) attention for authority and the maintenance of social-order (Law and order); continued onto Post-Conventional thinking characterized by a focus on the (v) social contract, and ended with the discovery of (vi) universal ethical principles. Direct participatory interaction was assumed to be ethically less developed than social normative behaviour, which was in turn inferior to universal principles. Abstract concepts of good and bad were valued above the concrete response of sympathy. Gilligan (1982), of course, has criticized the masculine prioritization of distance, rationality and control in Kohlberg's system; but her relational ethics of interdependence retains the idea of stages placed in a developmental system.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2011

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