Panel: Ethics in the IAAP - The Spinner Dolphins of Fernando de Noronha

Liliana Liviano Wahba
São Paulo, Brazil
Sociedade Brasileira Psicologia Analitica

Ethics (from the Greek ethos) has two meanings: character or way of being, and moral disposition, custom or habit.

Culture is made up of values and beliefs that form an ideology and morality is understood as the modes of human behavior approved or not by the group. Ethics also involves adopting a subjective stance in respect to social morals, so an ethical attitude or a moral conscience is seen as one and the same thing. And then there is ethics held to be a theory of morals, a discipline that reflects on morals and is concerned with the criteria of values that originate in norms, rather than trying to solve concrete cases. Accordingly, setting up an ethical system is a critical process that helps to reformulate the norms in effect, which tend to become crystallized.

In the professional field, Ethos are the ethical norms that ensure the dignity of professions in their external valuation. Each and every professional group institutes a code with the rights of the patient- client, and avows to attend to what is proper, good and just.

As groups, professionals provide institutionalized answers to social needs, and they are asked to put their knowledge to responsible use. In addition to the norms, there is an internal component of ethical principles, and an ethical horizon that transcends the norms and expresses meaning and gives direction to life. This is where the subjective factor comes in, which – in order not to stay vague and indefinite – has to be associated to the argument, dialogue and discrimination of the feeling function, among others.

This recognition of intrinsic morals is an endless task. The external- internal polarity was and will always be one of the challenges faced by whoever is willing to think of and work with ethics. Neumann (1969) spoke in 1949 of the demise of the old ethics, to be replaced by a genuine moral attitude that respects what goes on in the psyche. We have to be conscious of our limits taking the risk of our choices, derived from the ethical uncertainties and contradictions.

Our activity as analysts tries to provide a setting where the patient’s sense of identity, significance and responsibility can be discovered and developed. Jung’s contribution of the symbolic dimension of the psyche, in depth and in wholeness, enhanced the understanding of the process of integration and individuation. The job of the analyst is to reclaim the fundamental, unique value of each patient attended. An ethics of and for the psyche would add to the ethics of freedom, integrity, justice and welfare, respect for psychic life and the singular movement of the soul. Just as in bio-ethics, which goes beyond its applicability and is understood as a re-arranging of value judgments with regard to life, we re-assess the valuation of the individual’s psyche and its relations to the collective, and vice versa.

As far as the field of knowledge alone is concerned, society expects analysts to help to understand and guide it with their symbolic knowledge, both in terms of reflection and action, to help to build responsible knowledge that foresees the context in which it will be used.

In the field of bio-ethics and ethics for the psyche (psycho-ethics), one difficulty – and also an asset – is moral pluralism aimed at a peaceful encounter of many tendencies. To this end it is important to avoid enforcing methods and to try to solve conflicts by means of dialectic discourse.

Ethical problems that arise most frequently today in the practice of professions of help are the same as in the old days, linked with desire, greed and power. Whatever the nature of the problem, it is the patient who is hurt, as he is used to satisfy the need of the professional, rather than attend to his own individuality – or individuation.

Perhaps today a power linked with the spirit, to a subjugation ensuing from some almost prophetic wisdom, has come to predominate over age-old cases of sexual or financial abuse, although these continue to take place. A world of change, with globalized expansion on the one hand and fundamentalist extremists on the other, oscillates between the transition of values and the vacuum of those to be substituted. Legitimate or illegitimate leadership is usually sought under such circumstances and, as Jung wrote, the prophets appear.

The analyst who is more vulnerable, with the unconscious activated, with some latent psychopathy, or whose morality is ambiguous, is contaminated by or takes advantage of this condition and incorporates the spiritual master who transforms therapy into a devotional act. All runs along apparently well while the illusion lasts and, if this is for some reason broken, separation happens traumatically.

No matter what, this type of accusation is not usually made, as it is difficult to substantiate, different from sexual or financial abuse. In these complaints, besides looking for justice, reparation and restoration are also sought, in a wish to replace what has been lost.

Consequently, a dosage of dissatisfaction, even though undesired, is to be expected, and the needs for multiple reparations can never be entirely met.

This is the frustrating aspect of a practice that deals with professional ethics, compensated for by the constant challenge to review choices, be responsible for them and integrate them into the task of caretakers of the psyche. It is here that the widest reach of our function enters for each one of us, as analysts. In Luigi Zoja’s words, it is the promotion of an ethical culture, preparing fertile ground and planting seeds from the most diverse origins. It is a matter of maintaining the perspective of an ethical horizon, through which is established a “field of consensus,” a space of shared principles that gives sense to agreements, and that substantiates a “community of moral friends,” according to Engelhardt.

I would now like to present a parallel with sea creatures.

Spinner dolphins concentrate in the bays of Fernando de Noronha (Brazil), Hawaii and Tahiti. Dolphin-watchers are enchanted by them, while biologists and scholars are not only enchanted but also intrigued by their behavior when they perform their acrobatic leaps. They have a great variety of leaps out of the water, which calls for intense strength, because each jump spends an enormous amount of energy. Since nature knows of no gratuitous spending of energy, the key question is: what is the point of all these acrobatics, what is the purpose?

The hypothesis has even been raised that they might serve to dislodge the remora suckfish that cling to them when they are in an uncomfortable place. But this hypothesis is not satisfactory, since dolphins without the suckfish also perform these leaps.

Could they be games played by these mammals gifted with the capacity to interact and communicate and are believed to possess social conviviality? Nonetheless, the game in itself would not justify the enormous amount of energy expended to play it, with propulsion that starts meters under the water. Could it be a show of power? That seems unlikely, since the species’ field of vision is primarily inside the water, rather than outside.

The observations made by scientists have led to a broader and more instigating hypothesis. Looking for the perspective inside the dolphins’ habitat, they noticed that the movement of the water and the irradiation of the waves vary from one type of leap to another, each one with its own different way of hitting the water. Could this be some wide-reaching visual code for the community of these intelligent animals?

Following up on their research, the scientists also realized that the leaps were continuous when the group moved in their migratory journeys and excursions outside and inside the protected bay. Signals seem to exist there that lie beyond our immediate understanding.

In the same way, we exert an enormous amount of energy to achieve ethical attitudes and maintain moral behavior. We perform incredible juggling acts that defy the law of gravity: now we levitate on certain conventions, now we lift the weights of tough decisions, contort before diverging options, or else opt for actions that do not obey immediate pleasure. Some inner propulsion is necessary; the psyche needs to be prepared before the leap can be performed.

More often than not, there is no testimony to our acts, since we leap up to the skies all alone. Nonetheless, if this behavior is not perceived by others in its concrete act above the surface, do we too transmit a code under the surface, in the water medium that the dolphins see?

So, our surface actions could serve to irradiate deeper forms that are used to signal codes that are essential to the species. Accordingly, ethical conduct would be the medium and the instrument that drives the movement of our migratory journey as the human community. In spite of shortcomings, failures and never fully rewarded efforts, ethos remains the thread that connects constructive and creative interactions, and we still need a lot of training before we accomplish the agility and harmony of the dolphins.


  • Neumann, E. Depth Psychology and a New Ethic. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.