Nobody shows up in the world with a fully formed understanding of what it means to be human. Instead, we are born into a community that trains its members, forming each within a particular tradition. This instruction happens iteratively through the repeated imposition of habits and stories that shape the way members of the community view reality, experience desire, and develop a sense of what is right and wrong.[1]

The field of contemporary Aristotelian virtue ethics is rooted in this premise, hanging its hat on the idea that human beings are not simply slaves to their own internal desires but that we have the capacity to shape desire through participation in a tradition. This cultivation of desire has been the focus of contemporary virtue ethicists such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and James K. A. Smith, whose influential writings have indelibly shaped the field of Christian ethics and the church at large. Each argues convincingly that participation in a community—embedded within its own peculiar tradition—has a dramatic impact on a person’s character, shaping our desires as we pursue together the telos, or the ultimate aim of the community.[2]

For the Greeks, the concept of virtue (arête) is connected to the performance of a thing’s intended function. The virtue of an eye is in seeing. The virtue of a knife is in cutting. Hence, the virtue of the human being is in being truly human as a human was intended to be. Each tradition instills in its members an imagination for what virtue means, shaping their understanding and practices toward a particular view of what it means to be human and, therefore, what habits and practices are human, humane, and humanizing. For example, the virtue of patience is in being patient, but what is meant by the word patient will be constantly disputed, defined, and transmitted by the community and by its tradition.[3]

This process of formation within a tradition is not some optional program that members of a community can choose to initiate (or not). To be conscious is to relate to a community, and all communities are constituted within a tradition, often explicitly and consciously but not always. The tradition uses habits and stories to create a comprehensive map of reality, a way to perceive, conceptualize, and navigate reality in fidelity to the group. A community’s tradition thus shapes the desires of its members, cultivating a general but powerful shared desire toward a common, teleological end.

However, Aristotelian virtue ethics within the tradition of MacIntyre, Hauerwas, and Smith has some difficulty accounting for actions that are inconsistent with a human being’s character or that of their group. Failures to embody the virtues of a given tradition and live up to that tradition may be described as willful transgressions against the agreed upon stories and practices, or sinfulness. Attempts to explain these inconsistencies and failures are ultimately unconvincing as they fail to reach beyond the bounds of conscious desire and to address the pivotal role that unconscious desire might play.[4]

In practical application, theoretical approaches to virtue ethics that do not consider the role of unconscious desire will often lead to defensiveness, self-deception, denial, escapism, or despair. In self-deception, we obsessively work to maintain the illusion of virtue and obedience despite evidence to the contrary, hoping that by hiding our failure from our peers we can also hide it from ourselves, and this gives rise to hypocrisy, inauthenticity, and repression. Others are moved to reject the entire project of virtue, abandoning the community or another social authority or escapist fantasy—often the illusion of individual neoliberal freedom—with seemingly fewer expectations. Still others move to a sense of despair, suffering in silence and isolation. Beyond the personal misery they inevitably produce, these responses ultimately lead to the dissolution and loss of the community.[5]

In response to this failure, a turn to contemporary Lacanian psychoanalytic theory offers a way to conceptualize the cultivation of virtue while also incorporating the troubling yet significant role played by unconscious desire, a desire that both works with and undermines the conscious effort and teleology of virtue ethics. Here, we hope to expose the necessary inconsistencies and failures—unavoidably embedded within every tradition—as part of a formational process that points toward what in Lacanian terms could be called the real of virtue.[6]

Jacques Lacan was a major French theorist, formally trained in medicine and psychiatry, who made important advancements in psychoanalytic theory, the conceptual framework for exploring the mind, human behavior, and human culture using Freudian concepts such as the unconscious, drives, and unconscious desire. Lacan characterized his work as a return to Sigmund Freud, but over the course of several decades, he comprehensively reinterpreted Freud, advancing what became a new and influential Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, one that took seriously some profound advancements in contemporary linguistics that had been made by such thinkers as Ferdinand de Saussure and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Lacanian theory and virtue ethics both share a disdain for the classic liberal concept of human freedom and the self it envisions. Both share the belief that self-liberation from any formative tradition—including its habits and stories—is impossible. What classical liberals regard as self-liberation is nothing more than the exchange of one tradition for another. There is no such thing as living outside of a tradition. As such, freedom—both for Lacan and the virtue ethicists—is not found in self-determination, which is only ever another form of illusion and the defensive move toward escapism, but rather in the formation of human beings within a tradition that is true because it can teach us to speak more truly about life, the world, and what it means to be human. Traditions do this not only by advancing their own habits and stories but also by acknowledging their own internal failures and contradictions. In so doing, a tradition becomes more oriented toward truth and is then able to form its members as true, which is to say, truly human.[7]

So what, then, can we do with the inevitable failure, conscious and unconscious, to live up to one’s own tradition? Lacanian theory offers a counterintuitive way to conceptualize this failure not merely sin but as a product of unconscious desire that plays a necessary role in the success of virtue ethics. In other words, we argue that virtue formation ultimately succeeds not only through its success but also through its failure.


Freud’s discovery of the unconscious illuminates the problem in Aristotelian virtue ethics by conceiving of something that can take us beyond the confines of teleology. Although achieving our conscious aim or goal may be a source of short-lived pleasure, such achievement can never serve as a source of unconscious psychological enjoyment (jouissance in French). That type of enjoyment—the joy, energy, and hopeful motivation of pursuing our aims, combined with a painful sense of longing, lack, or loss at not yet having those aims—can be found only in the obstacle that stands between us and our goal. It is this barrier or limit, that which stands between the self and our conscious aims, that serves as the true source of unconscious enjoyment and which ultimately motivates and drives us. As such, although we structure our conscious world around goals, accomplishments, and the cultivation of habits, in reality, we are motivated and energized by the unconscious enjoyment we receive from the obstacles that stand in the way of those goals.[8]

In originally conceiving of the pleasure principle, Freud made an important though seemingly counterintuitive argument. He noted that pleasure is a diminution of excess excitation, a loss of energy, like an exhale that ends once there is no more air. Pleasure is always fleeting because it involves release. Thus, it cannot be maintained beyond a moment. Paradoxically, the experience of pleasure depends upon displeasure; it depends upon the build-up of excitation or anticipation, a buildup that must occur before the pleasure of release can be experienced. Lacan expanded this theorizing by positing a distinction between pleasure and enjoyment; he highlighted the motivational significance of the displeasure that must always precede pleasure, which Lacan termed enjoyment. Whereas pleasure is connected to the discharge of excitation, enjoyment is found in its creation, and it functions as an indispensable source of life-giving energy. Humans need something to pursue (enjoyment) much more than we need something to possess (pleasure) because once we obtain the object of desire (our conscious goal or aim), that object of desire can no longer serve as a source of enjoyment, desire, or motivation for living. One of Lacan’s most significant contributions is this recognition that humans are much more motivated—albeit unconsciously—to pursue enjoyment than pleasure.[9]

Enjoyment exists in striving toward, not in the achieving possession. Hence, enjoyment demands that the object of our desire must remain unattainable or lost to us because we cannot desire something that we already possess. The result is a situation in which we identify objects of desire—our conscious goals or aims—thinking that our true motivation is to possess them, and, thus, we strive toward them. Again, however, Lacan’s assertion is that our deepest unconscious desire is not to possess them but to pursue them. So, unconscious desire actually serves to undermine and sabotage our attempts to achieve our goals in order to extend the enjoyment we derive from striving toward them. This is why people so often seem to act against their own self-interest, why we often bog down when nearing the completion of a meaningful project or task, or why humans so quickly grow tired and disinterested in what we already possess while being endlessly excited by the pursuit of the next thing.[10]

At the same time, the next thing—our goals or conscious aims—must maintain the appearance of attainability. Without the fantasy of satisfaction, our consciousness would not allow us to begin the activity toward something that could only produce enjoyment through failure. Enjoyment in this sense, however, is an excess or a too-muchness, which we have a limited capacity to experience. Enjoyment includes both the pleasure of pursuit and the pain of limitation. Pleasure is thus the release valve necessary for us to continue experiencing enjoyment, the compromise required to allow our unconscious enjoyment to continue. If we tried to make enjoyment our conscious aim, it could no longer be a source of enjoyment, only a source of pleasure. Thus, psychological enjoyment must always remain unconscious whereas pleasure is conscious. As McGowan writes, “Consciousness cannot escape teleology, but enjoyment cannot be reduced to it.”[11]

Games and competitive play are an excellent example of this. A game offers us a conscious aim (victory) toward which we can invest all our energy while simultaneously placing barriers to that victory in the form of opponents and rules that limit our ability to obtain it. We enjoy the playing of a game as we are able to keep the fantasy of victory in our sights but not in our grasp. Games lose their draw when they are too easy to win (no enjoyment) or too difficult (no pleasure). In chess, we enjoy playing someone who is similarly matched to us so that the games are long, difficult, and exciting—enjoyment—keeping the conscious pleasure of victory attainable but not attained. Alternatively, in a version of the game called backwards chess the aim is no longer to checkmate your opponent but to be the first one to lose all your pieces. This is a complete inversion of the game of chess and may seem to be a way to hack the enjoyment system so that we can now consciously enjoy the loss of our pieces. However, since the win condition of the game has been inverted to losing instead of capturing pieces, so too has our conscious aim and source of pleasure. We still want to win consciously. Our unconscious desire, though, is to enjoy the struggle and the not-quite-winning that produces enjoyment. We have simply exchanged capturing pieces for losing pieces. We have changed the rules but are still playing the same game.

The role that unconscious desire plays in the process of virtue formation is significant because although we may experience some pleasure in the development of a virtue, what we are motivated by, in reality, is the enjoyment we receive in our failure to enact that virtue. As Paul writes in Romans 7:15, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (AMP). The more that we make the enactment of some virtue our conscious aim—in many traditions this takes the form of the law—the more we find psychological enjoyment in our own transgressions. This is the abiding problem with virtue ethics: humans constantly undermine the pursuit of virtue through the unconscious enjoyment of our own failure.

If our given tradition presents us with goals—the good; virtues; human, humane, and humanizing pursuits—these can only ever be sources of pleasure, not enjoyment. Instead, the transgression of these virtues and practices will produce the motivating enjoyment of our open-ended pursuit. This lies behind the all-too-common phenomenon of a group becoming the opposite of its own ideals. For instance, this can be seen in the persistent racism of the white evangelical church in America: loving one’s enemies may be a conscious aim, but one can find so much more enjoyment in hating them.[12]


What then is the way forward if our unconscious desire will continuously thwart our conscious attempt to practice and embody virtue? Is this a fatal blow to the whole concept of Aristotelian virtue ethics as it is normally practiced? Actually, it is precisely this failure of virtue ethics that allows for the cultivation of the real of virtue. In other words, virtue’s success is found in its failure.

In Lacanian theory, the real is that which lies completely outside of language, signification, and imagination. The real is unaccounted for within any given tradition. In fact, the real is that which violates the boundaries of tradition. It seems to go beyond or evade any previous or even possible meanings. The real is the impossible, the unnamable, the unimaginable, that which does not work within our tradition. As such, the real requires some kind of ideologization or covering over (e.g., the role sin plays in Christian virtue ethics).[13]

Virtue, as we are describing it, would be considered a universal.[14] Any practice or habit, on the other hand, would be a particular. For instance, if we want to become more patient (and thereby more virtuous), then we will need some particular expression of patience that we can practice until it becomes part of our character. This might be a simple act, such as standing in the longest line at the supermarket instead of trying to find the quickest way.

Now, standing in the longest line is not patience itself. Patience is a universal, and this one habit is a particular expression of that universal and not the sum total of patience. However, this practice can contain something of patience within it. So, we could say that choosing the longest line is not patience, but it is not not-patience.[15] There is something of that universal idea of patience embedded within, but not fully captured by, the particular habit of standing in the longest line. There is something in the habit because it is more than just the habit.

The use of the upside-down smile emoji 🙃 in online discourse could be seen as another example of this double negation. The emoji is neither a smile nor a frown, but it could be said to be a not not-smile. This excess in our practice of patience—what is in the habit more than the habit—is the essence of virtue. In Lacanian terms, we could say that this virtue is the real of the habit that tethers the habit to the universal (in this case patience).

So, if we are in the supermarket, practicing the virtue of patience through this habit of standing in the longest line, what if we fail? We are in the longest line, but we are not embodying patience. We are annoyed and impatient. We are growing more impatient by the moment and want to berate the clerk who is taking so long. Is there any point to this exercise? For Lacan, there would be some simple enjoyment in the failure, in the encounter with the limits of our own ability to embody the virtue of patience. Thus, we would enjoy on some level our failure to be patient. At the same time, we could also be increasing our capacity to stay at that limit, to play with it, to expand it.[16] Or in Lacanian terms, we would be increasing our capacity for enjoyment. This would be similar to the times we do not pick the longest line but instead ignore or avoid our practice and get out as fast as we can. We are, in these moments, enjoying our private rebellion against this practice but may still be making progress toward it.

Alternatively, what if we succeed? We are in the longest line, and we are sensing a calm resolve to just be in the line, to be patient in the line. We are not frustrated with the clerk. We are not wishing we would have chosen a faster line. We are just there in line and patient. What comes of this exercise now? There will be a momentary sense of pleasure at accomplishing our conscious aim. Virtue is its own reward, right? We have been patient and are pleased by our patience. However, in the wake of that experience, there is a tinge of longing. Why can’t we be patient like this all the time? What would the world be like if everyone were more patient? The net result of the successful habit will be an unconscious desire for what is in the habit more than the habit, an unconscious longing for the fullness of patience as a universal (the real of patience) to be embodied in our life and tradition, a goal which is unattainable and yet serves as a source of motivation and desire. In fact, the very unattainability of patience itself creates within us this unconscious desire for patience in the universal sense.

Remember, patience is a virtue. Virtue is the real of any particular habit or practice, the practice of which will result in a deeper desire to see that virtue embodied in our lives. So even within the successful practice of any particular virtue, we will simultaneously experience its failure (i.e., its inability to fully embody the universal). It is through this failure that we can find contact with, and increase our capacity for, the real of that virtue, the universal. However, we reach this failure only through our practice of a particular habit. So, again, the habit of standing in the longest line is not patience itself (the universal), but it becomes for us: not not-patience. The practice has something of patience (the universal) embedded within it, while still falling short of its complete embodiment. Any particular practice of virtue has something of the universal—the real of that virtue—which generates unconscious desire for more of that virtue.[17]

This is how virtue ethics succeeds through its failure. Practicing virtue ethics does not give us the fullness of the universal but rather serves to increase our desire and capacity for the universal, which always remains unattainable, regardless of our race, class, social location, or even our own awareness of that desire. Again, “The universal is what particulars share not having,” and thus even though it is not anyone’s possession, the universal can serve as an open-ended and unifying source of desire for the community and its members.[18]

Without recognizing the necessity of failure, the pursuit of virtue may seem futile. Our momentary success at embodying any specific habit will simultaneously point to its own limitation, its own failure. What we do with this failure is key. Without an appreciation for the role of unconscious desire, failure will likely be reduced to a source of shame, guilt, or even exclusion. It will become an indictment of us in light of our inability to do it right, and these are dynamics that may ultimately undermine the tradition itself. Through a Lacanian lens, however, this failure becomes a necessary part of the experience, an encounter with the real of virtue that serves to cultivate an increased desire for virtue itself.

In the end, what the practice of virtue ethics elicits is an encounter with both our unconscious desire (which is typically horrifying) and our enjoyment. So while the pain of facing our unconscious desire hurts, it also vitalizes us, as we become more able to encounter the real. This is life, not just being a drone pursuing mindless pleasure, as in A Brave New World. Instead, it is like being unplugged from The Matrix: it is a much more difficult and painful way to live but a truer embodiment of what it means to be human.[19]

At this point, we are back to our original thesis: virtue’s success is in its failure. In our failure to perfectly embody virtue, we become filled with desire for the always unattainable real of virtue. We increase our capacity for enjoyment so that we can practice the habits that lead to a fuller (but never full!) expression of virtue.


Lacanian theory offers something that contemporary virtue ethics is lacking: a method for recognizing the significance of unconscious desire in undermining the pursuit of virtue, as well as a realistic assessment that, in the end, there is no way to free ourselves from unconscious desire. No matter how much grappling with unconscious desire one accomplishes, there will always be more to do, because the satisfaction of unconscious desire is a virtual impossibility.

The wider implication for the church would be that Christianity is not constituted by simple adherence to the Christian tradition but by navigating specific failures to live up to that tradition and the intrinsic failures of the tradition itself.[20] In this way, Lacanian theory helps point toward the real of culture—a kind of social-unconscious desire that undermines the tradition as a whole—including the deficiencies, prejudices, taboos, and injustices that plague not just individual members but the tradition itself. Lacanian theory offers more than merely a way to account for the fact that human beings often act in ways that do not seem to be consistent with their own tradition, and it goes beyond ideologization or imaginary coverings for irruptions of the real. It also provides a method for what one should do at this point of rupture. Let us not forget that psychoanalysis is more than simply a theory; it is also a practice.

The peculiar aim of psychoanalysis within the Lacanian tradition is not the emancipation of the subject (i.e., liberal freedom) but rather the uncovering and interpretation of one’s own unconscious desire. In a sense, the Lacanian contribution to contemporary virtue ethics would be something like protection against the co-opting of virtue ethics by the self-help subculture. Psychoanalysis—including psychodynamic psychotherapy and psychoanalytic spiritual direction—provides a way to account for the failure of virtue ethics through the exploration of unconscious desire, as well as a way to make that failure work for us by assigning meaning to it.[21] In this way, psychoanalysis results in a more honest and patient discourse around the failures and contradictions intrinsic to every tradition—beyond labeling them sins against the tradition—which can also serve as the basis for additional habituation toward a whole host of virtues: fidelity, honesty, forgiveness, patience, and so on.

We are not slaves to our own desire (Aristotelian virtue ethics), but neither are we free to choose our own tradition or emancipate ourselves from any tradition whatsoever (classic liberalism). Rather, we are something else: a split subject whose unconscious desires constantly undermine our attempts to pursue our conscious aims and the virtues of our own tradition. This Lacanian insight has deep resonance with both the field of contemporary Aristotelian virtue ethics and Christian practice.

[1] See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).

[2] See MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2022); Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013); and Smith, Desiring the Kingdom.

[3] See Tim Suttle, Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014): 126–27.

[4] For attempts to indict even the most basic Christian practices of Eucharist, prayer, and baptism as damaged by sin, see Lauren F. Winner, The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018).

[5] See Suttle, Shrink.

[6] The real of virtue is not synonymous with the reality of virtue. Used in the Lacanian sense, the real names an encounter with some aspect of our experience that lies totally outside of language, signification, and imagination. So there is a reality of virtue that has been named, given concrete meanings, iterations, and exemplars. Then there is that aspect of virtue which goes beyond reality—the real of virtue—its unnamable, unimaginable, unconscious aspect that is always encountered as a disturbance, because it does not work with our current view of reality. For more on the real versus reality see Hoard and Hoard, “Queerness and Eucontaminant Reorganization,” The Other Journal 34 (2022): 51–60.

[7] For more on the connection between contradiction and truth, see Todd McGowan, Emancipation After Hegel: Achieving A Contradictory Revolution (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2021). For Lacanian psychoanalytic theory as it intersects with community and tradition, see Slavoj [Two diacritical alert]Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London, UK: Verso, 1989); McGowan, The Racist Fantasy: Unconscious Roots of Hatred (London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022); Alexandre Leupin, Lacan Today: Psychoanalysis, Science, Religion (New York, NY: Other Press, 2004); and Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997). For the impossibility of self-liberation from tradition, see Smith, Desiring the Kingdom;Hauerwas, A Community of Character;and MacIntyre, After Virtue.

[8] For Lacanian theory on enjoyment and pleasure, see McGowan, Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2013).

[9] See McGowan, “The Lust for Power and Logic of Enjoyment,” Crisis and Critique 6, no. 1 (2019): 205–24.

[10] For the intersections and manipulation of the enjoyment system within contemporary American, capitalistic culture, see McGowan, Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016)

[11] McGowan, “The Lust for Power,” 212.

[12] For white Christian racism, sexism, and hypocrisy, see Robert P. Jones, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2021); Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2019); and Willie J. Jennings, “Can White People Be Saved?” in Can White People Be Saved? Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission, ed. Love L. Sechrest, Johnny Ramirez-Johnson, and Amos Young (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 29. For how the Christian church has been subverted to become the opposite of its original mission, see Jacques Ellul and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The Subversion of Christianity (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011); Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011); and Wes Howard-Brook, Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected (Second-Fifth Centuries) (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016). For the ways that Christian practice leads to its opposite, see Winner, The Dangers of Christian Practice. For the enjoyment in hating our enemies, see McGowan, The Racist Fantasy: Unconscious Roots of Hatred (London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022) and Robert Pfaller, On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions without Owners (London, UK: Verso, 2014).

[13] See Fink, The Lacanian Subject;Leupin, Lacan Today;and [Two diacritical alert]Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology.

[14] In this instance, the word universal refers to the philosophical category of unattainable ideals such as freedom, justice, or equality and not the more common usage often connected to power struggles between groups. As McGowan writes, “Universality is what is missing in the totality and the necessary foundation of every particular identity” (McGowan, Universality and Identity Politics [New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2020], 23).

[15] For more on the creation of surplus from the double negation, see Molly Anne Rothenberg, The Excessive Subject: A New Theory of Social Change (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2013).

[16] For more on how to increase one’s capacity for the limit and tolerate the anxiety, see McGowan, Enjoying What We Don’t Have. For more on the limitations of Christian practices and their misuse, see Winner, The Dangers of Christian Practice.

[17] See McGowan, Universality and Identity Politics.

[18] McGowan, Universality and Identity Politics, 23.

[19] For more on the trauma of encountering our unconscious desire, see Fink, The Lacanian Subject;and McGowan, Enjoying What We Don’t Have. Also see Aldous Huxley, Brave New World; and, Brave New World Revisited (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2005); and The Matrix, directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros, 1999).

[20] For a discussion of Christian theology through a Lacanian lens, see [2 diacriticals]Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).

[21] For a discussion of the goals of psychoanalytic theory and practice, see Richard Boothby, Freud as Philosopher: Metapsychology after Lacan (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001) and Fink, Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique: A Lacanian Approach for Practitioners (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2011).