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The Morality of Huck Finn

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 21, Number 1, April 1997
pp. 102-113 | 10.1353/phl.1997.0004

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Philosophy and Literature 21.1 (1997) 102-113

A familiar refrain is that emotions threaten our capacity for moral judgment because they infringe on our ability to be impartial. Some hold that emotions lead us to serve personal rather than impersonal ends. And most Kantians argue that even when emotions influence us to pursue impartial ends, they still fail to be moral motives. Barbara Herman argues, however, that emotions can play an important role in a Kantian model of moral judgment. But her description of the moral role of emotions ultimately falls short.

The problems with Herman's argument are illustrated by a passage from Huckleberry Finn. The passage challenges a common Kantian assumption that any decision motivated by compassion or love is not a case of moral judgment. I contend that there is good reason to interpret Huck's decision to help his friend Jim as an instance of moral judgment, even though it is also a case of acting from compassion and love. And though Herman's theory offers a Kantian way of supporting my reading of Huck, her model fails to do justice to Huck's case. But there is much that we can learn from the way it fails.


Huckleberry Finn is a story "which details some passages in the life of an ignorant village boy . . . [who has] run away from his persecuting father, and from a persecuting, good widow, who wishes to make a nice, truth-telling, respectable boy of him . . . ." The journey that follows, in which Huck is accompanied by the widow's runaway slave, Jim, becomes a symbol of a boy's attempt to grow up, discover his own identity, make his own decisions. In the part of the journey that has come to be known as Huck's "crisis of conscience," we find him trying to decide whether he should help Jim escape from a slaveholder who has just captured him, or whether he should write to Miss Watson to tell her the where-abouts of her slave (pp. 168-69). On the face of it, Huck seems torn between the voices of conscience and temptation. Writing to Miss Watson, as he describes it, is "the right thing and the clean thing." To do otherwise would just confirm his "wickedness": "stealing a poor old woman's nigger," he says, "who hadn't ever done me no harm." But Huck also loves Jim. He says: "I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind." So Huck seems torn between his sense of what's right and his compassion. When, in exas-peration, he finally decides not to write the letter, but chooses instead "to go to hell," it sounds like compassion triumphs over conscience.

But is it necessarily the case that just because Huck acts from compassion that he does not conceive of what he's doing as right -- that he does not engage in moral judgment? I think it is most plausible to say that when Huck finally decides not to turn Jim in, he comes to a more heart-felt conception of what's right, not that he does what he believes is wrong.

Even though Huck describes helping Jim as "stealing," and sinful, and the sort of thing for which he will "go to hell," it is not clear that he thinks it is the wrong thing to do. Huck's deliberation is tied up with thoughts of social condemnation and eternal punishment. He is obsessed with the pain he will endure if he does not write to Miss Watson. His thoughts begin with the pain of social condemnation ("And then think of me! It would get all around, that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom"); but they quickly turn to the pain of eternal punishment ("And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven . . . I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared"). But Huck describes the connection between writing to Miss Watson...

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