Part A Essay, Week 3: Taylor – Shae Walsh – 18401652
Montmarquet believes that Huck Finn is not praiseworthy for protecting Jim. Why not, exactly? Why does Taylor criticise Montmarquet? In your essay, defend Montmarquet against Taylor’s criticism.
The academic article Huck Finn, Moral Reasons and Sympathy by Craig Taylor invites the reader into the world of Mark Twain’s iconic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It illuminates the potent philosophical question of whether or not Huck Finn should be deemed morally praiseworthy in response to his concealment of the true identity of slave and crucially, friend of Huck, Jim, from oncoming perilous slave hunters in a predominantly racist society. The argument surrounding this moral dilemma is illustrated by two conflicting voices: that of Jonathan Bennett and of James Montmarquet. The former arguing that indeed Huck should be praised for morally combating abhorrent, racist ideals of the time that are keeping Jim’s pursuers hot on his trail, Huck proclaiming “He’s white” thus attempting to hide Jim’s ethnicity and ultimately allowing him to escape. Huck does this all whilst battling his own inner turmoil: that of a conscience moulded and influenced by the contemporary racist society in which he lives versus his new-found shared humanity with Jim. Huck’s strong moral compass prevails in this particular circumstance, prompting Bennett to consider him worthy of praise simply because he did the “morally right” thing. The latter, however, disputes this. Montmarquet’s stance on the issue centres around Huck’s passive inability to hand Jim over to the slave hunters. He made no moral deliberations when choosing not to turn him in but rather acted out of “primitive response”, and this, to Montmarquet, is not worthy of praise. The purpose of Taylor’s article, then, is to challenge Montmarquet on this view and I, in turn, will challenge Taylor’s view in defence of Montmarquet.
Analysing this in closer detail, we see that Montmarquet’s view that Huck is simply not worthy of praise for allowing Jim to escape stems from his belief that moral inaction is not praiseworthy. According to Montmarquet, this is essentially what Huck does here. Huck Finn should not be praised because, upon focusing on that one action of responding to the slave hunter, it is not really an action at all. Huck does nothing. He lacks the ability to give Jim away and lacks a justification for allowing him to escape, and that lack of action meant that ultimately Jim would not be found. He did the bare minimum and, while that action had a positive outcome for his friend, the outcome is the exceptional part, not the action. There was evidently no moral deliberation involved in his decision making process, much like the analogy Taylor provides. How then can Huck’s positive traits and characteristics seen to exist throughout the novel, be reflected here if there was no moral deliberation involved but merely a brief, primitive response to avoid danger or harm being inflicted upon another human being?
Taylor rejects and attempts to refute this, arguing that Huck should in fact be praised, defending Bennett in that respect. He argues that there is no need for justification in this circumstance to do the morally correct thing. Taylor argues that justification for helping another person in need is not required and Huck should be praised for doing what is right. Justification is, in a sense, meaningless in this situation. Rather, Taylor encourages us to focus on the morally superior action of Huck by allowing Jim to escape and deem this praiseworthy.
I shall now provide a counter response to Taylor’s argument and defend Montmarquet, as I believe that a wider and moral psychological approach to this ethical dilemma, much like Montmarquet, is most efficient. Firstly, addressing the view held by Taylor that something so much as a primitive response should garner praise. I believe we should reject this claim on the basis of the idea that if we were to praise every individual solely on the premise that they have been a fundamentally decent person, (as is the case with Huck allowing Jim to escape), then praise itself would have no real impression and would become redundant. Huck should not be praised for not giving a slave away to a slave owner because the alternative is morally dreadful. Are we to praise Huck for not being morally dreadful? Praise comes with significant acts of morality through moral deliberation and consideration and are not merely emotional responses, and if there is no real significance, why do anything significantly moral? Surely praise should come from actions that stem beyond our basic moral compass.
Addressing the argument on the basis that Huck made the decision via his conscience: If it be the case that all humans are born with a clean conscience, then I believe it is circumstance that manipulates one’s moral compass and capacity to do good. Why then are we to praise Huck for executing a moral response when it was merely a collection of circumstances that moulded his conscience into such a shape as to respond in that way?. Is the slave owner evil? Or is it the circumstances and society he lived in that has twisted his conscience into believing he was doing the right thing. Surely Huck would have been praised if he had handed Jim over to the slave hunters because that would have been viewed as the morally correct thing to do at the time. The same can be said for emotional responses and feelings and Taylor argues that Huck ultimately makes his decision out of sympathy for Jim and I do not dispute this. However, sympathy is something we all would feel if we were placed in a similar situation provided we are morally sound and possessed a shared sense of humanity with Jim, like Huck. Huck is not a hero. He simply placed himself in Jim’s shoes in this particular situation and decided to act according to his feelings, again, something that is not limited only to Huck but something we are all capable of. There is no action of exceptional calibre worthy of praise that has been executed here.
Perhaps Taylor would then respond to my counter argument by mentioning how Huck is known to possess a plethora of positive characteristics and displays these vividly throughout the novel, making it known that he is of exceptional moral correctness. I would argue, however, that this does little to impact the validity of his praiseworthiness in this particular scene, if at all, as we are viewing the situation in isolation. The rest of the novel is not of importance, leaving me to take the side of Montmarquet and morally deduce that, although Huck did the morally right thing, he is not worthy of praise.
Taylor, Craig. “Huck Finn, Moral Reasons and Sympathy” Philosophy 87 (2012), pp 583-593.
Montmarquet, James. “Huck Finn, Aristotle, and Anti-Intellectualism in Moral Psychology” Philosophy 87 (2012), pp 51-63.
Bennett, Jonathan “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn”, Philosophy 49 (1974), pp 123-134.
Twain, Mark. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (London, Penguin, 1966), 147.