Thursday, March 15, 2007

prejudice: the case of huck finn

Dr. Noffsinger has posted some interesting thoughts as a follow-up to our discussion last night about the nature of justice. Let me suggest again that I don't think we are going to have much success in looking for the foundations of justice or morality; even if we discovered an answer it is not obvious that it would necessarily help us in analyzing whether any given ruling or action was just or unjust/moral or immoral. Perhaps there is a way out if we consider the situation of Huck Finn.

The scene takes place on the raft as Huck is assisting his friend Jim in gaining his freedom. As the scene progresses Jim praises his friend for his help in achieving this goal. Huck's reaction, of course, is a feeling of failure as if he is doing something wrong. After all, Huck grew up in the antebellum south where he learned how to maneuver and understand a society built on white racial supremacy. Everything from the laws to the institution of slavery to the way people behave around one another was premised on race. From Huck's point of view his friends praise was not a reason to feel pride or the emotional satisfaction involved in helping Jim, but the realization that he was breaking the law. This sounds strange to us but only because we live at a time when our feelings of sympathy and empathy correspond with our beliefs about justice. In short, there is not conflict.

This is not the case for Huck, but we must ask whether there could have been a way out for Huck given that by the end of the novel he gives up any sense of morality and becomes a pragmatist. Perhaps the understanding that our moral frameworks must on occasion be brought into question can help us here. We should be willing to accept that our moral views may on occasion need to be tweaked or revised given that our society continually evolves and new information becomes available in reference to difficult moral problems such as abortion or animal rights and so on. I am not implying a position of subjectivism where morality simply becomes a matter of the individual just that we need to question.

Now how do we do this? One possibility is that our natural abilities to empathize or sympathize offer each of us a way to step back and imagine ourselves in the position of the "other." Huck clearly has this ability, but he is unable to take the next step which would be to use his natural other-regarding feelings for Jim as a check on his more formal ideas of morality and justice.

We need not necessarily have to figure out the foundations of morality and justice in order to ask the more immediate question of how we go about thinking through the way we learn and revise our ideas in these two areas.

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