Huck’s Values

In an otherwise insightful introduction to a new edition of five of Mark Twain’s finest novels, Elizabeth Boyle Machlan, Ph.D., makes a fundamental error. She begins with Huck’s fairly long reflection about whether he did the right thing to lie in order to save the runaway slave Jim:

“I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s’pose you’d a done right and give Jim up, would you feel better than you do now? No, says I. I’d feel bad — I’d feel just the way I do now. Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do the right thing when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and wages is just the same? I was stuck. I couldn’t answer that.

Commenting on this passage, Machlan, Ph.D., tells us that:

“Through Huck, Twain reveals the relativity of right and wrong in a fundamentally unjust society.”

In fact, this passage from Huckleberry Finn does not show the “relativity of right and wrong.” On the contrary it shows the universal nature of certain values, such values as friendship and loyalty and perhaps even true justice. While the boy has been brought up to believe that black men and women are inferior to whites and as slaves they are property that should be returned to their owners, he senses that this is simply quite wrong. That is to say, he is not simply a product of what sociologists like to call “enculturation” since he rejects those values he has been brought up to espouse in favor of a deeper sense that it would be quite simply wrong to turn Jim over to the authorities. Lying is wrong, to be sure, (and he feels bad about that), but telling the truth in this case would be much worse, especially if it means giving up your friend.

It is possible that Twain is embracing the ideas of natural human sympathy that were “in the air” at the time, originating in Scotland and finding their way into the thinking of such diverse thinkers as David Hume and Adam Smith. This was the notion that there is a strong bond of human sympathy that holds us together. We naturally care about other human beings, even if we don’t know them and even if they are on the other side of the planet. Smith thought this sympathy would keep the capitalist from becoming overly wealthy at the cost of exploiting those who worked for him (!). In any event, we don’t know whether Twain embraced those ideas. But he did sense, as did Huckleberry that there is something more valuable than the value of property ownership that demands the return of slaves fleeing for their lives.

Rather than demonstrate the “relativity” of values, then, Twain is demonstrating the transcendental nature of certain values, what philosophers are inclined to call the “objectivity” of values. Huck Finn is not simply a young boy raised in Missouri to believe that blacks are inferior to whites. He is a sensitive young boy who prizes the friendship that has grown between himself and Jim the slave. He cannot give him up. To do so would bother his conscience at least as much as lying to save his friend’s life.

We do live in a relative age, an age in which we insist that values are relative to individuals or, at best, to  cultures. But Twain is asking us to consider the possibility that there are values that transcend those cultures and which are deeper and more precious — more valuable, if you will. Society, or culture, does not dictate what we hold to be true and false, good or bad. It helps us learn to think about such things and teaches us much about what is and is not important. But while we might be influenced (some more than others) by society, it does not follow that our values are determined by society. Huck Finn, like Socrates, Jesus, and even thinkers such as Edith Wharton, are evidence of individuals who have seen beyond the values of their culture and have embraced deeper values, “objective” values, values that transcend any given culture and are much more difficult to cast aside in a crisis.

Thus, Dr. Machlan is mistaken. She may know a great deal about Mark Twain. But she doesn’t understand the true nature of Huck Finn’s dilemma or, indeed, the nature of objective values that are not to be identified with the values that a particular culture espouses and teaches its young — if, indeed, it bothers to teach the young about values at all. Certain values simply are not relative — not to individuals and not to cultures. Huck sensed that and that is why we think of him as an extraordinary young man and admire his honesty, loyalty, friendship, and good sense.

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