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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Don’t Be Judgmental!

So often these days we hear that we mustn’t be “judgmental.” This is an admonition that we not make moral judgments about people. Moral judgments seem to scare the bejesus out of us. After all, who are we to say someone is evil until we have walked a mile in his shoes? Or something. In any event, it is a strange attitude since so many of those who say this are indeed judgmental — perfectly willing to condemn the killing of whales, the destruction of the rain forest, the price-gouging by large corporations, and the exploitation of the employed by those who refuse to pay them a living wage, the total ineptitude of the current president. We are, none of us, entirely nonjudgmental, though our condemnations are more accurately described as “pronouncements” rather than judgments, since there is so little thought behind them.

In an article not long ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education philosophy professor Robert Simon noted the unwillingness of his students to condemn the Nazis for the extermination of millions of Jews. One student commented: “Of course I dislike the Nazis, but who is to say they are morally wrong?”  Simon reports that his students make similar comments with regard to such things as apartheid, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. Who’s to say??  I had nearly the same type of response in an ethics class years ago when discussing Adolph Hitler, the epitome of evil. One student raised his hand and suggested that if we were Nazis we would think Hitler was a hero. So who are we to say? The answer I always give to this question is that we are all “to say.” The fact that skin-heads would revere Hitler is beside the point. The question is whether they could ground their judgment in arguments and evidence that would stand up to criticism and the answer is a resounding “no!” That is, anyone with a brain and the determination to use it can make sound  moral judgments. It is not easy, but it is not absurd or a waste of time. Hitler either was or he was not evil. We can’t have it both ways. And the fact that Hitler’s rationale for the “final solution” was based on faulty genetic and biological premises makes any argument defending him absurd on its face, regardless of how we feel about what he did.

Hannah Arendt noted many years ago that if the Germans in the 1930s had been a bit more judgmental than Hitler would never have risen to power. It is the faculty  of judgment that sets humans apart — if we can set them apart any longer. It is judgment that leads to the condemnation of the actions of folks like Hitler, Stalin, and Donald Trump. And many of those who condemn people like Trump are among the vanguard of those who insist that we should not be judgmental. They condemn Trump for being vulgar while at the same time looking the other way when Bill Clinton engages in “indiscretions” with Monica Lewinsky. We are none of us entirely consistent.

And there’s the rub. The rampant relativism which people like Gertrude Himmelfarb spent so many pages for so many years identifying and attacking is an obvious fact. But if we probe a bit, however, we see that this relativism is only a symptom of something that goes much deeper: the refusal to make judgments of any kind, the inability, or unwillingness, to use our minds and seek consistency — the first rule in critical thinking. The insistence that we must avoid making moral judgments is really an insistence that we not make any judgments whatever. Moral judgments are no different from any other judgments, really. They are an attempt to approach the truth and find positions that put us on a surer footing than mere speculation and hunches, to move beyond mere feelings and the making of mindless moral pronouncements.

There’s no question whatever that we all are “judgmental,” all of us. We condemn the actions of others right and left no matter how tolerant we claim to be. But the condemnations are, as hinted above, not the result of judgment: they are the result of feelings. We have gut feelings that eliminating the rain forest, killing whales, experimenting with animals to develop better perfumes, telling “dirty” jokes in public, are all wrong. But we don’t ground those feelings in reasonable arguments. Rather than take the time to think about these things and try to determine WHY we think they are wrong, we simply shrug our shoulders and ask “who’s to say??” It’s easier. It saves us a good deal of time and effort. But it also allows for the ascendency in politics of men who lie, spread hatred, are vulgar, and totally self-seeking. A moment of serious reflection would force us to conclude that such men should not be given the reins of power.

So, it’s not so much that we find around us a “rampant relativism,” which we do. Let’s be honest! It’s because this relativism is the result of a lack of judgment that we should not insist we be less judgmental, but that we be more judgmental. We need to stop and think. And in order to do that well we require patience and training. It’s not going to happen if we don’t demand it of our schools and of ourselves. As Arnold Toynbee said many years ago, “Thinking is as hard for a human to do as walking in its hind feet is for a monkey.” And we do as little of it as we can until we are forced by circumstances. The problem is by that time it may be too late.

The Cat In The Room

In a comment on a previous post I was trying to make myself understood by my good friend Dana about the various colors in ethics — black, white, and gray. In doing so I came to realize that I could be clearer about where I stand on the issue. And where I stand is not where many others stand, so it behooves me to make my position clear in case it might be close to the truth, as I like to think it is. The issue surrounds the question of whether there is a right and wrong in ethics.

The prevailing opinion as late as the medieval period was that there is a clear difference between the two, an absolute right and an absolute wrong. The Church, of course, knew the difference and if men and women were in a moral quandary they would simply ask the priest. And if he didn’t know he would refer to Church dogma. I think there are echoes of that conviction among church-goers today who still ask their parish priest or parson for advice when facing a moral dilemma. Many, however, came to regard this black/white position in ethics as leading straight to intolerance and a host of atrocities all in the name of ethical certainty. And it did. So for the most part the view of absolute right and absolute wrong has been tossed aside along with the Ptolemaic hypothesis about the neat arrangement of our finite universe. We are now living in a relativistic age and we tend to think that when it comes to ethics, at the very least, it is all a matter of opinion.

What I have tried to do is to carve out a middle ground between the two views, to insist that there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong — but we don’t know it absolutely. It is this last proviso that keeps us from the intolerance and even arrogance that often came with the supposed certainty that one was right about which side God was on in a war, for example, or whether heretics should be burned alive in an auto-da-fé. We pride ourselves on being more tolerant and, in the name of tolerance, ask the question “who’s to say?” when it comes to ethics. We then end up with a mishmash of conflicting opinions that cannot possibly all be correct. But I am convinced that this view leads us away from dialogue and the search for answers when it comes to ethical issues — especially since so many people are convinced there is no answer. Let me propose an analogy — which will appeal to Dana. He’s a poet.

The search for the right answer in ethics is like searching for a black cat in a dark room with a blindfold on. I insist that there is a cat in the room — somewhere — whereas the prevailing view is that since no one seems to know where the cat is he isn’t there at all. It’s just your opinion and mine: there’s really no cat. My conviction that there is a cat in the room rests on the fact that, in ethics, we have discovered a number of clear truths that are universally agreed upon, even though it has taken a struggle over many years (and even wars) to reach agreement. I speak about the evils of slavery and human sacrifice, for example, and the conviction that all persons have rights that ought to be respected, regardless of the circumstances. We know now that we were wrong for lo those many centuries to deny women the rights that men took for granted. We also know that in a democracy the vote should be allowed to all who are of age and must not be restricted to men with property. In fact, one could even argue that over the years there has been something akin to moral progress — for all our stupidity and determination to reduce ethics to a wrestling match. It appears that when men and women put their heads together and think things through they sometimes (rarely?) find the black cat in the dark room — despite the fact that their blindfold frustrates them and makes things extremely difficult and even painful at times.

The fact is that it is very difficult indeed to continue to search for that elusive cat. And this is why so many people simply give up and insist that it’s all a matter of opinion. We have become intellectually lazy. We prefer to save ourselves a passel of work and the difficult thinking we have decided is just not worth the effort. So many of us throw up our arms and ask “who’s to say?” It saves us the trouble of opening our minds and sifting through whatever evidence there is, scrutinizing arguments, and trying to reach even tentative conclusions. We prefer to think there is no cat. But I am convinced there is. We have held it from time to time and that assures me that we might get ahold of the cat every now and again, even briefly. There are answers to ethical dilemmas. We just have to work hard to find them and most often, because we are human, we must be content with reasonable suppositions and tentative conclusions though, at times, certain ethical truths are clear as crystal: what the Nazis did to the Jews was wrong by any standards one chooses to evoke. Now there’s a black cat if there ever was one!

Thick and Thin

One of the more interesting books I read in my checkered past was written by a sociologist. I say that because it is remarkable given the fact that the man had more interesting things to say about my field in philosophy, namely ethics, than most of the philosophers I have read since Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. The author, Michael Walzer,  begins with an anecdote and expands his argument into broader territory.

“I want to begin my argument by recalling a picture (I have in mind a film clip from the television news, late in that wonderful year 1989) . . . It is a picture of people marching in the streets of Prague; they carry signs, some of which simply say “Truth” and others “Justice.” When I saw the picture I knew immediately what the signs meant — and so did everyone else who saw the same picture. Not only that, but I recognized and acknowledged the values that the marchers were defending — and so did (almost) everyone else. . . .How could I penetrate so quickly and join so unreservedly in the language game or the power play of a distant demonstration?”

Imagine, I might add, we are sitting in our living room watching the news and we are confronted by a story about some folks on the other side of the world who are taken from their homes at night and locked up without a trial and never heard from again. Despite the fact that this is happening in another part of the world, we would not hesitate to judge that this is wrong. Walzer calls this part of “thin” morality — a few basic principles (he focuses on justice) that are binding anywhere and at all times. He makes a strong case, since any child can tell when injustice has reared its ugly head: just give one of them a smaller piece of birthday cake than their sibling! “It’s not fair,” they would shout! And since justice is essentially a matter of fairness, none would really argue with the child. That is the nature of thin morality: it is straight-forward and compelling to any open mind.

Of course, when it comes to morality we are not dealing with open minds. In this egalitarian age where all are regarded as equal in every possible respect and “discrimination” has become a nasty thing, we are admonished not to be “judgmental” and we are asked repeatedly “who’s to say” what’s right and what is wrong? Walzer argues that in the region of “thick” morality, namely those hundreds of morés that are peculiar to specific cultures, things are, indeed, relative. We don’t really care what the marriage customs are in far off countries, how people dress, whether they shave their faces, or whether kissing is considered unacceptable in public. Nor should we. It’s none of our business. In fact, when it comes to thick morality, the only people in a position to judge are those actually living in the culture making the judgment.

And this is where folks go wrong: they lump all of morality together, thick and thin, and draw the hasty conclusion that it’s all relative — to particular cultures or even to particular individuals. It’s part and parcel of our anti-intellectualism that has fostered a deep distrust of experts and our unwillingness to acknowledge that some people know more than others and some things are simply wrong. In itself, this may not be a matter of concern. But when we reflect that the war in Iraq, as an example, was undertaken by a small clique of small-minded people who were on a power trip and who refused to confer with known experts about the dangers such a war would invariably entail, we can see how this sort of blindness can lead to tragedy on a broad scale — thousands of lives lost and millions more displaced or out of mind. The war was wrong from the git-go.

In a word, ethics is not relative and there are some who know more about the world and what things might lead to catastrophe (and are therefore clearly wrong) than others. I would only add to Walzer’s notion of justice as the central concept in “thin” morality the related concept of human rights, which seems a bit broader. It would rule out such things as lying to Congress and the rest of the country about so-called “weapons of mass destruction,.” since we all have a right to the truth.  In any event, human rights certainly include justice, since all persons clearly have the right to be treated fairly. This does not mean people are all the same, or that everyone knows as much as everyone else. It simply means that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to being treated the same way. It is a “thin” precept that is so simple a child can see it clearly.

It’s Not All Relative

During my time as a professor of philosophy I taught a great many ethics courses, including business ethics — which was actually one of my favorite courses: there are so many real-live  incidents in business to discuss from an ethical perspective. But during all those years I continued to run up against a stone wall that appeared in the form of a mindless relativism. “It’s all a matter of opinion.” Or, “It’s all relative.” Or, “we really shouldn’t be judgmental.” I came to understand that these sorts of responses were just a dodge to allow the students to avoid thinking about problems that are complex, do not allow of quantification, and which require a modicum of objectivity. But I hit my head against that stone wall for years and it gave me many a headache.

Thus, while I have blogged about this before, an article in the news jumped out at me today that simply demands comment. It was a Yahoo News story about a terrible incident in a far-off New Guinea:

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — On a tropical island in Papua New Guinea where most people live in huts, a mob armed with guns, machetes and axes stormed a wooden house by night. They seized Helen Rumbali and three female relatives, set the building on fire and took the women away to be tortured. Their alleged crime: Witchcraft.

After being repeatedly slashed with knives, Rumbali’s older sister and two teenage nieces were released following negotiations with police. Rumbali, a 40-something former schoolteacher, was beheaded.

The standard response to such a story in one of my classes, should I have brought it up, would be something like this: who are we to judge whether that is wrong? It’s not our country and we don’t know enough of the details of what really went on. In its shortened form it is the cliché “who’s to say? We haven’t walked a mile in their shoes.” It’s called “cultural relativism.”

The objections ring true, of course, but they are irrelevant. We haven’t walked a mile in their shoes — or even two yards. But we know enough from the article to make an informed judgment — subject to further correction if later information alters the ethical perspective. But at this point we can say with some assurance that even in a country on the other side of the earth, men coming into a home at night and taking four women suspected of witchcraft to be tortured and/or killed is simply wrong. That is to say, even though we have not walked in those shoes, the people who do walk in them are engaged in actions that cannot possibly be justified in a neutral court of rational appeal. And that is the test for all ethical claims: the neutral court of rational appeal. It is something like a jury, except that it has no formal status. But thinking persons anywhere read and assimilate the information provided and attempt to see both sides of complex issues and then render a judgment. Failure to do so would be morally irresponsible: indifference disguised as tolerance.

As I have said before moral condemnation does not necessarily result in an invasion of another country — as though they were hiding weapons of mass destruction, for example. But it simply means that when we read such a story we are appalled, thank our lucky starts we don’t live in such a country and that we have become enlightened enough to recognize that “witchcraft” is hardly grounds for decapitation and torture — or anything much other than bemused indifference. But when concern over witchcraft leads to acts of violence and murder then it is simply wrong, wherever it may occur. When something is wrong, it is wrong whether it happens next door or on the other side of the world. All that is required is careful judgment, imagination, and a lively sensibility. This does not imply our cultural superiority, it simply implies that we have thought about the actions of those men and condemned them — just as we would if they had happened next door.

Who’s To Say?

In yesterday’s blog concerning the Penn State scandal I quoted Hannah Arendt who insisted on absolutes in morality. Her position is based on her deep reflections about the atrocities Hitler heaped on humankind. These days in the spirit of what we like to call tolerance — and which may, in fact, be indifference — we eschew absolutes in morality and frequently hear the cry “who’s to say what is right or wrong?” In fact, I heard it so many times during my tenure as a teacher of ethics it became tiresome. Why? Because it suggests no-mindedness, a lack of reflection and serious thought about a very serious issue.

In the end I would argue that there is a core of principles that are universally recognized in both religion and ethics; even the nay-sayers embrace those principles, whether they know it or not. Those principles focus on respect for persons, fairness, and justice. If, for example, we see on our TV that a man and his wife on the other side of the world was abducted in the dark of night and whisked off to prison without any warning or any charges bring brought against either of them we immediately know it is wrong, even if such conduct is common in that culture. As I said yesterday, we all know Mother Teresa was a good person and we all know Hitler was evil. The reason we know these things is because Mother Teresa was motivated by love for her fellow humans and Hitler was motivated by hatred for an entire race. Hatred, of course, is an extreme form of disrespect for persons as love is the highest form of respect for persons. These principles form a core around which there are numerous lesser values and principles that may change from day to day and from culture to culture. But the core remains the same — in one form or another.

Those who mouth the platitude “who’s to say?” simply have not thought about what it is they are asking. They focus on the undeniable fact that we humans don’t always know clearly what principles are involved in a particular situation, or we cannot figure out how to reconcile conflict between principles. The principles are clear, our grasp of them is always partial.  But if we insist that morality in itself is simply a matter of opinion, there can be no resolution of moral conflicts: you have your opinion, I have mine. We go our separate ways, or we pick up clubs and start hitting one another about the head and ears. Only by admitting that there are moral precepts can we agree that there is a point in discussing the issue and seeing if there is a way to reconcile differences. In a word, the notion that morality is a matter of personal opinion leads to a dead end; insistence that there are principles leads us into the arena of dialogue and possible resolution.

Am I saying, then, that we should be “judgmental” — another taboo in today’s age of indifference? Yes, I am. In fact, it was precisely Joe Paterno’s unwillingness to be judgmental that lead to his downfall. Being judgmental doesn’t mean shoving our values down someone else’s throat; it means questioning and wondering and eventually, perhaps, it leads to an informed decision. Without judgment we must rely on gut feeling, which is pure whimsey.