Saturday, January 05, 2008

Huck Finn's Darwinian Morality

Many times on this blog, I have argued that Darwin's account of the moral sense as shaped by moral emotions and practical deliberation explains the evolved nature of morality, which does not depend upon religious belief. Mark Twain's Huck Finn illustrates that Darwinian moral sense at work. Twain's understanding of morality was deeply shaped by his reading of Darwin's Descent of Man, and Darwin's influence on his writing is set forth in Sherwood Cummings' book Mark Twain and Science (1988).

Darwin saw that since moral norms were largely shaped by social praise and blame, and since such social norms tended to favor one's own tribal group against others, the moral conscience could be distorted by deformed social traditions. The traditional acceptance of slavery was for Darwin a preeminent illustration of how socially learned traditions could distort moral judgment. And yet he saw moral progress as people recognized the humanity of slaves and felt emotions of concern for their condition. Eventually, the extension of sympathy to ever wider groups and the rational deliberation on principles of reciprocity would lead to recognition of the Golden Rule as a fundamental standard of morality.

In his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain depicts the power of social learning in supporting slavery. People in antebellum America were taught in their churches that the Bible showed the sacredness of slavery, and they were reared to believe that racial differences supported the natural inferiority of black slaves. But Twain also shows how Huck's deepening friendship with the slave Jim leads him to see Jim's shared humanity and to feel a moral concern for his welfare.

And yet because of his rearing in a slave society, Huck feels guilty in helping Jim to escape from his slavery. In one of the greatest passages in American literature--in Chapter 31 of Huck Finn--we see Huck thinking about what he should do. He calls up before his mind his experiences with Jim and the deep feelings that he has for Jim, while weighing this against the guilt that will come from violating the religious norms of his society. He figures that if he helps Jim escape, he will go to hell for his sins. But he finally concludes: "All right, then, I'll go to hell."

This is a masterful depiction of Darwin's understanding of moral judgment--of how powerful social learning is for shaping and sometimes distorting our judgment, of how religious teaching can contribute to that distortion, and yet of how humanitarian sympathy and deliberate reasoning can lead sensitive and perceptive people to reject the callous and cruel behavior dictated by unwarranted social prejudices.

This also illustrates Darwin's understanding of the complex relationship betweem morality and religion. On the one hand, religion can reinforce exploitatiive social traditions such as those favoring the tyranny of masters over slaves. On the other hand, religion can also challenge such exploitative traditions insofar as religion warns us of the danger of human selfishness and teaches the widening of our moral sympathies to embrace all of humanity. And yet the capacity for moral judgment that Twain depicts in Huck reflects a naturally evolved moral sense that stands on its own regardless of religious belief.


Memetic Warrior said...

Mr Harnhart:

A casual reader of this post may think that natural moral sense produces something like a universal feeling of human brotherhood whereas religion is a cultural evil that gives cohesion to some groups in order to exploit others.

The fact is that the first can not be true. Our natural moral sense is designed to give cohesion to our group and to exploit other groups as well as religion.

This can not be other way since our moral sense evolved when we were living in small groups of hunter-gatherers. There is no instinctive universal brotherhood feeling. It can Intellectually desired, but there is no biological basis for it.

Thus, your phrase:
Darwin saw that since moral norms were largely shaped by social praise and blame, and since such social norms tended to favor one's own tribal group against others, the moral conscience could be distorted by deformed social traditions.

assumes that cultural traditions are group-ist, whereas natural moral sense not, and this is absolutely misleading. It can not be anything like and instinctive feeling of universal brotherhood.

What ties Huck with Jim is not human brotherhood, but something that evolutionists call "reciprocal altruism" that has a proximate name: friendliness. reciprocal altruism is a tribal instinct that permits mutual aid.

In this light Huck has a conflict between two tribal groups he is member of: the one he belongs since he was born and the other is the one that he has recently established: his friendliness with Jim. The social instinct have caught Huck in a conflict. both set of social/moral instincts that break Huck apart have pure selfish origins, explained in evolutionary terms.

So I can not admit the idea of a broader scope (in terms of number of people that we consider as equals) for moral instincts than for Religion. If any, i can think about just the opposite. tribal, uneducated people are not aware of other people suffering. As many modern anthropologist can corroborate, the human condition is usually reserved to the members of the tribe. Pinker mention an African tribe for which the word for "food" is the same used for "out of the tribe" . if there is any human characteristic that can broaden the circle of persons for which we have empathy is culture and civilization. In this sense, the great religions are a cultural achievement against the natural narrow circle that is the default in uneducated people, either in tribal primitive life or in marginal urban areas of the western world.

Finally I doubt that the separation of natural moral instincts and religion makes sense; Any Evolutionary psychologist could say that any cultural phenomenon that is pervasive, universal and reappears whenever it is repressed among different cultures is quite probably the social effect of an human instinct or a set of instincts. If it is so, religion is a part of our natural moral instincts, so there is no reason to separate both. The intellectual disregard of religion would be the disregard of one of an strong instinct, and this can be socially dangerous.

Anonymous said...

Religion and moral instincts go hand in hand. Religion teaches moral values. But in the present generation we do not really find people following their religion in the proper sense, do we?

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