Friday, January 11, 2008

Huck Finn Meets Abraham Lincoln

In response to my previous post, "Memetic Warrior" has observed that Huck Finn is torn between two moral commitments--one to the slave society in which he was raised and the other to the friendship he develops with Jim. A Darwinian account of morality would explain this as a tragic conflict between tribal loyalties. We are naturally social animals who cooperate with other members of our group against outsiders. But our deepest moral conflicts come when we are torn between competing group loyalties.

As I have indicated in my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right, the moral and political debate over slavery is a profound illustration of such a tragic conflict of interests. Mark Twain's Huck Finn experiences that conflict. In an 1895 lecture, Twain said that his novel supports "the proposition that in a crucial moral emergency, a sound heart is a safer guide than an ill-trained conscience," because a conscience "can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it." Huck's conscience has been trained to approve slavery, and it is only his "sound heart" that allows him to see the injustice of slavery once he has become friends with Jim.

I would say, however, that Twain doesn't grasp the full complexity of the moral tragedy in American slavery, because he presents us with only two alternatives: either we're pro-slavery or we're abolitionists. When Huck goes to the Grangerford house in Kentucky (in Chapter 17), he sees a book of Henry Clay's speeches, but nothing is said in the novel about Clay's position on the slavery debate, although Twain's father and his brother Orion were supporters of Clay. Clay's statesmanship shaped the world of Huck Finn, because Clay was largely responsible for the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state, while forever forbidding slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase territory above the latitude at the Southern border of Missouri. Clay denounced slavery as a great moral evil, but he was himself a Kentucky slaveholder who feared that any attempt at immediately abolishing slavery would destroy the Union and provoke a race war. He argued for enforcing the constitutional protections for slavery--such as fugitive slave laws--while working for the gradual abolition of slavery through voluntary emancipation and compensated colonization of freed slaves outside the United States. Abraham Lincoln adopted Clay's compromise position as a prudent way to avoid the extremes of pro-slavery fanaticism on the one hand and abolititionist fanaticism on the other.

The thoughtful reader of Twain's novel might question Twain's failure to appreciate the prudent statesmanship of Clay and Lincoln. Huck's "sound heart" is sentimentally appealing, but it disregards the importance of the rule of law and constitutional government. Huck decides to break the law by helping Jim to escape without considering the consequences of such lawlessness, because Huck's childish rebellion against adult society and attempts to "sivilize" him implies a utopian anarchism in which individuals live freely without government.

The dubiousness of Huck's position is apparent to any reader who notices how dependent Huck is on law and government. For example, he needs government to protect him against his abusive father. Moreover, the final chapters of the novel are taken up with Tom Sawyer's imaginary games for making Jim's escape "fun" for the boys. As a result, Tom is shot and almost killed, and Jim is recaptured. Jim finally gets his freedom only because Miss Watson--his owner--has emancipated him in her will, because she felt guilty about his enslavement. Such voluntary emancipation is what Clay and Lincoln hoped would eventually lead to the extinction of slavery without violence.

Of course, the fact that the final emancipation of slaves came only through Civil War might seem to indicate the ultimate failure of the Clay/Lincoln strategy of prudent compromise. The refusal of the confederate states to accept the outcome of the Presidential election of 1860 made peaceful, legal compromise impossible, and thus the moral conflict over slavery had to be settled by force of arms. But even so, the North could not have defeated the South if Lincoln had been a pure abolitionist, because then the border states of Missouri and Kentucky would have left the Union, and this probably would have allowed the South to prevail.

My general point here is that the American debate over slavery shows the complexity of tragic moral conflicts with moral emotions combined with prudential judgments. A Darwinian explanation of morality must capture the full complexity of such conflicts. Twain's novel conveys some, but not all, of that complexity.


Unknown said...
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Larry Arnhart said...

My answer to this question is to be found in many of the posts on this blog and in two of my books--DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT and DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM.

Unknown said...
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Memetic Warrior said...

Mr. Arnhart:
Thanks for your mention. Besides the objections, I've read all your books and I´m among your followers.