A Ku Indeed!

Huck Finn is a Bad Boy

Posted in Course Material, Ethics, Life, Values Analysis by Chris on February 6, 2008

huck-and-jim-on-raft.jpgToday in class we discussed the sixth chapter of Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics. One of the examples that Hursthouse uses is a popular one — Huckleberry Finn. As some of you know (and some of you don’t), Huck is considered an “inverse akratic” in ethics. He does the right thing, but in spite of himself, or against his better judgment. Huck saves old Jim from the slave traders, but Mark Twain tells us that he considers himself a “bad boy” for doing so.

I’ll walk through it just to give an idea of what’s going on here.

What does it mean to say that Huck is a victim of “inverse akrasia”?

1. “Akrasia” is a term from Greek, meaning “weak willed”. Take an example. Say that you smoke heavily, and try to stop. Your desire to smoke is still very great, and you have a hard time getting your better judgment (not to smoke) to win out in the situation, and youwind up succumbing to your desires and smoke (you are “weak”).  Notice in this case you do what is wrong (smoke) in spite of your better judgment.
2. An “inverse” akratic would be someone who actually does do what is right because their desires pull them in that direction, but their judgment tells them that what their desires pull them towards is wrong.

If you recall in the story, Huck helps Jim the slave to escape. Hucks feels strongly pulled in terms of his desires to do this, mostly based on his friendship with Jim. However, Huck also thinks that it is wrong to do it. His “better judgment” tells him not to do it (he thinks it would be right to turn Jim in), but his desires win out. It’s important that this be described right — Huck thinks that freeing Jim is morally wrong. As a result, essentially, he does what is right (frees Jim) in spite of himself (his judgment).

The interesting question here to ask is: is Huck right? Is he a bad boy or not? Or is he a good person? Or course, Hursthouse says that he is morally motivated (what motivates him in this case, his emotions, pull him in the right direction) but he’s not virtuous because his actual considered judgment is corrupt (he thinks it’s wrong, and that’s he just a spoiled boy who can’t seem to do what he’s told).

Other than ruining a perfectly good story with a complicated philosophical analysis, what do people think of this? Is Huck a good boy, a bad one, or somewhere in between?

5 Responses

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  1. eyeingtenure said, on February 6, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    Wouldn’t morally motivated and virtuous be reversed? As I understand it, morally motivated would be one’s own moral compass, what is affected by nurture.

    Being virtuous, on the other hand, would be more of a God-granted sense of right and wrong.

    Correct me on this.


  2. Chris said, on February 6, 2008 at 8:20 pm


    I think in this case, “morally motivated’ means something like “pushed to do the right action” which in the case is true, given that fact that Huck’s emotions push him towards the right thing. However, virtue would require being motivated by emotion but at the same time having the right reasons for doing it. In this case, Huck doesn’t, since his reasons really tell him that he’s doing the wrong thing. Basically, if Huck had been pulled towards helping Jim by his emotions and this reasons, he’d be a candidate for virtue.

  3. eyeingtenure said, on February 6, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    Figured as much. That’s quite the semantic swap — a little counter-intuitive to this outsider.

    This reminds me of a comment I got lately that linked me to this page.

    “We know what we know, we know that there are things we do not know, and we know that there are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

    Rather, one axis would be his actions as rated on his flawed moral compass, the other axis where his actions rate on the ideal unflawed moral compass.

    He’s firmly in the first quadrant on the decision to free Jim.

    Naturally, this response doesn’t answer the question.

  4. eyeingtenure said, on February 6, 2008 at 9:06 pm

    This one should.

    Huck isn’t a bad boy because he acts, in the end, along the lines of right and the unflawed moral compass. Maybe I’m wrong, but I believe in an objective and absolute morality. That’s belief, and so not valid.

    However, Huck’s rationale for freeing Jim — if I remember correctly — was not out of being malicious, so judging him by his intentions doesn’t show him as bad.

    It was out of pity. Huck isn’t bad.

  5. Cedric said, on July 8, 2008 at 8:52 pm

    What moral compass is Huck operating by?
    The morals of Twain’s day are very different from the morals of ours.
    It depends on the standards by which we are judging Huck.
    If it’s Jim’s standards, Huck is not only a good boy, but a great and kind boy, the best friend Jim ever had.
    If the standards are that of the society at the time then Huck would, in fact be a bad boy. What Huck did was essentially steal property. Not only that, but he basically would have helped that property steal other property.
    Huck was raised with no moral compass. All he really knows is what the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson tell him. and what he’s experienced for himself.
    So which should he go with?
    Jim’s standards, or his gaurdian’s standards?
    Follow your heart and do what you think is wrong, or follow your head and do what they say is right.
    That’s a tough issue for a kid of 13 or 14.

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