Huck Finn is a Bad Boy
Today 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?