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Huck Finn, Aristotle, and Anti-Intellectualism in Moral Psychology

  • James Montmarquet (a1)


Jonathan Bennett, Nomy Arpaly, and others see in Huckleberry Finn's apparent praiseworthiness for not turning Jim in (even though this goes against his own moral judgments in the matter) a model for an improved, non-intellectualist approach to moral appraisal. I try to show – both on Aristotelian and on independent grounds – that these positions are fundamentally flawed. In the process, I try to show how Huck may be blameless for lacking what would have been a praiseworthy belief (that I should help Jim), hence, blameless for not acting on this belief; but being ‘blamelessly unpraiseworthy’ is not the same thing as being praiseworthy.


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1 The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn’, Philosophy 49 (1974), 121134.

2 See especially Teichman, Jenny, ‘Mr. Bennett on Huckleberry Finn’, Philosophy 50 (1975), 358–59; Arpaly, Nomy, ‘Moral Worth’, The Journal of Philosophy 99 (2002), 223–45 and Unprincipled Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), and Goldman, Alan, ‘Huckleberry Finn and Moral Motivation’, Philosophy and Literature 34 (2010), 116.

3 Bennett, op. cit. note 1, 124.

4 Ibid. 133.

5 Here, notice, ‘responsible’ means not just something for which one is responsible, but has a more positive sense: the opposite of ‘irresponsible.’ Linguistically, the difference is conveniently marked as that being responsible ‘for’ and responsible ‘in’ one's actions. An interesting discussion of this distinction, as applied to the case of belief, is Hetherington, Stephen, ‘Epistemic Responsibility: A Dilemma’, The Monist 85 (2002), 398415.

6 ‘The Will to Believe’, in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Practical Philosophy (New York: Dover, 1956).

7 In still a third location, her essay (with Schroeder, Timothy) ‘Praise, Blame, and the Whole Self,’ Philosophical Studies 93, 161–88, Arpaly discusses the Huck Finn and related matters, articulating an account of responsibility, but not specifically of moral praiseworthiness or blameworthiness – as deriving from the ‘whole self’ rather than from such narrower factors as one's moral beliefs. One could easily suppose that that Arpaly intends her later discussion of ‘degrees of moral concern’(84–93) to supersede the discussion of how ‘integrated’ a given motive might be from the standpoint of the Whole Self view.

8 Unprincipled Virtue (cited in note 2), 72.

9 Ibid. 84–86.

10 Even when she returns to the Huck Finn case (having discussed ‘moral concern’), Arpaly insists that Huck acts out of a deep moral concern ‘because concern does not amount to reflective endorsement and does not have to be conscious’, ibid. 92.

11 As she remarks, ‘Huckleberry is not capable of bringing to consciousness his nonconscious awareness’ [of Jim's humanity] … ‘He is not a very clear abstract thinker, and there but for the grace of God go all of us', ibid. 77. In my terms, this means that Huck's failure to form a suitable (conscious) belief is at least not blameworthy – but not of course that he can be praiseworthy for his act without doing so.

12 There is an asymmetry, then, between praiseworthiness, which requires a recognition of the good; and blameworthiness which, by my lights, requires only that one recognize the bad (and did it anyway) or be epistemically irresponsible in failing to recognize this. For a different view, see Haji, Ishtiyaque, ‘An Epistemic Dimension of Blameworthiness’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 57 (1997), 523544. On Haji's view, blameworthiness requires at least an unconscious belief that what one is doing is wrong – which view, in my estimation, is wrong on two counts: first, it fails to allow for culpable failures to believe; second, it ignores the most relevant difference between conscious and unconscious belief in this regard, namely, that we cannot be expected to take account, in our actions, of what we only unconsciously believe.

13 The origins of this view lie in Aristotle's contention that we are judged good or bad on account of our virtues and vices (Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. II, v). Equally familiar is Hume's: ‘Actions are by their very nature temporary and perishing; and where they proceed not from some cause in the characters and disposition of the person who performed them, they infix not themselves upon him, and can neither redound to his honor, if good, nor infamy if evil.’ Treatise of Human Nature, Selby-Bigge, L.A., ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 411. Contemporary statements of this character approach may be found in Fields, Lloyd, ‘Moral Beliefs and Blameworthiness’, Philosophy 69 (1994), 397415; and in Gary's Watson's notion of an ‘aretaic’ conception of responsibility, Two Faces of Moral Responsibility’, Philosophical Topics 24, 227–48.

14 For a much fuller discussion of these points in Aristotle – mostly by way of distinguishing an Aristotelian from a Humean approach – see Hudson, Stephen, ‘Reason and Motivation in Aristotle’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 11 (1981), 111125.

15 On Fields' view (op. cit. note 11), it may be noted, belief forms a crucial element of character: thus, for him, a crucial element of bad moral character is holding to morally bad moral principles. Where we differ is that I would only find this morally blameworthy if one's belief were epistemically irresponsible. Huck's moral principles in certain cases may be bad, but he is not enough to indict his moral character, even when he acts on these.

16 See in this regard the account of Alan Goldman, op. cit. note 2, 3–4.

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