Moral Reasoning

At a nephew’s recently, I looked in his shelves for something to read and came across a handsome edition of Huckleberry Finn. I had not read this book in ages, so I began to look at it again. It is pretty hard to put down.
Early in the book, the Widow Douglas reads to Huck about Moses and the bullrushes. (I have to explain to my grand-niece what a “bullrush” is.) Huck says: “I was in a sweat to find out all about him.” The widow informs him that Moses “has been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people.” Reading such a passage, what can a body do but read on?
What got me thinking was a scene when Jim and Huck are on the raft just about the time they run into the wreck of the Steamboat Walter Scott. They are still above Cairo, where the Ohio comes in, fixing to go ashore there in a free state and free Jim — or so he thought.
Jim was a slave of Miss Watson — a good enough lady, but she needed money. Jim was worth $800 in New Orleans; this was the fate he was trying to escape, and it is how he and Huck eventually join forces on Jackson’s Island. Huck was also escaping from his boozing Pap, from the Widow Douglas, and from the searchers for his own body. They believed he was floating somewhere in the Mississippi, after he fooled them and Pap into thinking he was drowned, his means to escape.
In order to eat, Jim and Huck slip into a field to “borrow” some needed provisions. If they happened by a chicken that wasn’t “roosting comfortable,” they “lifted” it. Huck recalled the shrewd advice of his Pap: “Take a chicken when you get a chance.” If you don’t want to eat him, you can find someone that does; it creates good will. “A good deed ain’t ever forgot.” Huck adds, however, that he “never seen Pap when he didn’t want the chicken for himself.” But that was his sage doctrine.
Before daylight, Jim or Huck would canoe ashore, creep into a field to find a watermelon, or mushmelon, or a pumpkin, or new corn. Was this filching right? Was it moral? Well, “Pap said it warn’t no harm to borrow things if you was meaning to pay them back some other time.” Intention was everything. Clearly, borrowing “ain’t” taking what’s not yours. On the other hand, “the widow said it warn’t anything but a soft name for stealing and no decent body would do it.” Authorities conflicted.
Jim and Huck begin to debate this fine ethical point. For his part, Jim split the difference. Pap was “partly” right, he thought, but so was the widow. The solution, Jim offered, was this: They would pick out two or three things from the list of their daily needs. They would then promise not to take them any more. This seemed like a mighty fine idea. If they did not take anything on the list that they promised not to take, it would be all right to “borrow” the other things not on it. They reckoned that it was no harm to “borrow” the other things that they intended to return.
This highly refined bit of scholastic casuistry next presented them with the even more slippery problem of what to put on the list of things they would not “borrow” anymore. Drifting down the river, they talked all night to decide what provisions to strike from the list. They did not know whether to drop “the watermelons, or the cantelopes, or the mushmelons, or what.” But they had to decide. Near daylight, they resolved their moral dilemma with one of the finest bits of ethical reasoning I have ever seen. They got it all settled satisfactorily before the next “borrowing” foray into the local farmer’s fields: In a stroke of genius, Jim and Huck decided to drop “crabapples and p’simmons.”
It is amazing how much better a fellow feels when he knows that he has resolved a difficult moral problem that has been bothering his soul for some time. “We warn’t feeling right before that,” Huck laments. Every man has a conscience, even drifting on the Mississippi. “But it was all comfortable now.”
The results of a noble decision are not always so propitious as this one was. “Why was that?” Well, it was “because crabapples ain’t ever good, and the p’simmons wouldn’t be ripe for two or three months yet.” This is clearly moral reasoning at its best. It is the best possible solution in the best possible world to one of the world’s great ethical dilemmas. We take “no stock in dead people” and never touch “crabapples or p’simmons.”

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).