Category Archives: Morality

The Revaluation of Morals


When Huck Finn does what he thinks is wrong—helping a slave to escape his master and gain his freedom and deprive his master of her property—Huck decides he must be wicked, because to do “the right thing” is the wrong thing. He turns morality on its head. In doing so, Huck helps to turn civilization on its head too.


Hopefully this can help all of us to think better by making a “long think” about what is right and wrong. Is it what we were taught in Sunday school? Is it what our parents taught us? Or our friends? Or our betters? Or is it something we can discern for ourselves? Are Indigenous children slovenly brutes as many of us were taught? Do Jews really smell as many were told? What is respectable? What is civilized?  Don’t just believe what we are told. We must look for ourselves. We must give it a “long think.” We must be willing, if necessary, to turn the world on its heads even if means risking a place called hell.


Azar Nafisi said this is what she tried to teach her students when she was a professor,  in Iran, where they were indoctrinated from birth to believe what the Imams and parents told them. Who can do this in America? Who can do this in Canada? In her view, gleaned from Twain and other writers, “I tried to share with my students in Tehran , explaining to them that moral choice comes from a sound heart and from a constant questioning of the world and of oneself and that it is just as difficult , if not more so in society that appears to give you every freedom.


I think it comes from starting with fellow feeling and then a long think where all the relevant facts must be ascertained and then weighed.


I remember one time having a serious discussion with a young lawyer on an issue of morality.  His argument against what I said consisted of saying, “Well this is what I learned at home.”  It is all well and good to be taught at home. We all needed parents to do that as we could not have survived without their help. But when we become adults, we have to learn to think for ourselves too. Mark Twain once said elsewhere that “education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.” And as much as we loved our parents and respected their viewpoint they were not always right. Just as our children won’t think we were always right.  Thank goodness for that.


The same goes for teachers. I know I have learned a lot from good teachers. But Friedrich Nietzsche that great German philosopher, said “One repays a teacher badly if one always remains a pupil.”


Azar Nafisi said this source of wisdom was “the rebellious heart that beats to its own rhythm.” What we really need, in addition to good parents and good teachers is critical thinking combined with fellow feeling. This is what I have gleaned from one of my old philosophy professors. I am eternally grateful to him for that.



Friendship or Hell?


I have come to the conclusion that Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is my favorite novel. It is the classic of classics. Why is that?  What makes it so great? I think it so great because explores, as no one else has done as well, the issue of freedom. Above all it explores the freedom to think for oneself. So many people extoll the virtues of freedom particularly in the US and Canada. But I find they mostly have a very shallow notion of what freedom is all about. Not so with Twain. He knew what ultimate freedom is all about.

The novel Huckleberry Finn challenges all authority. None are sacred. Particularly the sacred is not sacred. Freedom from authority is the real freedom.

Huck Finn’s journey with Jim down the Mississippi River was a journey towards knowledge. It was an education. Huck has to learn, and even more important, he has to unlearn. As Nafisi said, he was on a trip in which Huck is “countering the lessons of Sunday school.”

The novel challenges the morality of slavery, but it actually goes much farther than that. The trip to the dangerous south asks a more fundamental question: What can you do when your moral code lets you down?  That is what Huck wrestles with throughout the novel.

The central question Huck must deal with is how can he help his friend Jim by finding freedom when he “knows” that is wrong. In fact, Huck “knows” that is a sin to help a slave to freedom. That is what he learned in Sunday School and from Aunt Sally, Miss Watson, and the Widow Douglas.  But he must unlearn that. As Huck says, “I couldn’t get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way.” When Huck is fighting with his conscience he comes across slave hunters and resolves to deliver Jim to them, because it is the right thing to do, but as hard as he tries to do the right thing he cannot give up his friend. He thinks he is not man enough to do what he “should” do.

When Huck has difficult decisions to make he always has “a long think.” That is a good practice. He thinks slowly and critically. But he thinks. As he says to himself, and of course, us, “The more I studied about this the more my conscience was grinding me, and the more wicked and lowdown and ornery I got to feeling.”  If he had gone to Sunday School as he should have, he would have learned that “people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.” He even tries to pray but his “heart  wasn’t right.” Again he decides to do the “right thing” and give up Jim by writing to Miss Watson. As soon as he rights the letter he feels much better. His conscience is finally clear. He feels “good  and all washed clean of sin for the first time I even felt in my life and I knowed I could pray now.” But even then he continues to think and that is his undoing. He think too much and decides he will go against everything he has ever been taught. It is extremely difficult to do.

And then Huck considers the reality of Jim. He continues to think through the day after he wrote the letter to Miss Watson. In a remarkable statement that shows the power of genuine connection compared to the disrupted connection of a corrupt ideology, Huck says this:

“I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moon time, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow sometimes I couldn’t seem to strike no place to harden me against him, but only the other kind.  I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was; when I come back out of the fog; and when come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I truck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in then the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look  and see that paper [the letter he wrote to Miss Watson but had not yet sent, that would return Jim to slavery].

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling because I’d got to decide forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then I’ll go to hell—and tore it up.”


I think Twain is saying if you look at the real person, rather than the person you expect to see through the lens of your religion, or politics, or ideology then you can see the real person. Notice too how Huck and Jim have become “we.”  They are connected by a deep sense of fellow feeling. That is what real morality, and real art, and real religion are all about. They are not about ideology or dogma.

Has there ever been a greater friendship in all of literature than this? Has there ever been a greater friendship in the whole world than this?  Huck was prepared to do what he believed was wrong because that is what he was taught, and that is what everybody did, in order to save his friend, even though it meant going to hell?

That is what ultimate freedom is all about!



 Hannah Arendt also wrote a book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann. She used that famous expression “the banality of evil” to describe him and his kind.  He was a man who facilitated horrid acts of violence against the Jews.  But Arendt said what set him apart was his “thoughtlessness.” To her he looked and acted like a boring accountant.

She had been shocked by how glib he was in court. He talked about exterminating millions of Jews as if it was nothing. What was there for him to admit to, he asked. He suggested, as did Himmler, that they could be reconciled with the Jews.  They had a sense of elation when they considered this possibility. But the feelings were not real. It was, in Arendt’s phrase, “an outrageous cliché.”  She said, “it was a self-fabricated stock phrase, as devoid of reality as those clichés by which people had lived for twelve years.”  As Carol Brightman said, “Clichés and conventional sentiments functioned as armor blocking the consciousness of the accused at just those painful junctures where painful intrusions of reality threatened.” These are some of the enemies of thought. In fact, during the trial Arendt had noticed how Eichmann was not perturbed by his starling contradictions. He was certainly not engaged in thinking. He was not stupid. He was just completely thoughtless.

Arendt was stunned that such horrific crimes could be committed without consciousness. She said she disagreed with Kant, who, according to her believed that stupidity was caused by a wicked heart. She contended instead that “absence of thought is not stupidity, it can be found in highly intelligent people, and a wicked heart is not its cause, it is probably the other way around, that wickedness may be caused by absence of thought.”

According to her teaching assistant Kohn, Arendt believed, as I believe, that “thinking conditions people to resist evildoing.”  Most ethicists do not accept this, but I find it profoundly compelling. I believe, like the American novelist Henry James, that ethics is high reason. Where there is no reason there is no ethics. this is what the sleep of reason is all about.

Arendt was clear when she said that everyone could think. Of course, that does not mean that everyone will think. You didn’t have to have an education to think. She was not elitist.

Arendt got mad when Jews accused her of being self-hating and anti-Jewish as a result of her book on Eichmann. She said that all she wanted to do was to think about what he had done. She wanted to understand him and that was not the same as forgiving him or being soft on the Nazis. It was her job as a philosopher to think about these things. And she thought that was very important. In the film about her, Arendt summed up her thinking this way,

“Trying to understand is not the same as forgiveness. It is my responsibility to try to understand. It is the responsibility of anyone who tries to put pen to paper on this subject. Since Socrates and Plato we have understood thinking to be a silent dialogue between me and myself. In refusing to be a person Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think. And consequently he was no longer capable of making moral judgments. This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which one had never seen before. It is true I have considered these questions in a philosophical way. The manifestation of the mind of thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right from wrong; beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.  ”


For Hannah Arendt, what thinking meant was to train the mind to go wandering.  I love that concept. It brings me back to my concept of meandering.  I love to meander–physically and mentally. That is the essence of free thinking (and there is really no other kind) to meander through thoughts without regard to preconceived ideas, ideologies, or prejudices. Only the free mind can think. I said that. But that is a concept directly inspired by Arendt.

Arendt’s first major book was On the Origins of Totalitarianism. She thought there was something new or modern about totalitarianism. It was not like anything we had seen before. It presented profound change from everything that preceded it. It was much more than tyranny or dictatorship. It cut at individual will. It cut at our individual identity. In fact, according to one of Arendt’s most profound insights, totalitarianism cuts at our capacity to think.

As always, I ask myself how this is relevant to our times. There are not many totalitarian regimes around right now, but there are movements—various forms of populist movements—that tend in the same direction. I think often of the American near fascists—i.e. the Trumpsters, the insurrectionists on Capitol Hill that were looking to hang Mike Pence only because their leader told them that he had been betrayed by Pence.  That was enough to set off ordinary people looking to hang the vice-president of their country! Had they lost the capacity to think? To me it seemed that way.

Blessed Hesed


On Amanour & Co. Cornel West talked some more about the Hebrew concept of hesed.

He started by talking about the great American novelist Henry James who wrote a letter on January 12, 1901 to Robert Louis Stevenson in which he said, he wanted no theory that is too kind  us or that cheats us out of seeing. Every theory has a certain limitedness and narrowness, but the goal is to broaden what we see. We do not want to be short-sighted or myopic. West says the same applies to feeling more deeply.  Then we hopefully can avoid indifference.

West quoted the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said, “Indifference to evil is more evil than evil itself.”  The Rabbi said it was more dangerous more universal, and more contagious than evil. Then, according to West, the next step is to act more courageously.  It certainly seems like those who are indifferent to suffering are in fact almost numberless. They have no interest in confronting issues of inequity, injustice, poverty, oppression, or the like. They just want to get to their TV shows, or their Facebook feed, or their mindless chatter. I don’t know if it is the most evil thing, but it is surely evil when people are indifferent to suffering.  According to West, If they don’t care about the suffering of others they are simply not fully human.

Even when black leaders are the best of who they are, there are limitations, he admitted. That’s why “democracy itself is the proximate solution to insoluble problems.” It’s the best we can do for now. As he added,

“You are never going to get away with the hatred and insecurity and the anxiety that go hand in hand with who we are as human beings, but you can have mechanisms of accountability vis-à-vis the most vulnerable. That’s democracy. That’s why voices from below can merge to try to shape the destiny of a nation.”


When West speaks of love, he means it in the biblical sense of the prophets. As Jeff Sharlet explained,   “Hesed,” he tells me one evening in Princeton, the Hebrew word for “lovingkindness.” “Steadfast commitment to the wellbeing of others, especially the least of these,” West says. That demands a lot of love, but West doesn’t stop there. “Justice is what love looks like in public.” For him, justice is not vengeance but fairness; the respect he believes should be accorded every soul. “And democracy,” he continues, “is what justice looks like in practice.”

I find it interesting how West takes an Old Testament concept and infuses it with modern politics.  He uses the idea to advocate for a  a society where there is justice—a vast, public, and steadfast lovingkindness—for all. That is where West’s religious quest brought him. It brought him to a good place.


Religion and Morality

Dostoevsky famously had a character of his claim, in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, that if there is no god then all is permitted. I have actually argued, that if there is a god then all is permitted. More on that another time. Is Dostoevsky right? Are religion and morality that closely tied together?

According to Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, groupishness (the 10% bee in us compared to the 90% chimp in us) is what has allowed humans to go from selfishness to civilization. Relying on Emile Durkheim, Haidt says that “what is moral is everything that is a source of solidarity, everything that forces man to…regulate his actions by something other than…his own egoism.”

I find this very interesting because this is more or less what I have always said religion is. Religion or morality, on this view, is what connects us to others or to the world.

Haidt also offered an interesting definition of moral systems. He said,

“Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.”

That is a mouthful and I am not sure what I think of it. It’s a functional definition so it’s a bit outside my comfort zone. I just think that Haidt had some very interesting things to say about religion and morality, and he made me think. That’s a good thing.

Haidt does not say whether supernatural beings exist or not. He believes such ideas may have evolved with humans as they evolved. He does say however, that those groups who believed in such agents and used such beliefs in building moral and cohesive societies lasted and prospered. They used such ideas to elicit sacrifices and commitment from their members and that helped them to suppress cheating and increase trustworthiness and that helped them in their projects. Groups that had gods who promoted cooperation responded to those gods and were helped to rise to the challenges they faced.

In that sense Haidt says religion is a team sport. As he said:

“We humans have an extraordinary ability to care about things beyond ourselves, to circle around those things with other people, and in the process to bind ourselves into teams that can pursue larger projects. That’s what religion is all about.”

That is also what morality is all about. Religion has not always been about those things. Often religion has been an instrument of division not cooperation. Then religion is shorn of what makes it sacred. It is no longer religion at all.

Finally, this is what politics should be about as well. Clearly, currently that is not the case in much of the world. Politics is riven by partisanship instead. Everywhere you look people are driven apart by politics. That’s a pity. Together we could accomplish so much. Much more than we could on our own. As every coach knows, it’s teams that succeed, not individuals.