The Theme of Morality and Cruelty in the Conscience of Huckleberry Finn and from Cruelty to Goodness

April 13, 2021 by Essay Writer


Dictionary meanings of cruelty and morality do not fully define the two concepts at an empathetic level, as they deserve to be understood. The following essay is a reflection on the readings of Jonathan Bennett and Phillip Hallie and is meant to provide an alternative humane description of the two concepts while at the same time exposing the flaw in their dictionary meanings.

Cruelty, as understood by Phillip Hallie, refers to the act of knowingly subjugating a fellow human being in suffering. However, Hallie was more focused on a specific kind of cruelty known as institutionalized cruelty (Hallie, 1981). He defined it as cruelty perpetrated towards victims while at the same time minimizing the guilt and empathy of the torturer and killing the esteem of the victim such that he or she believes that they deserve the cruel treatment. He stated that the cruelty manifested itself in a relationship between the torturer and the victim, which has been happening for a long time with the torturer constantly humiliating his victim. He referred to this as the power relationship. Therefore, it can be concluded that the conventional meaning of cruelty is not sufficiently thorough in defining cruelty since it simply ties it to the infliction of pain.

Hallie defined the power relationship as an association between a torturer and a victim in which not only has the torturer convinced their conscience and the victim that the torture is warranted but also where the victim himself believes that he deserves the inhumane treatment. This power relationship is established when a party in the majority has more physical or economic over the other party. In such a scenario, when the stronger party despises the weaker party for being weak and the weaker party gives in to the sentiment, then the power relationship of cruelty develops (Hallie, 1981). According to Hallie, the power relationship ultimately leads to cruelty since human beings are not forgiving of weakness in the sense that, they may feel pity for the weak but their tolerance for the weak diminishes over time thus negating previously held pity and replacing it with apathy. Thereby, while a traditional definition of cruelty may revolve around disparities in physical strength, Hallie paints a more dynamic definition involving political and economic power disparities.

The Le Chambon village, according to Hallie, serves to demonstrate unambiguous goodness during the Second World War. According to Hallie, the villages rescued about six thousand children from Nazi concentration camps and cared for them in their homes against the directives of the German and French governments who sent soldiers to thwart their noble cause. Thereby, Hallie states that the opposite of cruelty is hospitality, as the residents of Le Chambon had demonstrated. Hallie defines hospitality as kind treatment that embodies an efficacious and unsentimental kind of love. He stated that it was not just the use of power to end cruelty, but in the sharing of that power so as to include the victim in the partaking of whatever little that the host has. He states that the Chambonians embodied that kind of hospitality in their actions (Hallie, 1981).

Jonathan Bennett defines bad morality as the type of morality that is in dissonance with a holder’s conscience and whose principles he deeply disapproves. In the above description, morality references the principles that one follows to provide him a sense of right or wrong (Bennett, 1974). Conscience on the other hand refers to the feeling in one’s consciousness that determine if an action taken is good or bad. In presenting a case where the issue of morality is rife, Bennett uses that story of Huckleberry Finn by mark twain. Its main significance in the book is to show how sympathy and morality are interconnected. He showed, in choosing sympathy over one’s morality, that Finn did the good thing and that morality can be wrong if it conflicts with one’s conscience.

Bennett compares the morality of Himmler to Edward’s and concludes that Edward’s is worse. However, I am of the opinion that Himmler’s morality is of a worse variety when compared to Edward’s. This is because Himmler’s morality conflicts sympathy for other human beings. This is because Edward’s morality might not always lead to cruelty. This is because one is capable of doing something good in respect to a correct and rational moral principle even if one is apathetic and emotionless (Bennett, 1974). Sympathy is therefore a non-issue if one seeks to have a good morality since one can act against it. Even though Bennett believes that intentions have a greater bearing than actions when considering the consequences of morality, I am of a different stance. I believe that men’s morality should be judged upon their actions and not the intentions behind them. This is because all examples that history serves us about times where immorality happened among people, it pays precedence to the cruel things people did to each other and not to what they thought about each other.


While dictionary definitions of morality and cruelty have given us conventional meanings, as Bennett and Hallie demonstrate, there is more to the two concepts. Institutionalized cruelty is worse that cruelty as a result of inflicting pain. While there is a relation between sympathy and morality, sympathy is not a prerequisite for the presence of morality. This is because paying credence to sympathy while judging morality can produce three examples of bad morality as demonstrated by Bennett.

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