C Beyers — Bentham on Huckleberry Finn

Cody Byers/ Dr. Hoag/ English 223/ Bentham and Huck Finn Artifact Paper Number 1

***** https://storify.com/CodaciousB19/moral-calamity-in-huckleberry-finn

Within In The Principle of Utility Jeremy Bentham discusses his Utilitarian ethics. Bentham states that, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do” (351).  Bentham believes, in other words, that “…our natural inclinations to seek pleasure and to avoid pain are the very foundation of morality” (350), and whether happiness is provided or pain is inflicted determines if an individual acted ethically properly. Bentham and other “utilitarians” seek outcomes that produce happiness and diminish pain because, “happiness is simply the increase of pleasure or the decrease of pain” (350). Bentham would say for an act to have the right moral worth,the act “…tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness” and also, “prevents the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness” (351).According to bentham, an act that increased happiness and decreased pain it would be categorized as a utilitarian act.  When acts that inspire happiness are performed people are able to recognize, “the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne” (351). This shows that Bentham will deem an action right or wrong based on the outcome or results of the act. Benthnam also believes that the moral worth of the act can’t be determined without results because the act and its effects are exclusively tied to together <run-on. Throughout Bentham’s writings he uses what he deemed as hedonic calculus, a moral scale which helped determine how much pain and happiness and suffering would result from an action. Bentham believed, “The act of an individual is good if it adds to the sum total of his or her pleasures or diminishes the sum total of his or her pains; it is bad if it has opposite results” (350).  Bentham does acknowledge that the principle of utility is not always easily done or recognized, but, “An action then may be said to be conformable to the principle of utility, or, for shortness sake, to utility, (meaning with respect to the community at large) when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it” (351). In short, Bentham believes that an act that inspires happiness and diminishes pain, “…is right [and] should be done; at least that it is not wrong it should be done: that it is a right action; at least that it is not a wrong action” (352).


In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , Huck and Jim are on a raft going down the river on their way to Cairo, Illinois, so that Jim couldbecome a free man and escape slavery and oppression. Although Huck felt fine about his decision to help Jim escape at first, he be then began to battle with his conscience over the decisions he made.In this part of the book one can apply utilitarian ethics to the decisions Jim makes about his future, and to the battle Huck engaged in with his conscience because he was unsure if he did the “right” thing.

The moments of ethical worth begin as Jim starts feeling, “all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom” (Twain, 473). Because Jim is so close to freedom Huck starts to wrestle with his conscience, worrying that he may have done wrong for helping Jim to freedom. Huck says it, “scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, because I didn’t run Jim off from his rightful owner; but warn’t no use..” (473). Throughout the entirety of the story Huck would prove to be a person who lived by utilitarian ethics based off the rationality of his decision making, but in this moment Huck was struggling to live by the utilitarian ethics he practiced because he was second guessing himself.Huck could not  “throw off subjection to it” which would “serve to demonstrate and confirm” (Hoag, PP) that he does indeed operate by utilitarian ethics. He then begins his hedonistic calculations by factoring in those that would suffer from Jim’s freedom. Unsure that he has done the right thing, Huck asks himself, “What did that poor old woman [Miss. Watson] ever do to you…?” (473), and realized that by Jim being free and potentially hiring an abolitionist to steal his kids he could be potentially harming “a man I didn’t even know, a man that hadn’t ever done no harm to me” (473). Huck seems to be confused whether has caused more happiness or pain, but Bentham would argue that helping Jim to freedom would, “produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness” as well as, “prevents the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness” (350).Seeing as utilitarianism ultimately seeks outcomes that produce pleasure and decrease suffering Huck’s involvement in freeing Jim would have been considered morally right by Bentham, as would be Jim’s future plans of action to help his family. Huck still unsure that he had made the right decision would continue to think and ponder over his actions as he and Jim continued their journey down the river.

In the course of making their way down the river to Cairo, Illinois Huck decides that he will “paddle ashore at the first light and tell” (474). He convinces himself that this is what he needs to do because of the societal view of slavery at the time . Bentham would say telling on Jim would be immoral and would ask Huck to, “examine himself whether the principle he thinks he has found is really any separate intelligible principle; or whether it be not mere principle in words…” or were “…another person may be apt to call caprice?” (352).It is important to understand that the views and social norms that a society holds are not always correct. Bentham would want Huck to ask himself whether his sudden realization to tell on Jim is the right thing to do, or whether it is just a hasty idea forced into his head by unfortunate social norms. Huck was presented with the opportunity to do what he and society had Coerced him was right, but ultimately continued to tell more lies. In doing so he does the what Bentham would say is the right thing by freeing Jim. Bentham would approve of Huck’s lies because they would increase the happiness for Jim and potentially his family with cost of little suffering to others. Bentham would suggest that helping Jim to freedom would be, “conformable to the principle of utility, or, for shortness sake, to utility, (meaning with respect to the community at large) when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it” (351). Bentham would approve not only freeing Jim, but the freedom of all slaves because the amount of happiness that the action would inspire for slaves. The action would also decrease the suffering for hundreds of thousands of slaves and that would outweigh the suffering slave owners would have had from slave deprivation. Ultimately, Huck concludes, “what’s the use of learning to do right, when its trouble to do right, and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wage is the same… I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever comes handiest at the time” (475). Following this remark, Bentham would say that Huck has embraced utilitarian ethics because he realized that,“happiness is simply the increase of pleasure or the decrease of pain” (350), and  Huck would make his future decisions based on whichever supplied the most pleasure and caused the least amount of pain.

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