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Is There Such a Thing as the Female Conscience?


ISSUE:  Fall 2012

Surely the most famous crisis of conscience in American letters is the battle of young Huckleberry Finn with his shaggy hold on right and wrong. Having befriended the runaway slave in Mark Twain’s classic, Huck struggles: Should he turn in Nigger Jim? Huck has run afoul of the laws of man and God: He is on the lam with a slave who has bolted. In this, he has violated both the law of the land and his individual, gnawing conscience. His sense of duty tells him to reveal Nigger Jim’s whereabouts to the authorities so that the slave can be captured and restored to his rightful owner. But Huck is tormented. He wants to do the unthinkable; he wants to break the laws of God and man and help Jim in his journey to freedom. After conjuring with himself, Huck finally makes the decision to go against social norms and accept the penalty. “All right, then, I’ll go to hell …” It’s a powerful passage precisely because it challenges and upholds our reliance on individual conscience as the sure guide to moral behavior.

In parsing Huck’s dilemma, twin perils are involved. The first is that an individual, echoing society’s compacts, can be in error, complicit with evil. If there is no distance between private and public conscience, we will go along to get along: for proof, look no further than the Holocaust, Pol Pot, American slavery, the Spanish Inquisition. The second peril is that we may find it difficult to decide whether our own conscience, especially if it cuts against society’s grain, is truly right or wrong. In Huck’s case, there was a higher law to which he could appeal: his faith. A reliance on faith was not unusual: Religion drove the vast majority of abolitionists. A collective of individual consciences—which is what religion is—was suddenly asking: Why would someone go to hell for doing the right thing? Obviously, someone should not. Huck becomes a moral hero of sorts because, although he thinks hell will be his fate, he persists in doing the right thing anyway. It accounts for the power of Twain’s narrative.

There is a precedence to this. In the history of Western thought, it was the Protestant Reformation that made conscience the arbiter of moral behavior. The individual’s conscience had been a theme well before the sixteenth century, of course, but the Protestant Reformers, in rejecting the mediating role of Church and priests, stressed a personal bond between God and the individual believer. A well-formed conscience was required to maintain a Christian society.

Given that America was overwhelmingly Protestant, the stress on individual conscience became ubiquitous. American children were taught to trust their inner voices, consult their sense of right and wrong, follow their consciences. Huck’s story unsettles because Huck’s moral universe has been formed within the framework of a slave-holding society, and that society is hardly credible: It has twisted Scripture to its own ends. It has forced injustice into law. Over time, American education deepened the inculcation of Protestant norms. Our great reliance on conscience assumed that the individual would understand what was right and wrong at any given point in his or her life. In other words, there might be a discrepancy—even a gulf—between our individual conscience and the wider law. But Huck illustrates just how difficult it is to disentangle the two. The only way out that he can see is to condemn himself to hell for an egregious violation: all right, then, he says, I’ll go to hell.

***

The long road to Huck’s little raft on the Mississippi and his own crisis of conscience had begun many centuries before. The Greeks wouldn’t have called it conscience; to them it was virtue and virtue-grounded action. Huck’s story illustrates one of a cluster of questions and conundrums bequeathed to us by the Greeks. The foundational divide between moral law and virtue is usually cast in Greek terms as “the universal” vs. “the particular.” Is moral law the same everywhere? Yes, say the universalists. What we call virtue in Sparta is also virtue in Athens. If murder is wrong in one city, it is wrong in all. To universalists, there can be no separate morality for each and every culture, creating thereby a world in which we are strangers to one another, a world in which moral evaluations are turned upside down as we move from place to place.

Those who defend the other side of the debate—the particular—argue strong and moderate versions. The strong holds that there is no universal language of moral virtue, no general moral truth. There is only the code of virtue embedded in our culture—in our own “language game,” as twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein later put it. Wittgenstein famously argued that the limits of his language were the limits of his world. A weaker version of his thesis holds that, while there may not be a bright line between moral universals and particulars, there can be major distinctions between virtuous and non-virtuous behavior, and what cultures consider right or wrong.

Philosophers never truly settled this matter to anyone’s satisfaction. Which is why it goes unresolved to this day. It surfaces most dramatically in times of violent cultural encounter. Thus, there are those who would defend al Qaeda terrorism on the grounds that, within Osama bin Laden’s frame of reference, killing as many enemy non-combatants as possible, including women and children, is the “right thing to do.” In carrying out his violent quest, as the argument goes, bin Laden was only defending his religious convictions.

I recall occasions post-9/11 when I was challenged on this issue in specifically gendered terms. The questions went something like this: What if they (Arab women) don’t even have the words for gender equality that we take for granted? If the faith demands that a woman wear a burqa, how can we say that her equality is violated when a man requires her to do so? Or beats her with a stick should she unwittingly display a bit of ankle? We may not like it, but it is the way the culture works. These were for me rather surprising questions to be put by young American university students in an age of gender parity. But perhaps, I mused, it isn’t so odd after all if we trace the debate from ancient to present and think through the ways our forebears determined all questions of truth, justice, and moral conscience.

We need to add one more ingredient to this already fulsome mix—namely, whether the moral law we set for ourselves was conceived along lines of what we now refer to routinely as race, gender, ethnicity, or religion. The Greeks distinguished between those who were authentically Greek and those who were barbaroi, barbarians. Among the authentically Greek, a further internal distinction was made, and it was by gender. Are men and women identical when it comes to moral law? Can women know the truth of the Forms (Plato’s question) as men of merit can?

Furthermore, if men and women play different social roles based on their respective natures, how do we calibrate their moral standing? How can we judge where the greatest moral good is to be found? Are men, on average, more capable than women of understanding and internalizing universal standards of Truth and Virtue? Plato’s argument cannot be unpacked in detail here but, to reduce it to its simplest form, he held that men were, by nature, more likely to be fit subjects for the contemplative life, a way of life made possible within the polis or city.

In The Republic, Plato’s utopian picture of the ideal if not perfect city—those who rise to the heights in which truth is contemplated—are overwhelmingly male and form a class he calls “the guardians.” What sort of society was good, just, and worthy of serving as a template of human virtue? Plato’s formula was simple: A just man can exist without a just city, but a just city cannot exist without at least a few just men. Plato’s guardians were responsible for society’s highest functions; as public, spirited, virtuous men, they would rule for the common good.

As it turns out, Plato made room for women: a few could get in on the act. But, according to him, it would be difficult. Why? Because women were oriented to the particular, to an ethic circumscribed by the household. Such citizens would not be capable of achieving the necessary virtue. They would not easily surrender themselves to the unconditional bond between individual and state that Plato believed necessary to render the polis as one. It follows that the few women who made it into the guardian class would be mated with the boldest and bravest male guardians.

But those women were forbidden from knowing their own infants. When a guardian woman gave birth, her child was taken at once to a special section of the city. There, minders cared for the young. When a child needed to nurse, he or she was handed randomly to a lactating female. Why all these wrenchings? In addition to the hope that breeding between superior males and females would continue to perpetuate an aristocracy of the best and the brightest, it was held that private homes, sexual attachments, and dedication to personal aims would undermine a citizen’s allegiance to the city. Plato cried: “Have we any greater evil for a city than what splits it and makes it many instead of one? Or a greater good than what binds it together?”

And so, the gauntlet was thrown. Every subsequent dispute or dialogue about gender and virtue and conscience owes something to these early formulations. In them, women are a divisive force in the polis. Their devotion to their children and their petty, private worlds limits their moral imaginations and knowledge. Mind you, we need women as we need children to be born. But in the context of early Greek philosophy, women were not trustworthy moral beings. This underlying perception set the basis for all subsequent debates about women and their political and social roles, including their niche in what one might call the “moral economy.” Plato considered them civically unreliable in light of their attachment to narrow, family loves. Does the same hold for that other titan of Greek philosophy, Aristotle? Yes, but this wants a bit of explaining. Aristotle ranks action, the vita activa, above all other human enterprise. In his estimation, two classes of people are cut off from the vita activa: women and slaves.

So it was that the Greek philosophers consigned women to a world of lesser virtue, for the oikos, or household, can never rise to universal moral truths. The home is too mired in the realm of biology and reproduction—an indispensable realm, surely, but limited. Women, slaves, and laborers are “necessary conditions” of the state. Men, by contrast, are integral. In such ways was the class or category “woman” deemed inferior to the class or category “man.” From that premise the rest was straightforward: Women are to be barred from citizenship and an active participation in the polis. They cannot be judged in the same way as a free male. And so, despite disagreements on the moral life, Plato and Aristotle held hands on the gender question—with exceptions here and there. That Plato was willing to admit a few women into his guardian class does little to remedy his overall view of the morally limited family and the private life that the overwhelming majority of women serve.

***

This dispute about female conscience was repeated again and again in Western philosophy over the centuries, even as Christianity triumphed and Scripture declared that men and women were moral equals, that God loved all His creatures alike. It’s worth noting that Christianity also held that women were not deficient in the most vital of Christian virtues: love and charity. But that did not mean women were deemed capable of serving universal truths in the way of men. The spirit of the age was too firmly oriented otherwise. Feminism itself fell victim to gendered categories laid down many centuries before. Indeed, when it came to virtue, even thinkers whose overriding concerns differed dramatically from the Greeks’ were unable to shake the stranglehold of their forefathers’ assumptions about gender.

One area in which questions of gender became carved in stone was that of women and war. We know that the Greek city’s primary task was fighting. Attaining some measure of justice within the polis was considered a vital good, but all Greek societies, without exception, were prepared to do battle and defend themselves by force of arms. I called it “armed civic virtue” in my 1987 book, Women and War. Men fought as citizens of the state. Women, on the other hand, “defended” as virtuous figures, upholding the ethical good and the household—a lesser moral domain than the city, but a moral universe nonetheless.

Here one might surmise that Christianity would be dubious about, even hostile to, the notion that a state’s highest good should be realized in warfare, or that a free city’s aspirations for the universal can be proved in battle. Many Christians found such views bone-chilling, given the centrality of non-violence in Christ’s message. The faith occasioned eloquent, lyrical, at times sentimental outpourings about the beauty and good of peace.

The beauty of peace and love took iconographic form in the image of the Madonna and child. A mother’s unconditional devotion was the Christian apogee of love. A good mother, deep down, dreads the idea of war because it wrenches away all that is good, as Jesus was wrenched from those he loved to suffer the most brutal of deaths. The mater dolorosa is a figure dramatically at odds with the ancient Spartan ideal, in which a mother bears children so that they might die for the city. The Spartan mother raises fierce sons and daughters whose loyalties are undivided, unquestioned. That powerful Spartan image was eventually resurrected by “civic republicans,” including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who saw the female citizen as a Spartan mother. Very different indeed is the grieving mother: she who prays, waits, and is the living emblem of familial devotion.

Although the grieving mother continued to be the dominant female image for the faithful, Christian philosophical theology couldn’t help but inject some of the old Aristotelian notions of vita activa—the active, engaged life—into its writ, thus preventing any true parity between a “just warrior” and a “mater dolorosa.” As it happened, Aristotle’s works on politics and ethics were not available in the West until the thirteenth century, the so-called High Middle Ages. St. Thomas Aquinas, who had put himself squarely on the side of Aristotelian philosophy, soon found himself twisted into knots to argue on behalf of women’s moral equality—to be loyal to the fundamental precepts of his faith—even as he struggled to make that faith square with Aristotle’s insistence that women are, biologically, lesser beings. Aquinas couldn’t accept the “lesser being” notion in crude form, of course, because it would mean that God had made a mistake. No. Women were what they were meant to be: incompletely realized, like half-baked cakes. God wanted them that way. God also had intended different roles for males and females, though they were equal in their capacity to love and serve God.

And so, whether Spartan or Christian, the truth amounted to the same thing: a mother was an ethically limited human being, assigned to the household. There seemed to be no way out of the gender trap. In the early nineteenth century, the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegel depicted the moral life in strictly gendered terms: For him, it was the male child in whom a universal moral life was possible; and, so, it was incumbent on the male to discard family ties. A man had to wrench himself away if he was to realize the highest ideals of state, especially during wartime when self-interest was anathema and the collective was called to dominate.

There it was. Once again, the sacred city was called to struggle against woman if man was to supersede her limitations and rise to a higher sphere. Looking ahead to the twentieth century, one finds Sigmund Freud arguing something similar in Civilization and Its Discontents, when he claims that the tight love dyad between husband and wife prevents the full development of the male that is so necessary for sustaining civilization. As the age-old argument went: Women would always defend the domestic, the hearth, the particular, the child. It was their essential and vital task. Men, on the other hand, should not be asked to deploy energy to the domestic, or else nothing would be left for the building of civilization and culture. Males and females were capable of acting in accordance to moral law, to be sure, but women were culturally disposed to be more hostile to the polity, to all that a civilization demanded of a husband, father, and son.

To be sure, Hegel was not the only philosopher arguing for gender differences as civilization entered modernity. Later in the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill held that those differences were large, and yet he mounted a vigorous argument for male and female egalitarianism. Mill extolled, above everything else, Reason; and he added that Reason speaks with one voice everywhere—though the speaker be male or female. According to Mill, there were those who, through ignorance, might not respond to Reason’s call, but they would be brought to speed over time, and won to the tide of progress.

And so, Mill had clarified something: According to him, it was impossible to describe women with any accuracy, given that subjugation had made their natures artificial. Mill advocated changes, including granting women a franchise, allowing them to hold property and enter careers, so that the sexes might arrive at a shared recognition of the moral law and finally understand, as a society, the truth about male and female “natures.” According to Mill, employing Reason would help us put male-female relations in the context of justice. And yet, for all that ratiocination, Mill couldn’t go the full distance. He couldn’t help but speculate that certain sensibilities exhibited by women couldn’t be avoided, given centuries of oppression. Nevertheless, he had done something important: He had made it clear that there would be no understanding on this score until men and women were put on equal footing.

Mill did something else: He severed a man’s moral life from conscience, family, and faith. Indeed, to Mill, the family was something of a horror, and religion was, if anything, diabolical, as it tended to favor Instinct over Reason—and Instinct was very possibly the worst part of human nature. For Mill, the law was all: and, indeed, legal changes would go on to chart a new gendered world. But much would be left blank: How children become moral beings; who is assigned responsibility for their nurture. Perhaps we should have expected this, given Mill’s pedigree. In Mill’s world, children could always be turned over to nurses, nannies, and tutors.

***

How did feminism deal with this mixed legacy? Did women consider themselves men’s equals as citizen-warriors? Or did women know they were men’s equals precisely because they embodied ideals rarely found in the male counterpart? Does difference mean that a male and a female live in irreconcilable moral universes and will always find it difficult to agree? Or is the female conscience, if one assumes such exists, complementary to the male’s (and vice versa), and the two together make up a coherent moral whole? On these questions, nineteenth century feminists—leaders of the woman suffrage movement—were torn. Some stressed universality, in which men’s and women’s goals were essentially the same. Others urged a strong pitch for women’s difference, if not moral superiority. There were feminist thinkers and rhetoricians who argued both theses with scant regard for rigorous consistency.

Take, for example, the political theory and rhetoric of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the leading philosopher of the American suffrage movement. It’s worth remembering that women arguing for suffrage took different tacks. One argument stressed the natural differences between male and female, a separate-but-equal narrative that saw no injustice in assigning women to the family circle. This notion that women were not only men’s moral equals, but better than men, is one many feminists shared with anti-Suffragists. The anti-Suffragists went on to ask: Why degrade women by throwing them into the pit of politics when, as “queens of home and heart,” they are above the fray?

Suffrage advocates like Stanton made a powerful pitch for the female conscience as equal to that of the male. But they added a second strand of argument that took anti-suffrage assumptions and turned them upside down: Yes, man was evil and had made something nasty out of politics and society, but a “purified” politics was possible in female hands. This was proof (or so went the argument) that women are purer, more virtuous than men. Just look at the way women have ennobled the private sphere: They have done so precisely because they have focused on the home, the neighborhood, the family. What needed to be done, therefore, was to bring private morality into the public sphere by drawing women into political life. Women would be emancipated and politics would be transformed in one fell swoop. At times, Stanton’s argument for female moral superiority grew vehement. Here is a sample of Stanton in full, feisty flight:

The male element is a destructive force, stern, selfish, aggrandizing, loving war, violence, conquest, acquisition, breeding in the material and moral world alike discord, disorder, disease, and death. See what a record of blood and cruelty the pages of history reveal! Through what slavery, slaughter, and sacrifice, through what inquisitions and imprisonments, pains and persecutions, black codes and gloomy creeds, the soul of humanity has struggled for the centuries, while mercy has veiled her face and all hearts have been dead alike to love and hope! The male element has held high carnival thus far, it has fairly run riot from the beginning, overpowering the feminine element everywhere, crushing out all the diviner qualities in human nature, until we know but little of true manhood and womanhood, of the latter comparatively nothing, for it has scarce been recognized as a power until within the last century… . The need of this hour is not territory, gold mines, railroads, or specie payments, but a new evangel of womanhood, to exalt purity, virtue, morality, true religion, to lift man up into the higher realms of thought and action.

The image projected here is obvious. Stanton holds that the male element—destructive and selfish—is in control. The female element—loving and virtuous—is enslaved and intimidated. If social chaos is to be prevented, the balance must be tipped toward the feminine. As suffrage progressed, women increasingly proclaimed their purity of mind and the superiority of the female conscience. They flatly contended that Christ himself had received his “sweet, tender, suffering humanity—wholly from woman.” Women, consequently, “have a greater share in Him than men can have.” If elected to public office, women “might far more effectively guard the morals of society, and the sanitary conditions of our cities.” There were Suffragists who claimed that giving the vote to women would not cure all of society’s ills, but that governments answering to women would be more likely to conserve life and preserve morals.

The theme of women as life-givers and men as life-takers was hardly new, and yet new life was breathed into it by those who began to campaign for women’s equality on the grounds of female difference. Not for them the universalist call for male-female parity with its assumptions of sameness. They saw female difference as not just a “private virtue” but a cure-all for public ills. Because Suffragists assumed that moral high-mindedness was almost exclusively a female trait, they could only treat obliquely, or not at all, the argument that moving into public life would compel women to change habits, attitudes, and standards. No, they insisted, women would remain guileless throughout. Once the private had become public, so to speak, politics in the old sense would crumble.

Granting women the vote did not invite a sudden, salutary improvement of social and political life across the board. To load the entire burden of social change onto the female conscience was an impossible bargain. More modest, and more plausible, arguments were also put forward at the time, laying out an account of how women acquired a different conscience or moral sensibility in the first place. The weakness in many suffrage efforts was that they didn’t do this, they didn’t present a narrative: They refused to locate a woman’s moral life in nature—or anywhere else, for that matter. Often the question of why women should be given the vote was bypassed altogether in favor of paeans to woman’s moral superiority.

Feminists feared that responding to the “formation” question—that is, how women had acquired their collective conscience—was a trap. If they insisted that their moral code lay in nature, that it was a given, the comeback would be that it was also a given that nature had suited them to the vitally important task of child rearing: that biology came first and all else was secondary. If, on the other hand, they claimed that the environment, or external features, had shaped women’s character and virtue, the retort would be: Then why change things? Since they themselves were admitting that women’s superiority had arisen from a woman’s special sphere, the domestic.

Poised on the horns of this dilemma, feminist thinkers lurched back and forth. Consider, for example, a relatively recent case: the debate in the 1970s and 1980s concerning women in the US military. The position taken by the National Organization for Women (NOW) held that full entry into the military alone signaled civic equality for women. NOW buttresses the idea of what I call “armed civic virtue,” following upon the republican (and Greek) notions of earlier centuries. First-class citizenship in a republic requires the right to fight. If women are denied entry into the military on all levels, they may suffer “devastating long-term psychological and political repercussions.”

To many feminists, this view of military inclusion is, and was, anathema. Feminism should stand for the very opposite, was their claim. Women should maintain an anti-war stance and not allow themselves to be co-opted into the “machine.” They should put forward the protective, caring mother-child relationship as the ideal for all human relationships. They should be cautious about relinquishing the moral edge that millennia of mothering afforded them. Sara Ruddick, a feminist philosopher, offered a sophisticated version of this argument when she described what she called “maternal thinking”—a wisdom that emerges from a particular milieu, the family, and bears within it a particular worldview of human good and virtue. Part of maternal thinking is the embrace of non-violent modes of conflict resolution. Features include paying attention in a certain way that mothers do, guiding, holding, nurturing. There are, to be sure, limits to this way of thinking. But all epistemologies have their limits. When asked to further explain her views—was her maternalist-female epistemology, for instance, derived from nature or externally driven?—Ruddick dodged the question. She rejected the notion that nature had anything to do with her point of view; men, too, could become maternal thinkers.

By contrast, there was a crude “maternalist” view that women were born nurturers; that women “innately understand conflict resolution,” given their anatomies and hormonal constitutions and having been “born with strong feelings for nurturing.” Men, on the other hand, having an excess of androgen, are more aggressive and given to play with deadly toys.

We all know that there is something in this: that our bodies do bear implications for how we live and think. But to reduce complex social structures and moral lives to hormones and uteruses is not persuasive, to put it mildly. Certainly the maternal experience—the up-close-and-personal child rearing, the being at the center of a circle of care or contention at any given moment—cannot be replicated precisely outside the unique social organization of the family. We also know that men become more “maternal” once they become fathers and develop serious, ongoing contact with their children: The moral and ethical distinctions between men and women can begin to blur.

***

One of the most moving evocations of the female dilemma can be found in Nobel Prize winner Jane Addams’s The Long Road of Woman’s Memory. In her study of the uprootings, dislocations, and cruelties attendant upon late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American life—the wave upon wave of desperate immigrants who crowded into this country’s tenements by the hundreds of thousands—Addams was led to reflect upon civilization itself. Her own life experience had convinced her that the past is always present in human cultures: In each of us, there is an ongoing echo of the entire historic movement of civilization.

Addams rejected the moral dualism of a strict male-female divide: man as odious ravager, damaged goods; woman as graced with generosity, sympathy, and tenderness. It was far too simple. Moreover, Addams was quick to add, if there are gendered differences, that doesn’t imply that women bear less moral responsibility for the situation. Women are carriers of both a particular and universalistic morality: We aren’t trapped exclusively in one sphere of justice.

Addams’s ideal of “civic housekeeping” united what was typically kept apart: the familial from the political. Given a woman’s particular knowledge, Addams claimed, it was incumbent on her to speak up and take on a larger sphere. Of this she was convinced. Addams felt that a new “civic humanitarianism” would carry the day when women fulfilled their old duties and obligations within a wider social sphere. Their knowledge of the particular should be able to be brought to bear on the universal.

To Addams, women who believe that turning inward, hoping to protect their children by burrowing further into family, are short-sighted at best. She tells of an Italian immigrant, a widow with two daughters who isolated herself from neighbors because of a rampant disease. Not even her most strenuous efforts could keep the infection at bay. It wound up killing her two daughters. “The entire disaster,” Addams writes, “affords, perhaps, a fair illustration of the futility of the individual conscience which would isolate a family from the rest of the community and its interests.” In short, Addams’s arguments begin in the particular, but do not stop there. They move toward the universal without losing the richness and complexity of the smaller realm.

***

In this essay, we have tangled with imponderables. They remain unanswered, given the intrinsic complexity of the subject at hand. It isn’t easy to “play upon the soul,” as Freud put it. All the same, perhaps we can challenge the ways age-old categories reinforce thinking; perhaps we can see toward new language and possibilities. On the level of abstract thought, we can do anything: change males into females, remake polities, achieve perfect orders with a rationally constructed “gender regime.” But in reality, there is no bright line between the male and female conscience, nor can we say that there is no distinction whatsoever. What we find is a fluid world in which male and female are the same yet different. Just how different is open-ended. It is characteristic of some societies (in Afghanistan, for instance, under the Taliban regime), to fix male-female roles in every possible way according to the most intractable of sharia laws. Within this brand of Salafist Islam, genders are not to mix, for mixing would violate God-sanctioned taboos. Such extremes teach us that any attempt to settle gender questions once and for all wind up rigidifying us in unjust and unappealing ways.

As a society we face a more daunting problem, surely. Americans need a well-formed moral universe that functions internally (and that we call conscience) to maintain our social codes. The civic glue that held us together throughout most of our history—until quite recently, actually—drew predominantly upon religious faith, primarily Protestant versions of Christianity to which Catholicism became a vital addition from the nineteenth century onward. The weakening of the moral center, the crises in our basic formative institutions (family, school, church) taken singly or together, afford a picture of a society losing its moral bearings. I recall my mother stating more than once: “There’s too much ‘me, myself, and I’ nowadays.”

This is not idle conjecture. It reflects hundreds of studies, books, and essays about our socio-political condition. And yet, I suspect that most of us have had experiences that belie the general trends. I have seen, for instance, moments of unbidden kindness and generosity, selfless struggles for justice, expressions of devotion to others without thought of reward. Perhaps we are better than we know, better than this conclusion suggests. Whether I am right or wrong, I do know that we must find ways to call forth Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature” in a sturdier way.

And so we return to that raft on the Mississippi. Twain’s genius is to show a simple, ornery child’s ability to penetrate to the moral heart of the matter. Huck’s dilemma was not necessarily a boy’s dilemma. To be sure, it is more difficult to imagine a white girl and a runaway female slave having adventures on that river. But we can well imagine the same predicament in another context. We know, for instance, that black women raised white children in the South. We know of situations in which white women violated the strict racial code by teaching their servants how to read and to write. No doubt their determination to “go to hell” rather than obey an unjust law was forged in childhood experience. So, place a young female Huck in the nursery or in the garden with a faithful, loving, black nanny and imagine her inner world—her conscience—taking shape. The majority of those children, as we know, squelched any subversive thoughts about slavery when they grew older. But there were those who, like Huck, could not keep such doubts at bay. It is they who summoned Lincoln’s “better angels.” Of course, there are times when this operates in reverse: when laws are just and unjust people launch campaigns to violate them. We do not call such people moral heroes. When those times come, we are better off on that rickety raft, fighting the tide of history. And when those times come, chances are men and women will find themselves on the side of justice, likely in equal measure. On the ground, men and women are not moral strangers to one another, despite all the talk about Mars and Venus and the like. Our differences are individual; our similarities are, quite simply, human. 

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