Bennett vs. Hallie • “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn” • Conscience: The rational faculty by which human beings make moral judgments about specific situations, actions, and persons. • Well and Badly Formed Consciences • Individual consciences can be well or badly formed, i. e. they can lead one to objective moral truth or objective moral falsity; thus, they are not infallible.
Everyone has a moral obligation to form his conscience well. • A person who acts in an objectively immoral way may, nevertheless, be acting in accord with his conscience. • If so, then the objectively immorally acting person’s conscience has been badly formed. • A badly formed conscience can, thus, bind as strongly as a well formed conscience.
Question:Should a badly formed conscience bind just as much as a well formed conscience? • Sympathy • Bennett would answer the above question in the negative. • Bennett suggests sympathy should be developed as a safeguard against a badly formed conscience.
Sympathy for Bennett covers “every sort of fellow-feeling,” as when one is saddened by another’s loneliness, troubled by someone’s pain, or when one avoids hurting another • Bennett says that feelings of sympathy must not be confused with moral judgments. The two are different.
I may help someone who needs help out of sympathy for that person, but sympathy is a feeling it is not a judgment of the intellect about what one ought to do. • Sympathy and Conscience • Both sympathy and conscience can make a person act, and it is possible for sympathy and conscience to conflict and pull a person in different directions.
Our sympathy for a person might even make us do what our consciences tell us is objectively wrong. • The conflict between sympathy and conscience can occur in cases of a badly formed consciences just as much as in cases of well formed consciences.
Sympathy and a Badly Formed Conscience • Bennett claims that Huck Finn has a badly formed conscience because he accepts what he has been taught about slavery. To wit: It is morally permissible. • Bennett claims Huck acts contrary to his badly formed conscience because of his sympathy for Jim. • Bennett claims that Huck is morally correct to act thus.
Bennett claims the badly formed conscience of Heinrich Himmler conflicted with what Bennett takes to be Himmler’s genuine sympathy for the human beings the Nazis exterminated. • In Himmler’s case, however, the badly formed conscience won out over his sympathy. • Bennett claims that in letting his badly formed conscience win, Himmler acted immorally.
The Case of Jonathan Edwards • Bennett claims that, not only is Edwards’ conscience badly formed, because he seems to subscribe to a hyper-Calvinist view of the Atonement, Edwards also seems completely to lack sympathy because he does not “find it painful to contemplate any fellow-human’s being tortured forever.”
In other words, Bennett thinks Edwards completely lacks sympathy because he has no “fellow feeling” for those whom God arbitrarily “lets fall to ceaseless flames,” i. e. arbitrarily damns. • Thus, in Bennett’s view, Edwards is worse than Himmler because at least the latter had sympathy for his victims so that there was a chance sympathy might have saved him (and his victims) from his badly formed conscience.
The Need for both Conscience and Sympathy • For Bennett a well formed conscience helps a person avoid doing the wrong thing when one happens to have little or no sympathy at that time. • Thus, a well formed conscience helps a person do the right thing when sympathy is lacking, due to such things as self-centeredness, depression, and anger.
Sympathy can correct a badly formed conscience. • If the dictates of conscience are in conflict with sympathy, that can be a strong indication the conscience is badly formed. • Wilfrid Owen is Bennett’s example of this. • Part of improving our moral code is to subject it to the test of sympathy.
This doesn’t mean that sympathy should always win out when it conflicts with conscience. • Bennett says, however, “one’s sympathies should be kept as sharp and sensitive and aware as possible . . .” because sympathy and human feelings in general are vital to our humanity. • Perhaps people without sympathy are less human than those who have sympathy.
Perhaps, in addition to our capacity for language and abstract thought, what most defines us as humans is our great capacity for experiencing a variety of feelings, including sympathy.
“The Evil Men Think – and Do” • Philip Hallie criticizes Bennett for a view of morality which is too simple and too heavily dependent on sympathy to the exclusion of other things, like the effects of actions on victims. • Hallie criticizes Bennett for placing morality in the mind alone rather than considering the morality of the effects of actions in the world.
According to Bennett, because Himmler had a sympathetic mind, even though he did terrible things, he is more moral than Edwards because Edwards lacked sympathy. • Edwards may have been without compassion, and Himmler may have had some compassion, but Himmler was actually responsible for the deaths, torture, and suffering of millions of innocent people.
The presence or absence of sympathy in the mind is less important than the evil which people actually do. • Hallie points out that evil is not confined to the mind; evil actions which directly affect people are worse than evil thoughts towards them. • Evil doing is worse than evil thinking.
In considering Adolf Eichmann, another Nazi butcher, Hallie says that Eichmann’s evil was not only in his mind but in his actions. • Hallie says that, if Eichmann had only thought of the evil things which he wished to do to innocent Jews, he would have been “pitiable, not culpable.” • Because he actually did these things “his evil lay in his deeds” in everything he actually did to real people.
We have to pay attention not just to the presence or absence of sympathy in a person but to what that person actually does. • Someone who makes people suffer is worse than the person who makes no one suffer but has no sympathy. • Hallie: “There is no substitute for seeing the harshness and ugliness of fact.”
Hallie provides an excerpt from the Nuremberg trial transcript of Otto Ohlendorf, who had participated in the extermination of Jews and Soviet political leaders, to show that Ohlendorf was a moral monster. • Ohlendorf claims that he had “scruples” about carrying out his orders to kill people but that it was inconceivable to him that he should not follow orders given by a superior.
A person such as Ohlendorf, who actually does hideous things to real people, is much more monstrous than anyone who has a badly formed conscience, lacks sympathy for the suffering of others, but who never is actually responsible for the suffering of others.