The Dilemma of Equality

Can murder be justified? Carneades of Cyrene, North Africa, the head philosopher of the Platonic Academy, proposed a scenario where murder could be justified. His scenario: two sailors are shipwrecked, and both spot a single plank of wood that is capable of supporting only one man. The first sailor reaches the plank first, but the second sailor climbs on the plank, pushes the first sailor off and leaves him to drown. Could the second sailor be tried for murder even though it can be argued that the second sailor, out of protection of his own life, had to let the first sailor drown? This thought-provoking example from about 200 BC demonstrates the impact of moral dilemmas. Moral dilemmas have survived the test of time, down to today.

They continue to shape personalities, life, and history. In novels, moral dilemmas can reflect a time in history and can add to the American theme of equality. Through accurate historical representations, moral dilemmas in novels, unified by the theme of struggle for equality, reflect the time periods in which the novels were written and contribute to the continuing, international voice of equality. The Crucible, a play written by Arthur Miller in the 1950s in response to McCarthyism, juxtaposes a judge’s twisted form of equality and a man’s moral dilemma on whether or not to confess to a lie. As the presiding judge over the Salem Witch Trials, Judge Danforth consistently believes the testimony of the girls who are supposed to be bewitched. He refuses to seriously consider any other testimony because he believes that the person giving the testimony may be a witch.

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Finally, the leader of the “bewitched” girls, crafty Abigail Williams, accuses the married man she loves, realizing that they will never be together, of witchcraft. John Proctor, the man, cannot believe his ears. The very lady who asked him to run away with her a short time ago is now accusing him of witchcraft. John Proctor attempts to persuade the ignorant court that the court room has now become a melting pot of old problems and grudges. Unfortunately, Judge Danforth convicts John Proctor of witchcraft.

Danforth believes that if the girls say someone is a witch, that person must be a witch. Danforth explains his view of equality, “But witchcraft is ipso facto, on its face and by nature” (Miller 103). Danforth deems that there are only two parties involved in witchcraft-the witch and the victim. Since the witch will not confess, the only trustworthy being is the victim. Danforth struggles to implement his contorted view of equality. As John Proctor withers away in prison and in thought, he is constantly encouraged to confess to witchcraft.

Confessing is the only way to be let out of prison. If he refuses to confess, he will be hanged. On the day of the hanging, Proctor sullenly signs his confession. He is trapped in moral dilemma. If he signs, he signs his good, innocent name away to trickery. He cannot bear to leave this role model for his children.

As a result, he rips up his confession. He does this for several reasons. The first is his reputation. He wants to die “clean” and only by dying innocent, he can feel truly good. This moral dilemma discovers the pressure of American society back then.

Miller accurately portrays the historical representations of life in a Puritan society fueled by avarice and jealousy. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a witty, satirical piece by Mark Twain written in 1884 along the Mississippi River, demonstrates the moral dilemmas that a white boy endures in order to save a black slave from the clutches of slavery. The first, major moral dilemma this white boy, Huckleberry Finn, encounters while rescuing the black runaway slave, Jim, involves Huck’s crafty use of chicanery. During a foggy night on the Mississippi river, boy and black are separated, each believing the other to be lost. Eventually, Huck finds Jim on the banks of the river.

Jim is elated to find that Huck is safe. However, Huck acts as if Jim had imagined the separation in a dream. Huck employs the norms of the white-dominant, antebellum society he left behind. He assumes that Jim is stupid and decides to joke around with that “innate” stupidity. Jim is crushed when he finds out that Huck has deceived him.

Huck takes 15 minutes to regret his action and apologize to Jim. Jim only wants to be treated equally and fairly. This moral dilemma allows Huck a chance to allow for that equality. This scene marks a change in Huck. Why? He reveals to the reader, “I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way” (Twain 89).

So not only does Huck stop playing tricks on Jim, but Huck also feels empathy for Jim. He begins to view Jim as a human being, not a dark-skinned work horse. Twain, through the characters’ language and descriptive wording of the scenery, accurately portrays America and its feelings toward a certain race at the time. These moral dilemmas show the struggle for equality. Moral dilemmas in novels reflect the time periods in which the novels were written and contribute to the voice of equality.

Equality is a dominant factor of the American voice. From America’s beginnings to now, people were and still are attracted by the promise of equality and freedom.