The Moral Implications of “Billy Budd”

Posted: November 10, 2010 in Books, Debates, Ethics, History, Journal, Morals, Philosophy, Politics, Social Debates
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I just finished reading “Billy Budd” by Herman Melville. It was a good book, although at times was rather dry to read. The one appealing part of this book to me was the moral dilemma it called to order. Melville challenges his readers by asking; which is the right decision; choosing between what is morally right and wrong based off emotion, understanding, and compassion for your fellow man, or should society’s laws dictate to us what is right and wrong, regardless of our emotions; all in the name of order. This was the central struggle behind this book.

“Billy Budd” was Melville’s last book, and was written the year of his death in 1891. The story takes place in 1797 on a British navel ship the Bellipotent. The main character Billy Budd was an uneducated, simple and just man. He was well liked and respected by his peers on the ship. His superior officer Claggart was the one man who despised Billy for his gentle nature and popularity among the men. Claggart in an attempt to frame Billy accused him of attempted mutiny in front of their Captain. Billy unable to express his feelings in words became frustrated and hauled off and punched Claggart; he ended up dying by the blow. Captain Vere assembled a military tribunal to proceed over the trial with Vere as the sole witness. The internal struggle Vere and those presiding over the trial caused me to question my moral opinions.  

The struggle Captain Vere went through in testifying against Budd was interesting in that there appeared to be no struggle at all. Yes he felt emotional over this because he was fond of Billy, but knew that military order came before any emotional feelings. The feelings of those who presided over the tribunal were not as cut and dry as Vere’s. They believed Billy to be a morally sound man who although made a mistake, was acting justly considering the circumstances. They had compassion for Billy, and for the situation he was in. Vere on the other hand was very matter of fact in his stance that military law reigns supreme in this issue. He expressed to the tribunal that he two felt bad that Billy was on trial but was also the main person who convinced the tribunal to convict Budd of this crime.

Veres stance was one of this; had the trial been a non-military trial then the jurors could afford Billy the compassion and mercy he deserves, but since this is a military trial then compassion and mercy do not apply. Billy had either done it or not. Since Vere had witnessed the crime, and Billy had admitted to it then there was no room for discussion. Billy must be sentenced to death. He feared if Budd was not convicted and word got out about his acquittal then the integrity of British military law would be under minded. Vere could tell the men standing over the tribunal were having a difficult time with this decision, and therefore pleaded to them.

Seeing this and knowing what was at stake Vere made one final speech to the officers. He said “but the exceptional in the matter moves the hearts within you. Even as mine is moved. But let not warm hearts betray heads that should be cool. But something in your aspect seems to urge that it is not solely the heart that moves in you, but also the conscience, the private conscience. But tell me whether or not, occupying the position we do, private conscience should not yield to the imperial one formulated in the mode under which alone we officially proceed?”  He made the argument that it is human nature to feel for a man who they see as right with God, but called to their attention the buttons they were wearing. He said “do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King.” In the end Budd was convicted and hanged.

This story holds many different outlooks on morality. In one hand you have Budd who was a good man with good morals who accidently committed the most immoral crime one can commit. In this scenario is Budd a good or bad man? Well this is tough. It is not as though Budd killed a man in self-defense. He killed a man out of anger, because he was not properly educated enough to express complex emotions. In this scenario you could say this was a crime of passion, because it was fueled by anger. I think Budd is guilty of the crime, but I disagree with the punishment. I feel the only time murder is warranted is when it is in self-defense. This should be the only exception to the rule.

Next you have the officers presiding over the tribunal. They wanted to give Budd a non-guilty verdict because they believed he was a just man who was right in God’s eye. There compassion reigned over their duty. They knew what kind of man Claggart was, and believed he had it coming to him. They also understood the severity over the accusation of mutiny, which by its own standards also carried a death sentence. There desired decision was to hand down a not guilty verdict. They truly struggled with this decision. The question is if judges used personal feelings in deciding sentencing then the whole system becomes less about justice and more about personal feelings. Can we afford to live in such a system? This is a tough question for me because there are some crimes I think do not warrant such harsh penalties and others I think are not harsh enough. This is a slippery moral question to answer.

Finally we have Captain Vere, who I believe holds the key dilemma of morality in this story. Should he be condemned as an evil man because of his abstract notion of duty blinded him to true justice and compassion? Or should he be considered a hero who rose above sentiment to meet the need for order, authority, and law in human affairs. I battle with this question because I think there is a huge grey area in-between that is hard to quantify. I think your own personal answer will show what side of morality you are on.

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Comments
  1. Tribunal conocerá recurso de amparo contra Ministerio de Medio Ambiente…

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  2. Cailee says:

    Morality has always been interesting to me as it is really a vague concept. You might be interested in Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development (if you have not already read on this). He has some interesting theories regarding morality and even created a ‘test’ you can take to find out which stage you are in.

    • Tim Lundmark says:

      I will have to check that out. I like the debate on what defines our morality. Is it our laws, religious institutions, or is it something we are born with? There are so many theories out there. They are all good.

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