Natural Law vs. Man-Made Law

April 3, 2019 by Essay Writer

To read Herman Melville’s Billy Budd is to experience feelings of intense agony and helpless injustice. Billy Budd, a “Handsome Sailor,” adored by his shipmates for his intrinsic goodness, is condemned to death by a seemingly formalistic and unfeeling legal system (279). Falsely accused of mutiny, Billy strikes the incriminating Claggart, and his single blow kills. As sole witness and Captain of the ship, Edward Vere must determine Billy’s fate. Privately sympathizing with Billy’s innocence, publicly Vere chooses naval duty over the morality of heart, condemning the young sailor to death according to the “Articles of War.” Vere’s painful dilemma reflects the invariable friction arising from natural man living in a society governed by man-made laws. The controversial decision to hang Billy “leaves us with a strong[ ] feeling that the formal demands of the legal system inevitably exclude some important aspect of human existence” (Thomas 53). The legal system’s failure to consider the natural law that impels Billy’s blow and his innocent intentions induces many readers to question the justice of Vere’s verdict and the justice system’s inherent flaws.In Billy Budd, man-made law is not merely the “general sense of order as opposed to chaos,” but rather codes that must judge Billy’s blow (Reich 128). Because the crime carries multifaceted implications, Billy’s trial tests man-made law’s ability to treat man as a flawed creature. Billy’s tragic execution exposes that man-made laws (society’s legal codes) often punish actions driven by natural laws, or laws instinctive to humans. When British warship Bellipotent’s envious officer John Claggart falsely and maliciously accuses the innocent foretopman of attempting mutiny, Billy deals a fatal blow “full upon the forehead of Claggart,” in self-defense impelled by natural law (331).Billy’s intention to protest this false incrimination is justified according to natural law. Although disagreement still abides, natural law is generally defined as a “system of right conduct or justice… common to all humans and derived from nature rather than from the rules of society” (“Natural”). Proposed by philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the theory’s core postulates declares that natural law condones man’s actions when he “behave[s] in a way that conforms to his rational nature,” in preserving one’s own good or fulfilling “those inclinations which nature has taught to all animals” (“Natural”). While determining man’s “true nature” is a tricky concept, most natural law theorists believe that murder to preserve own life, or by any other rational excuse, overrides society’s man-made and Divine commandments: “Thou shall not kill” (McElroy 110). Likewise, there are rational excuses for Billy’s blow, as he himself explains when testifying to the drum court:Could I have used my tongue I would not have struck him. But he foully lied to my face and in the presence of my captain, and I had to say something and I could only say it with a blow, God help me!” (338)Known to have a speech impediment when agitated, Billy stands “like one impaled and gagged” and could only dumbly “gesture[e] and gurgle[e]” (331). Obviously in a “convulsed tongue-tied,” the foretopman’s only natural instinct is to act (331). Any such defense to “preserve his own good” would be in accord with natural law, including his fatal blow.Captain Vere is now faced with an awful choice: uphold naval codes (man-made laws) or follow his conscience, siding with intuitive natural law. The British Articles of War XXII at the time states: “if any…person in the fleet shall strike any of his superior officers…[he] shall suffer death” (333). The Articles are exemplary of man-made laws, for they are rules imposed by society requiring or prohibiting certain actions (“Law”). However, the Articles are unique in that they make provisions for mandatory death penalties. While discretionary penalties allow courts to adjudicate the sentence’s severity based on mitigating factors and crime’s circumstances, mandatory death penalties narrow courts to consider only the “overt act” and its consequences. If convicted of committing the crime, the perpetrator must be sentenced to death, no matter what his motivation or compelling situation.Theoretically, summarily executing one life for murdering another life may appear just (or at least numerically balanced), but Melville pokes holes in the case for mandatory death penalties when he creates sympathy in readers for Billy and subsequently in his innocent intentions. Melville portrays Billy as embodying the “purity” of “Adam before the Fall,” with a “reposeful good nature” that somehow causes even the most cantankerous sailors to smile (286, 287). It is obvious to shipmates as well as Captain Vere that Billy is “incapable of malice” (361). Clearly, Billy did not intend to murder Claggart, only to defend himself from a life-threatening accusation, an intention consistent with natural law. Convening a drumhead court to try Billy, Vere’s insists on disregarding Billy’s intentions to his officers, whose surprised and saddened response further underscores the strained artificiality of Vere’s reasoning for man-made laws when it entails suppressing the heart’s conscience, one intrinsically schooled in natural law.Captain Vere and his drumhead officers are clearly torn between “military duty and moral scruple… vitalized by compassion.” Betraying “a suppressed emotion” in his voice, Vere reassures Billy that he knew the young sailor intended neither mutiny nor murder (337). Yet in an immediate turnabout during the drumhead court, the Captain resolves that his court must “confine its attention to the blow’s consequence,” for as proceeding under the Articles, “Budd’s intent or non-intent is nothing to the purpose (339, 343). Forcibly demanding the reluctant officers to assent to Billy’s execution, Vere assures them that he too feels “troubled hesitancy,” but reminds them that “but in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner’s overt act to be considered” (341). In other words, Vere fully understands that had natural law considered Billy’s intentions, it would have declared him innocent. Yet because he is Captain of a British warship, Vere has little choice but to reason:”Is our allegiance [to] Nature? No, to the King. Though the ocean, which is inviolate Nature primeval, though this be the element where we move and have our being as sailors, yet as the King’s officers lies our duty…” (342)His subsequent declaration on the incongruent natures of the ocean’s law and the King’s law almost suggests a lament at the incompatibility of man-made laws governing human actions. The British civilization is too far removed and different from the sphere of the ocean, perhaps symbolizing the natural in heart of man. Artificial laws originating from such a civilization seems insufficient and inadequate in addressing the issues encountered on the primitive ocean on which the story of Billy Budd and human nature unfolds. Criticism of Billy’s execution therefore should not be directed entirely at Vere, but more at the insensate, man-made Articles. When an execution provokes agony and sadness for both the adjudicators and the public (Bellipotent’s sailors whose murmurs reveal “sullen revocation”), such should all be indicative of some flaw in the legal mandate (356). In the early 19th century, a British intellectual movement denounced the Articles of War as “inflexible brutality and cruelty [of mandatory death penalty] codified into law” (Franklin, NA). Their protest signified man’s desire for man-made laws to encompass more natural laws. Similarly, when the United States established her own “Articles of War” modeled after Britain, an American anti-mandatory capital punishment movement sparked debates across the nation from 1830 to 1895 (Franklin, NA). Written in 1886 in New York, Billy Budd coincided with the crucial years when the majority of state criminal laws gradually shifted from mandatory to discretionary capital punishment, while military law refused to follow suit and still preserves its mandatory death penalty for espionage during wartime today (“Mens,” 1032). Although Melville’s general intention in writing Billy Budd may be much broader, his portrayal of Billy’s tragic death for the sake of an unfeeling legal mandate seems to express great disproval of laws that do not consider the prisoner’s mentality and circumstances.Although criticism of law’s inadequacy should, in principle, apply only to those special laws mandating capital punishment, in practice it aptly describes criminal law as well, both in Britain and the United States as countries with similar criminal laws. While court-martials under laws such as the Articles of War are not legally required to consider factors mitigating the crime’s severity, criminal courts in both countries are legally bound to consider the state of mind of a defendant during the crime and adjust the sentence accordingly (“Mens,” 1028). The legal term “mens reas” refers a “guilty mind,” where theoretically, a crime is defined only when the perpetrator commits it with a “guilty mind” or premeditated guilty intentions. Therefore, a “harmful action done by one honestly ignorant of its harmful quality ought not to be condemned and punished” (“Mens,” 1028). In this aspect, British and American laws have already made important strides to incorporate natural law in man-made law.However, in practice it appears that mens rea, ever since its establishment in the seventeenth century has been “primarily an explanatory construct, not a working rule of law” (“Mens,” 1029). A recent survey in 1970 revealed seventy-six different ways of expressing mens reas in US criminal law statutes (“Mens,” 1030). The “consequence of this chaos is the administrative burden that legal uncertainty causes” because lawyers “engage in full-dress battle on interpretative questions concerning mens rea” (“Mens,” 1030). At best, mens rea can only “differentiate between the seriousness of the crime,” which in the end, “may not matter,” and the crime’s sentence (“Mens,” 1029).Fundamentally similar to Billy’s story, an historical case substantiates the blatant disparity between justice by natural law and justice by man-made law, while highlighting the inconsistency of criminal law verdicts with mens rea. In 1884, two years before Melville began Billy Budd, a shipwreck cast three sailors and a boy of sixteen onto the open sea in a lifeboat off the Cape of Good Hope. Having drifted for eighteen days, they had not eaten or drunk during the last five days and the young boy was near death from starvation. With no rescue in sight, two of the sailors, Dudley and Stephens, decided to murder the boy. Four days after they ate the boy, the three sailors were rescued and sent back to England, whereupon Dudley and Stephens were promptly condemned to death (Reich 132).In delivering the verdict, England’s Chief Justice Lord Coleridge writes that “we are often compelled to set standards that we cannot reach ourselves” (Reich 133). This statement implies although certain crimes may be inherent in human nature, society does not tolerate them even though tolerance is legally required. Although Lord Coleridge acknowledged that all four would have died had they not eaten the boy, he still refused to accept the “necessity” of survival as an excuse for murder. Yet “necessity” to preserve one’s own life is exactly what mens rea, founded upon natural law, condones. Just as mens rea would absolve guilt for Claggart’s unpremeditated murder, mens rea also accepts “necessity” as a valid exoneration of the perpetrator (“Mens,” 1028). Yet if Dudley and Stephens are not judged by the “Articles of War” but rather by discretionary criminal law, why does Lord Coleridge refuse to abide by mens rea and absolve them from their crime? He defends the death sentence, saying that there is an:…awful danger of admitting the principle [of necessity]. Who is to be the judge of this sort of necessity? By what measure is the comparative value of lives to be measured? Such a principle once admitted might be made the legal cloak for unbridled passion and atrocious crime… there is no safe path for judges to tread…” (Reich 133)Because of mens rea’s elusive “measurement,” Lord Coleridge’s statement implies that mens rea (like natural law) would legally “condone” too many crimes, in which more crimes and chaos would ensue. He echoes the similar concerns of other judges who have delivered verdicts inconsistent with mens rea. It may seem Lord Coleridge’s criticism is directed at mens rea’s inadequacy, but one can turn his statement into a criticism of general law’s insufficiency.The verdicts for Dudley-Stephen and Billy seem to hinge on the judges’ acceptance that punishment for the sake of law may sacrifice innocence. Billy, Dudley, and Stephens acted as “natural men,” committing crimes when “overwhelmed with forces beyond their control,” namely natural self-defense and the primitive urges of hunger (Reich 139). Yet all three are guilty of committing a legal crime, because the courts completely ignore natural law and mens rea. This clear-cut standard for determining guilt and innocence seems inadequate in addressing the complexity of human nature. It seems that the human mind is too unknowable with its multifaceted motivations for present and past laws to properly gauge. As verdicts ignoring mens rea illustrate, even when society’s laws theoretically account for man’s complexity, this is difficult to implement in practice. Presently, it is seemingly impossible for even today’s comprehensive laws to mete the most appropriate punishment for every case.However, man-made laws do not always have detrimental effects on justice. Choosing the logic of man-made laws over the instincts of natural law derives from a long, complex history which reveales the advantages and disadvantages of a system of absolute standards. Several decades before the time of Billy Budd, the middle classes and nobility appealed to the authority of artificial, man-made laws to reduce the power and the authority of King James I, who had the power to adjudicate verdicts based on natural law or his own arbitrary whims, with the latter as a much more probable outcome (Thomas 59). England’s Chief Justice Lord Coleridge struggled to persuade the King that he could not personally adjudicate cases because verdicts are “not to be decided by natural reason [of the King’s untrained legal mind] but by the artificial reason and judgment of law, which… requires long study” (Thomas 57). In this historical context, society opting for the logic of man-made laws over the natural whims of the King seems to be a progressive milestone in civilized society. One can immediately see the benefits of a society ruled by absolute laws, not by the arbitrary inclinations of an absolute ruler, whose verdicts may or may not abide by natural laws.In Billy Budd’s time, man-made law shifts to ally with the King and his military. Man-made law becomes a formidable method of preserving the might of a military defending against the French invasions, whereupon it takes on its present role of demanding sacrifices of individual rights. Yet one may justly wonder, doesn’t the state have a right to impose stricter laws curbing individual rights during the wartime?The narrator in Billy Budd emphasizes the “pertinence of such forces to the individuals and events of his tale” (Franklin, NA). Making great effort to “situate the events of his story within a particular historical context,” the narrator evokes the historical events such as the mutinies at Spithead and Nore (320). Known as the “Great Mutiny,” sailors at Nore rebelled against the ship authorities and demanded equal wage increases. Although eventually quelled, the mutiny instilled a prevailing and legitimate fear in navy commanders of more rebellions from their sailors, many of whom were unhappily impressed into service. Billy’s “treason” in striking Claggart occurs only six months after the “Great Mutiny,” when “reasonable discontent growing out of practical grievances… had been ignited into irrational combustion” still proved “menacing” to the British Empire (293). When deciding Billy’s verdict, naturally Vere is largely concerned with its impressions on the crew. As the narrator imputes, “feeling that unless quick action was taken on it, the deed of the foretopman… would tend to awaken any slumbering embers of the Nore among the crew” and therefore a “sense of urgency of the case overruled in Captain Vere every other consideration” (336). Therefore, Vere adheres to the Articles and refuses to mitigate Billy’s sentence, reasoning:most of [the crew] is familiar with our naval tradition; how would they take it… to the people the foretopman’s deed… will be plain homicide committed in the flagrant act of mutiny. What penalty for that they know. It does not follow. Why? They will ruminate… will they not revert to the recent outbreak the Nore? (344)Since one goal of punishment should serve to deter future crimes, if Vere mitigates Billy’s sentence, then the crew will interpret this leniency as encouragement to mutiny. In turn, they would feel more encouraged to rebel. To not adhere to the Articles might be to fail in his duty as Captain and Vere has little choice but to act in the ship’s interest. In the clash between “desire for individual freedom and need for social order,” historical context often illuminates why society chooses one extreme over the other (Thomas 54). As Billy Budd demonstrates, the general welfare of society often necessitates a curtailment of individual rights.What makes Billy Budd so controversial is that Vere’s decision is completely legal, yet completely unnatural. It is the black and white dichotomy of innocence and guilt that troubles many. Vere must either “condemn or let go” and the gaping void in between seems to point to penal law’s inadequacy in reflecting and accommodating the different natures of the crime. When Vere pronounces Billy “innocent before God,” he acknowledges that the Articles of War is far from the “perfect” legal system that can comprehend man’s total humanity, rather than just the appearance of the crime. Yet Billy Budd’s tense, historical context also seems to suggest that in the clash between public duty and the freedom to follow natural law, justice is not simply a matter of man-made law versus natural law, but a factor espousing society’s general welfare.

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