The Importance and Controversy of Moral Values in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd

February 11, 2021 by Essay Writer

“Struck dead by an angel of God! Yet the angel must hang!” Captain Vere, although having moral values, primarily focuses on the political correctness over the religious or moral correctness. Because of this belief, Vere does not trust himself alone to make the right decision, and instead puts together a small court to make the ultimate decision for Billy’s fate. However, although not directly taking blame for the decision, he does attempt to sway the court by giving his personal opinions, based entirely on the law.

In layman’s terms, the adjudicators want to nullify the law and set Billy go, similar to how courts can set guilty victims free for crimes they deem immoral or unlawful. To such a man as Vere, this path cannot be taken, as he values the law above all else. To prevent this outcome, he first gives the full, honest testimony of Billy’s murder, trying to deny all possible doubts the court may have. This may not seem like a big deal, but if Vere really wanted Billy to live, he could have lied, saying claggart attacked first. By giving the full testimony, here demonstrates his ability to lead a lawful life over a moral one.

But even Vere knows this won’t be enough to sway them. After Billy’s departure, Vere begins to really sway the officers. He begins by defining the situation they are in, saying they are “acting not as caustic or moralists, it is a case practical, and under martial law practically to be dealt with”. He portrays the situation not as a moral case of good vs evil, but a simple, no doubt, practical murder case of a superior officer for which the punishment is clear and the correct solution. Vere next characterizes Billy’s actions, stating that if “we are bound to regard the death of the master at arms as the prisoner’s deed, then does that deed constitute a capital crime whereof the penalty is a moral one”. Even more clearly to the court, Billy’s actions are indefensible under strict law that they all are here to judge.

Continuing on morality, Vere brings a religious context into the situation, understanding that they will feel morally obligated to set a man defending himself in the only way he could, who is “innocent before God”. To counter argue these thoughts, Vere states that they are not servants to Nature and God in this situation, but to the King and Justice.

After these arguments, one man brings up a point of convicting with a milder penalty. Seeing the reasoning and login in this thought, he counter argues it with more reasoning. If he were to set an example by setting free a suspected mutineer and higher officer murderer, the consequences could be unforeseeable. He again pits at the recent mutinies as proof that the situation they are in, and the decisions they make very soon could affect the entire future on this ship.

By accepting these logical arguments, you essentially put aside all your personal feelings on moral correctness and condemn and arguably innocent man to death. By giving up your rights to choose to a law system that only benefits those at the top, you give up some kind of right, to judge your laws your self. This case bears mind to the act of Jury Nullification, the act of setting a guilty man free despite the evident against him and the laws that must be followed. In American court systems, the Jury holds full responsibility for the laws. Lawyers want to get rid of such ideas, because this type of thinking strongly opposes the nature of laws and justice. However, in the case of Billy, nullification is a moral responsibility for the men, so accepting Vere’s arguments would go against many moral statues society obeys.

“Now something such an one was Claggart, in whom was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short, ‘a depravity according to nature’.” Citing Plato, Melville uses this statement as a characterization of Claggart, mostly because no other description could fit. Claggart’s evil is rooted not for justifiable reasons. The narrator of Tell-Tale Heart claims that the old man “… has never wronged me. He had never given me insult.” So it goes with Billy and Claggart. Billy had never directly wronged Claggart, as the old man had never directly wronged the narrator. However, in both Claggart and the narrator’s minds, the indirect result of their being present is enough reason for the seeking of justice, except for Claggart it is the envious nature of his popularity and good looks, while the narrator simply hates the old man’s eye. Both of these could be considered an evil that lies beneath the character, which is what Melville refers. Natural depravity is the evil rooted within everyone, and the evil that Claggart cannot suppress.

Aside from the fact that they contradict such moral basis, Vere’s arguments are all valid and somewhat persuasive. However, finding myself in this situation, I would certainly acquit Billy on moral grounds. I do not value unjust laws over my own sense of morality, which is something Vere would disagree with on all accounts. He would rather see an angelic figure hang for an unjust law than see a defensibly innocent man walk free.


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