2 November 2018
Billy Budd essay
In determining a just outcome for a case, one must ponder the extent martial law has and the concept of moral laws. In Billy Budd by Herman Melville, the strict adherence to martial laws does not serve Billy Budd a just outcome in his case. A strict adherence to martial law, which morals do not influence, can not deliver this judgement due to justice being a generalized concept of right and wrong. The extent of martial laws can not serve justice in Billy Budd’s case. Using moral values delivers a just outcome, but ultimately Captain Vere was the deciding factor for the consequence. Martial laws set standards in society, but it does little to serve justice.
Martial laws can only serve justice to the extent of the government willing to enforce them. Due to the judges and Captain Vere having a strict adherence to the martial law in Billy Budd’s case, they did not consider morals or the nature of Billy and Claggart. Billy Budd knew the consequences of striking a superior officer. However, in this case, Claggart did antagonize Billy, falsely accusing him of mutiny. Billy knew the consequences of mutiny as well and became shocked when he heard this statement due to his primitive nature described as “amazement at such an accusation so suddenly sprung on inexperienced nonage”(Melville 81). One must also consider the evil nature of Claggart as described as “With no power to annul the elemental evil in him, though readily enough he could hide it.” The extent of the martial law does not consider these facts when determining the outcome. The laws simply infer that killing a superior officer results in the death of the murderer. Billy Budd did not mean to intentionally kill Claggart. His primitive nature can not think the abstract; therefore, Billy can not comprehend malice towards him and others. In this case, the laws being manipulated and mitigated fit the certain case and people. Doing this, results in moral values being applied and a just outcome being served.
This case requires the values of morals to deliver a just outcome. The crewman on the Bellipotent and others know of Billy’s kindness and innocence. They know that Billy would not kill due to his nature. They also know that Billy tried to befriend Claggart, although he did not know of his malice. During the case, Billy said, “I did not mean to kill him. Could I used my tongue I would not have struck him. But he foully lied to my face...” (Melville 91). The judges in this case needed to consider Billy’s incomprehensible and simplistic nature. They did not consider Claggart’s malice towards Billy as well. Because of this, the judges could only decide solely on Billy’s action. During the confrontation between Billy and Claggart, Billy became dumbfounded due to his speech impediment and could not defend himself. The instinctive reaction to the harsh accusation became a strike not intending to kill. If the judges serve the outcome regarding these morals, the punishment would be mitigated. The judges would also protect Billy due to his nature and the aberration of action of a truly good man. This outcome is a just outcome because it considers Billy’s nature and morals as well as Claggart’s morals and nature. The strict adherence to martial law can not deliver this, since it does not consider the abstract facts of the case and only abides by the actions of the case.
In analyzing the concept of justice in Billy Budd, one must also consider Vere’s justice as it influenced the outcome of the case. Captain Vere was the one who decided the outcome of Billy Budd’s case and ultimately was the one who determined the justice of Billy. In the eyes of Captain Vere, Billy deserves punishment by death since he killed Claggart. Although he knows Billy’s nature and wants to defend him to an extent, he concludes that this is the just outcome as he adopts an eye for eye concept. As Melville stated in chapter 3, the crewman who committed mutiny were able to redeem themselves through battles at the Nile and Trafalgar. Since the mutineers have this option, it is just to let Billy have this chance as well. However, Captain Vere does not give Billy this chance. Vere feared that if he gave Billy this chance it would disrupt the naval tradition and influence a real mutiny to occur as he says, “The people have native sense; most of them are familiar with out naval usage and tradition: and how would they take it?”(Melville 99). In this way, Vere’s morals are influencing his decision for Billy, but they influence him to adhere to the martial law. Some judges want to give Billy the chance as they say, “Can we not convict and yet mitigate the penalty?” (Melville 98). Therefore, due to Vere’s strict adherence to the martial law he does not adhere to the concept of justice and does not give Billy a just outcome.
Strict adherence to martial law does not allow for mitigation or the use of morals when deciding the outcome or punishments. The martial law could not serve a just outcome in this case, since it did not consider the circumstances. Morals consider the circumstances and the aberration of Billy’s nature. Captain Vere’s decision controlled the outcome of this matter and did not let morals influence any mitigation or changes. Morals form the law to fit each case and deliver a just outcome.