by Herman Melville
Billy Budd Morality and Ethics Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
In the legal view the apparent victim of the tragedy was he who had sought to victimize a man blameless; and the indisputable deed of the latter, navally regarded, constituted the most heinous of military crimes. Yet more. The essential right and wrong involved in the matter, the clearer that might be, so much the worse for the responsibility of a loyal sea commander, inasmuch as he was not authorized to determine the matter on that primitive basis. (21.4)
What does it mean to be "authorized" to determine a matter on the basis of right and wrong? Who would ever give this authorization in the first place? Can such a moral constraint come from anywhere but within ourselves?
At that question, unintentionally touching on a spiritual sphere wholly obscure to Billy's thoughts, he was nonplussed, evincing a confusion indeed that some observers, such as can readily be imagined, would have construed into involuntary evidence of hidden guilt. (21.19)
Here, the men have just asked why Claggart hated Billy. We again get an overwhelming sense of Billy's naiveté and innocence? Should Billy be held accountable for his confusion? How has he managed to keep this spiritual sphere obscure from his thoughts? Is there evidence in the story to suggest that the narrator is portraying this inaccurately, that perhaps Billy was more of a thinking moral creature than the narrator gives him credit for?
"But your scruples: do they move as in a dusk? Challenge them. Make them advance and declare themselves. Come now; do they import something like this: If, mindless of palliating circumstances, we are bound to regard the death of the master-at-arms as the prisoner's deed, then does the deed constitute a capital crime whereof the penalty is a mortal one. But in natural justice is nothing but the prisoner's overt act to be considered?" (21.28)
Captain Vere is asking awesome King Kong-sized questions here. But all of his hostility seems to be directed at the men's moral scruples. He tells them to "Challenge them." Should it not be the other way around? Shouldn't the men use their moral scruples to challenge what the law is telling them to do?