Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

MELVILLE: Billy Budd and Justice

Simple question: What is justice? That’s easy. It’s something like doing the right thing, at the right time, to the right people. But when we try to pin it down the concept starts evaporating like smoke. It’s especially difficult if we try to apply justice to a specific case such as the one presented in Billy Budd. Most readers put down the story of the ill-fated Billy with an uneasy sense that an injustice has been committed. It just doesn’t seem fair that Billy would be executed; and since it’s not fair, there seems to be an injustice done here somehow. And yet when we look to the wisdom of the Western tradition for an answer, the same answer almost always keeps popping up: this was a legal execution. Justice was served.

How can this be? How can it feel so wrong and yet still be right? In The Crito Plato says: The just lies here: never to give way, never to desert, never to leave your post, but in war or court of law or any other place, to do what City and Country command… That all happened in Billy Budd. Conclusion = justice. John Dewey says justice is what contributes to the greater social good. Billy’s death served as an example to the other sailors. Conclusion = justice. Euripides thinks justice is doing the right thing no matter what other people think. The drumhead court wanted to let Billy go, but Vere reminded them of the legal requirements clearly established in the military code. Conclusion = justice. Aristotle thinks justice lies in establishing proper (natural) social relationships. Vere reminds the court that enlisted men can’t just go around striking superior officers or anarchy will result. Conclusion = justice. In Exodus justice is doing the will of God. Here we run up against a stone wall. In Exodus God communicates His will directly to Moses. Who knows the will of God in the story of Billy and Claggart? Conclusion = inconclusive. Hobbes says justice is whatever the government says it is; the state defines justice. England has set a clear penalty for Billy’s offense. Conclusion = justice.

So where does that leave us? We seem to have a showdown between justice and fairness. Is justice always fair? Some would say obviously not. Just look around you. Experience will tell you that justice isn’t always fair. But someone else might say, hold on. These cases you’re pointing out in daily affairs aren’t necessarily justice. Justice is a concept that’s not only fair, it’s timeless and never changes. So if you run into a case that isn’t fair, then it’s not justice. The story of Billy Budd doesn’t seem fair. Trust your instincts. This was not justice. Now we’re shifting onto different ground. Are we to judge with our minds, or with our hearts? Do we use logic, or emotions, to evaluate justice? Neither one seems sufficient on its own. It seems to take the whole person to answer a deceptively simple question: what is justice?

Now we have two options: trust tradition, or trust our own powers. A third option may be that our interpretation of tradition was incorrect to begin with. Plato may have meant that in this case England commanded Captain Vere to use his judgment and experience as captain to apply justice, not to follow orders blindly. Conclusion = injustice. Executing Billy Budd may not, in fact, have contributed to a greater social good but lowered crew morale. Conclusion = injustice. Euripides might have said that doing the right thing in this case didn’t consist in going against the grain of the drumhead court but of going against the grain of a too-rigid military code. Conclusion = injustice. In Billy Budd the proper relationships were not, in fact, established. On Aristotle’s terms Billy was a natural aristocrat because he was virtuous, Claggart was not. Conclusion = injustice. Billy Budd stands as a warning: Claggart was intellectual, Billy wasn’t, and Captain Vere read many great books. Moral of the story: you have to think for yourself.


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