Billy Budd Essay: Moral Shades of Grey

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Moral Shades of Grey in Billy Budd

Vere's decision, according to the Wartime Acts under which he was subject, was lawfully justified. To do anything else would be a direct violation of the law, and thus, the position in which he was placed. The captain could not follow any twinge of conscience that he felt, for it was not his position to do so. As Vere put it, "But do these buttons that we wear attest that our allegiance is to Nature? No, to the King." He and the judges were forced to follow their duty, which was to carry out the law. As officers of such a law, the morality of the decision was not their choice, as that same law dictated what they were to choose. The decision fell finally to Vere as he gave the speech which
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Yet morality is not the prime issue, for all that is required here is that the decision to hang Billy is justified. Justification is looking at every aspect of a situation and resolving what is the best option. It is a choice brought on by a set of circumstances, the end result of which is a selection between all of the probable outcomes of one decision or another. In this case, a possible outcome was the mutiny of the crew. As he was hanged, no mutiny occurred. Had he been acquitted, or his sentence reduced, the crew could have seen it as a slip in the rigid discipline of the ship. As Vere pointed out:

"Your clement sentence they would account pusillanimous. They would think that we flinch, that we are afraid of them-- afraid of practicing a lawful rigor singularly demanded at this juncture lest it should provoke new troubles."

While under normal circumstances this slip in etiquette might have been permissible, the ship was in this case not only at war, but also soon after another famous insurrection, making the chance- and consequences- of a mutiny far greater. Mutiny would have caused the death of some officers and crewmen. In addition, a mutiny gives a strong possibility of a weakened ship in the case of a French attack, causing more deaths.

Though these are only possible deaths, and alternatives are all very shadowy, theoretical possibilities, they are possible,

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