Billy Budd: A Rising Conflict between Deontology and Consequentialism
Different ideologies have given rise to a variety of standards to which individuals can view normative ethics and ask how one ought to act. In the film, Billy Budd, there is a direct conflict between a man’s duty and a man’s conscious or irrationality of feelings. Throughout the film, Budd believes it is his duty to tell the truth. On the other hand, Captain Vere holds a great duty as an officer who must follow the code of war and law. However, they both struggle between their duty and the tendency to evaluate certain events based on the process of the event. This leads to a bigger conflict between deontology seen in Kant and consequentialism seen in Bentham.
Deontology, or duty ethics, stresses that moral virtue is determined by the success or failure to follow moral law. This moral law is considered true in all cases and is therefore universal. Budd takes his duty to tell the truth seriously and does so in every situation. He does not care about the implications of his actions because as long as he succeeds in following the moral law, he is morally virtuous. For example, when Claggart falsely lies to the captain about his treatment of a sailor, Budd beings it upon himself to tell the truth although it could lead to harassment from Claggart.
Captain Vere also dutifully follows a set of laws. Although these laws aren’t necessarily moral ones, they are still applicable to the concept of deontology. When convincing the court to say that Budd is guilty, he emphasizes the importance of the code that has made these men officers and public men over the conscience, which is a private matter. He states that he is bound to an oath and that those men took the oath as well. The action was against the law therefore it must be the duty of those men to follow the law.
On the other hand, consequentialism encourages that we understand whether an act is morally just through the consequences of the act or the motive behind the act. At the beginning of the film Budd feels that there is injustice in a sailor being lashed to death because no one could figure out the motive behind why the man was killed. Another instance of consequentialism occurs during the court’s decision process on Budd’s killing of Claggart. Consistently throughout the scene, the three judges explain to Captain Vere how this case is an exception to the rules. They believed that since Budd’s motives weren’t malicious that he was innocent even if a man was killed. At another instance, one of the three judges asked, “who would gain by Budd’s death” but Captain Vere quickly stifled the question.
When comparing the effects of deontological and consequentialist thinking on the characters of the film, one can conclude that the following through of duty ethics led to the killing of an innocent man. Should we then still consider this a just ending to the film? Both Budd and the captain agreed that they were doing what they thought was their duty, since that is true, then it is morally justified. Consequentialist thinking is weak and faulty because as Captain Vere states, “ if in fear miscalled mercy we pardon but against specific order and then the men revolt, how culpable and weak our verdict will appear.” If each person rejected certain moral or political laws, making the excuse that the specific case was an exception, then chaos would eventually erupt and justice would vanish.