When Good Men Do Nothing
When Good Men Do Nothing
Stanley Benn discussed several types of wickedness in his essay Wickedness. Malignant wickedness strives for evil simply because it is evil; self-centered wickedness promotes a person’s self interest at the expense of others; conscientious wickedness pursues certain values ruthlessly without proper consideration of other merited values. Benn’s opinion differs from Socrates on the topic of malignant evil. Benn regards malignant evil as an innate trait that could not be reformed, while all other types of evil could be cured through proper education and more rationality. Each type of evil mentioned earlier has its representative in the story of Billy Budd.
Claggert bears malice for Billy for the sake of evil and his natural tendency to detest the good; Squeak ignores the importance of goodness, justice, and honesty in his blind pursuit of self-interest; Captin Vere falls victim to his stubborn upholding of the martial laws while fairness and conscience are sacrificed at their expense. The flood of pure evil seeks to overflow the good. Good is defenseless because good is unaware of the danger from the purest form of evil. Men in between the extreme ends of the good-evil scale have to protect the good in order to preserve it. Both Squeak and Captain Vere could have prevented the tragedy of Billy Budd, but they failed to. They were overridden with their own forms of evil, so they did nothing. Evil too often triumphs over good because too many individuals do nothing to help the good.
Claggert is indeed a malignant evil person because he does evil for evil’s sake. His actions are apparently cruel and irrational as well. The malignant nature, which resides within Claggert makes him thrive on the suffering of others. He punishes the sailors excessively and does not have any regard for the human lives. Claggert indirectly murdered Jenkins without remorse. His dissatisfaction with the light punishment Kincaid received was distinct. He desired the harsh sentence of 100 wipes when Kincaid only committed the misdemeanor of disrespecting his superior in regard of Jenkin’s death. Claggert utilizes his power and his cruel ways to compel the sailors to fear and to hate him, but he is unable to achieve the same result with Billy. Logically, Billy poses little threat to Claggert’s power since Claggert already had a right grip on the sailors. Claggert also does not have monetary or political gains by destroying Billy.
Claggert simply loathes Billy because Billy’s goodness is an eyesore to Claggert. Billy does not fear Claggert for his wickedness. Billy always views Claggert as a man whose heart has been hardened by life, even at the final confrontation, Billy did not understand why Claggert would accuse him for such horrific crimes. Billy is friendly and believes that love and care would soften Claggert’s ways. Billy’s sunshine and kindness were welcomed by most, including the officers and the sailors. Claggert subsequently goes to extraordinary lengths to destroy Billy.
Claggert’s intolerability of goodness mirrors Benn’s description of malignant evil, “it is unalloyed wickedness to hate the good, apprehended as good, and because it is good, and to seek its destruction on that account” (115). Claggert grins before his death with contentment. He understands that Billy and his goodness are finally doomed to the grave, at the expense of his Claggert’s own life, but is completely worth the sacrifice in his view. Claggert’s category of wickedness cannot be helped. However, the reason evil often triumphs over the good is because too many good men are blinded by their pursuit of self-interest and their inflexible loyalty to social institutions.
If Claggert is the vehicle, then Sqeak is the wheels. A car does not roll without its wheels. Squeak is a minor character onboard of ship, but he contributes largely to the death of Billy. He is the ears and eyes for Claggert. It would be impossible for Claggert to rule the ship crew with such intense fear without the help of Squeak. Squeak’s actions are not only immoral, but also evil. He does not intend evil upon others, but he does evil non-the-less because he values his self-interest above moral laws. He exemplifies the self-centered wickedness. Benn describes a self-centered wicked person as “[a] selfish person [who] recognizes his own well-being as a good and acts for the sake of it” (104). Squeak spies on his fellow crewmembers to account for their minor misdemeanors and report to Claggert in exchange for his safety. As a consequence, Claggert is able to punish these sailors harshly and enjoys their suffering. Squeak also follows Claggert’s instruction in an effort to tempt Billy into the trap of mutiny while is fully aware of Claggert’s intentions.
The worst crime of all is the fact that Squeak withheld essential evidence regarding Claggert’s evil plots to frame Billy. Squeak is the only person on the ship with concrete evidence of Calggert’s intentions. He could have single handily stopped Claggert, but he did not. Squeak understands the importance of his honesty in this matter, but rather chooses to protect himself while the wheel of tragedy rolls. Squeak fails to defend moral laws in the face of self-interest and indirectly causes the death of Billy Budd. Squeak pursues his self-interest as the highest priority. His actions are identical of the self-centered wickedness described by Benn. Benn writes, “selfishness is wicked not on account of its end bur for what it excludes, for it consists in closing one’s eyes and one’s heart to any good but a self-centered good” (104). Squeak closes conscience in the face of self-interest and allows the evil to triumph the good. Though Squeak contributed much to Billy’s death, but Captain Vere fails to stop evil from triumphing because he allows the laws of society to override his conscience.
Captain Vere has been a good man through out the story. He is fair and kind as the captain. However, he still makes the decision against his conscience at the end of the story because he values his allegiance to the Crown over conscience. Captain Vere’s decision is a case of conscientious wickedness. Captain Vere’s conscience and his promised duty to the Royal Navy stand on his shoulders, each presents a compelling argument. Captain Vere’s conscience does not hold Billy responsible for the unfortunate events. Claggert intentionally creates unavoidable circumstances for Billy, targets his weakness and leaves Billy no other choices. Captain Vere’s duty as a captain of the Royal Navy is the value the laws above all other values. The laws clearly state that murder and assaulting a superior officer are offenses that are punishable by execution despite the circumstances or origin of the conflict. Captain Vere is thus placed in a difficult position of choce.
After much inner struggle, Captain Vere eventually decides to abide by the laws of the society. Captain Vere compromises his values for the laws of society when he clearly that the laws could not be properly applied in this specific situation. He suspends his justification for Billy’s actions in order to pursue the universal good of the laws. The laws are overriding good, and a man’s sense of justice is less important than a good, thus is sacrificed in order to preserve the absoluteness of the law. As the captain of the ship, Captain Vere makes the decision the execute Billy even though he feels that such decision is not righteous. Such decision allows Clagger’s evil to stumble on Billy’s goodness and destroy it. Captain Vere did not do though to protect the defenseless good, then evil triumphs.
People often complain about the unfairness in the world and that evil too often triumphs over good. Good is innocent of evil. It is ignorant of evil. Intelligence information is essential in a war. In the war of good and evil, good is battling evil while being completely unaware of the trickeries that evil does. Good people spend their time to do good for other people, yet evil people spends much of their time to study the good men and attempt to destroy them. In such circumstances, pure good will lose. Most people are not purely good or purely evil. They place somewhere in the middle. The people who are not evil by nature, like Squeak and Captain Vere, need to actively combat evil on behalf of good.
If nothing is done, then evil will easily triumph over good. In Billy Budd’s case, the fellow men on the ship each committed their own form of evil and fail to protect his goodness. Though the story is told long ago, and the war between France and Britain is long over, the struggle between good and evil persists. It deeply involves each individual of the society. Most people have been Squeak or Captain Vere at some points their life, maybe even Claggert at times, but few are constantly evil. Before question why the world is not good enough, ask yourself, have you done enough to avoid in becoming a Squeak or a Captain Vere and indirectly support the Claggerts on this world, and have you done enough to help to protect the good.