Volume 11, 1985
Billy Budd and the Duty to Enforce the Law
A Sketch of Some of the Major Moral Issues
Herman Melville’s Billy Budd presents a classic example of a legal official legally required to enforce a law he believes or knows to be unjust. Although there has been considerable discussion of a citizen’s moral duty to obey unjust laws, there has been little consideration of a legal
official’s duty to enforce unjust laws.
In this paper I take the central moral dilemma of the novel -- a legal official’s moral duty to enforce a valid law of a legal system vs. his moral duty not to do or to contribute to injustice -- and discuss various moral considerations that would bear on this dilemma. By doing this I hope to contribute both to the moral issues involved as weIl as, to some extent, the literary criticism with regard to Billy Budd.