Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Billy Budd V: Susan Mendus's "Innocent Before God"

I take Vere's decision straightforwardly. Vere and his jury did the right thing. Billy committed a capital offense. Instead of sparing Billy's life, they protected the ship and England (from mutiny and the French Revolution, respectively.) Billy's sacrifice, like that of other decent young men sacrificed in war, is just. The book is a microcosmic allegory of the great disaster of war.

Still, there is something to be said for Susan Mendus's idea that the captain's particular personal characteristics made a difference. For Mendus, Vere's choice was right because it fit his character and the agreement he had with his employer to act as captain with such a character. I can imagine a captain of great charisma and persuasive power, able to spare Billy's life while dousing the flames of mutiny. This would be the right path for him to take, while Vere's was right for him. Here the relativistic "right for" locution which Mendus uses makes sense. Right depends, in some sense, on the particular characteristics of the agent and his situation. (A further illustration: what it is right for a person who happens upon a car crash with a badly injured victim to do may depend upon the person's characteristics: Is he a doctor? Is he strong enough to carry the victim? Or better able to flag down a passing motorist? Etc.)

Nevertheless, Mendus's analysis of this particularism about Vere ambiguates over theses that are either trivial or false. No non-trivially true thesis is evident in her article. Even the interesting point about a more charismatic captain than Vere was left unmade by Mendus.

The trivial sense of her thesis is that what is right for the captain of the ship to do depends upon the understanding he has with his employers about what he is to do as captain, given his particular, personal characteristics. Of course, contracts matter, even tacit ones. Whether the captain has promised to use his ingenuity to solve problems or to follow the letter of the law, the promise matters and we all knew that. So, this is trivial. Only if you make the point about a charismatic captain does it become a little more interesting.

The false sense of Mendus's thesis is that the right depends entirely on the agent's desires, talents, and contracts. It does not. This is where the "right for" locution leads one into trouble. There are heavy constraints on right action which are not usually defeasible by the agent's particulars. The situation Vere faces is heavily constrained by the duty not to kill an innocent man, the duty not to allow mutiny, and the duty not to allow the French Revolution to spread to England. Without recognizing this Mendus dwells upon a fanciful melding of the right with the good, under the supposedly liberal flag of value pluralism. She thinks it appropriately liberal and soundly in the tradition of Mill and Rawls to allow that the particular values of the agent determine what it is right for him to do. In fact, Mendus's account suffers from a deficit of value pluralism. John Kekes, the best conservative philosopher we have now, is a value pluralist; his is a model which takes heavy constraints on right seriously. Mendus, on the other hand, dwells on personal preference (good), confusing it with right and not taking seriously the variety of heavy constraints on right. Her account founders on a misconstrual of which values to be pluralistic about and on a confusion of good with right. The failure to be serious about embracing a wide variety of values seems to me an essential defect of liberalism. Duties that don't involve transferring power or wealth to the poor or require that we respect as good and right each person's particular inclinations do not play a significant role in liberal moral and political deliberations. Mendus's article is no exception.

In short, the false sense of Mendus's thesis is that it reduces right to an individualistic good. If Vere were a sadist, then on Mendus's view torturing Billy before executing him might be right; her analysis has no means by which to avoid this conclusion. Alternatively, the trivial sense of the thesis is that the agent's characteristics and contracts matter in moral deliberation. There is no non-trivial true alternative sense of Mendus's thesis.

So, Mendus's thesis has only a little to be said in its favor. It stumbles unknowingly over something interesting and true (the case of the charismatic captain.) But it fails in its derivation of right from a liberal conception of good and it ignores important constraints on the right.