In the novella Billy Budd, Melville explores the tension created by one's duty to follow the law and one's compassion for an individual who has broken the law. The character that most represents this dilemma is Captain Vere. Captain Vere realizes the importance of enforcing the law. He fears mutiny and chaos, and knows that he must enforce the law even if it means the hanging of a good man. Billy Budd reacted violently to the evil Claggart, and killed him. For that, Billy Budd must hang. Even though there are mitigating circumstances, the fact remains that Billy Budd is guilty of murder.
This is the conclusion that Captain Vere reaches. Regardless of his inward sympathy for the angelic Billy Budd and his disdain for Claggart, Captain Vere must outwardly conform to the laws that he has established on the ship. This is not an easy task for the Captain who cares for Billy like a son, and who, in turn, is loved by Billy.
Captain Vere is convinced that he makes the right decision. The reader, though, questions his inflexible application of laws and rules. Is justice the equal application of the law? Or, do individual cases merit a more subjective verdict? This dilemma is one we still struggle with.