The Ethics of Moby-Dick

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Ethics is the system of moral principles. Ethics is dealing with what is good for individuals and society and is also described as moral philosophy. Ethics covers what is ‘right’ and “wrong.” Our concepts of ethics come from religions, cultures, traditions, and philosophers. Ethical theories are divided into two parts: normative ethics and meta-ethics.

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is a perfect example of the conflict between the different ethical systems. The novel resolves between three characters: Captain Ahab, Starbuck, and Ishmael. Also, Moby-Dick, the great white whale is an important character, it creates the situation why the story happened.

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Captain Ahab believes that Moby-Dick snatched his leg in the previous encounter in purpose. Ahab, the monomaniacal captain, he obsessed with the theme of revenge. Captain Ahab thinks that everything in the world happens for a reason. In his opinion, everything has a purpose, and things are connected to each other in a logical way: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask” ( Melville 161-162).

Starbuck, as you mentioned in your last lecture, represents the ethical system of capitalism. Starbuck is there to get richer by way of extracting whale oil. His economic concern prevails over everything else: ‘Or waste in one day more oil then we make good in a year. What we come twenty thousand miles to get is worth saving, Sir’ (Melville 390). Ishmael is open to re-evaluating his ethical norms. He is free of the revenge or economic concerns. Ishmael understands the conflict between Ahab and Starbucks, but he knows that as a common sailor he cannot change the course of the ship.

I think ethics can provide a moral map, a framework we can follow to find our way through the difficult issues. Ethics doesn’t provide us with a single answer to the complicated questions. We still have to take responsibility for our own choices and actions. Some of the individuals are falling back on the customs and religion to justify their actions.

Some of the ethicals questions would give us different answers, for example, issues like euthanasia. The issue has been at the center of very heated debates for many years and is surrounded by religious, ethical and practical considerations. In this case, ethics cannot give us the right answer or gives us several answers. As an example, in the United States, while active euthanasia is illegal throughout the US, assisted suicide is legal in Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California (effective from June 2016), one county in New Mexico, and is de facto legal in Montana. We can see how in the same country euthanasia is treated differently. I remember David Goodall’s case, which was covered by major media companies. David Goodall is Australian botanist and ecologist. He was known as Australia’s oldest working scientist, still editing ecology papers at age 103. Long an advocate of voluntary euthanasia legalization, he ended his own life in Switzerland via physician-assisted suicide at age 104. The fact of his assisted suicide created huge debates between people with values based on a religion and people whose values based on a science. It is a perfect example of ethics not able to determine the right decision in Goodall’s case, because of all the answers depend on which ethical foundation we use.

When two ethical systems are clashes, we cannot expect ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ scenario. The only reason Starbucks wasn’t supporting Ahab because Moby-Dick won’t yield as many barrels of the oil as other whales would do. Starbuck’s ethical system is based on the profit he sees Moby-Dick as unworthy of the risking the ship and crew.

In Moby-Dick, Melville explored many existential themes. The desire to confront the existential challenge, the desire when one ethical system seems to dominate another one. Ahab’s ethical system dominates everybody around him. His point of view makes no sense: it is obsessive, wild and devastating. Ahab is driven by emotions and revenge: ‘Ahab never thinks, he only feels, feels, feels” (Melville 578). Ahab’s system is dangerous, based on his ego. Ahab thinks that he is a free man. He considers himself a different type of human. His ethical system is more superior in his eyes than others in the world. His emotions are so strong that it takes me as a reader to the point where I am not concerned about anything else, but Ahab’s pain and solidarity. It reminds me, Hitler’s dictatorship. His obsession with power, with superior ethical systems and his obsession with eliminating certain races as they were Moby-Dicks.

Ahab says: ‘I’d strike the sun if it insulted me’ (Melville 162). Hitler says: ‘If you win, you need not have to explain. If you lose, you should not be there to explain!” The last quote describes the ending of the story of the Ahab. He is not there to explain to us what happened. We don’t know what exactly happened, Melville doesn’t offer us a solution. I don’t believe that Ishmael’s example gives us any solution at all.

Ishmael is the narrator of the novel. His role in the novel to observe the conflicts around him. Ishmael is a lonely soul. From the beginning of the story, he reveals himself as a person who seeks isolation and terrified of the thoughts of joining others “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; […] then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship” (Melville 1).

When Ishmael connected with Queequeg, he tossed out his old ethical norms once he liked Queequeq. But what concerns me is this: how easy Ishmael tossed his beliefs. Where is the guarantee that when he gets tired of Queequeg, that he won’t change him for another ‘dearest’ friend? I don’t believe in a strong connection between very different people. I think Ishmael is treating Queequeg as a trophy, not as a friend. Ishmael is the person who doesn’t take responsibility, he observes, judges others around him, but he doesn’t contribute in social life. He connects himself with everyone around him until it doesn’t require him to take any action. I am a lovely person too when I don’t care about the subject. Why waste the energy, I feel that Ishmael just by-passer. When you passionate about something, you want to live burning in emotions or with your intellect.

In Moby-Dick, Melville got lost in his own thoughts. He wanted to cover so many hot topics of his time, that he wasn’t able to properly analyze most of them. He wanted us to create the end of the novel based on our ethical system. Did Ahab die? What happened to Moby-Dick? We don’t know, we have to guess. What concerns me that Melville speaks through Ishmael, he uses him to express his own beliefs, and this is why he is afraid to involve Ishmael into the conflict. I would express an unpopular opinion, but I believe that some ethical systems are more superior than another ones. This is the way in which we evolve as a society. Ishmael’s beliefs that no one ethical system is sufficient is no more than utopia. His beliefs go against natural orders and real-life rules. I personally, rather take Ahab’s ethical system over Ishmael’s or Queequeg’s .

Melville’s novel goes against the theory of natural selection. Something we can’t deny, natural selection is here, it is working. It works because of the one ethical system is better than another one. We develop new ethical systems based on the previous experiences. For instance, if Ahab killed the Moby-Dick and nothing would happen to the ship and crew would it be considered as a victory of Ahab’s ethical system, or if Starbuck killed Ahab would it be the victory of the economic ethic system? But Melville wants to give the less realistic ending of the novel. This makes the whole novel weak as the masterpiece.

Ethical systems are complex, based not only on traditions or religious beliefs but also on empirical knowledge. Some of the ethical systems are corrupted and not able to exist on it is own, they can become a part of the superior ethical system. For example, Starbuck’s ethical system wasn’t able to survive on it is own. It needed Ahab’s system to make any sense. Starbuck’s capitalistic point of view is not most desirable compare to others systems but on a comparison with Ahab’s it wins, because it could save ship crew’s lives unless they are on the way of obtaining the profit like Pip was.

My personal experience, considering that I lived in three different countries throughout my life proofs that some ethical systems are better than other ones. When I lived in Russia, their ethical system is way different from here. It teaches you to survive and helps you to be the warrior. Also, due to hardship, I learned that a lot of the ethical questions are created by privileged people. As an example, Marie Antoinette, rich, royal and wanting for nothing, was told: ‘But the people have no bread!’ and the response was: ‘Let them eat brioche.’

It is uneasy for me to accept the whole drama of the Moby-Dick, the story is unreal, not trustworthy and doesn’t teach us anything. Moby-Dick didn’t teach me how to be a better person, and I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that the whole story is overly dramatic. Moby-Dick didn’t teach me how to be a warrior, and I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that the whole story is overly dramatic. The story which didn’t teach me how to be a better human being or a better friend, or a better daughter.

Opposite, I actually understand Ahab’s character, because he is the part of that natural balance: “What would your good be doing if there were no evil, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it? After all, shadows are cast by objects and people. There is the shadow of my sword. But there are also shadows of trees and living creatures. Would you like to denude the earth of all the trees and all the living beings in order to satisfy your fantasy of rejoicing in the naked light” (Mikhail Bulgakov)?

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The Ethics of Moby-Dick. (2021, Dec 14). Retrieved from

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