The novel Crime and Punishment leans heavily on Aristotelian thought, and shares with Aristotle a commitment to not making some determinate objective content the locus of ethics. The general trend in much modern moral theory has been to take certain fixed beliefs and values to be prior to moral behavior, and to conceive of these as being the particular content on which our ethical attention should focus. Aristotle’s philosophy towards Raskolnikov’s character in the novel made an attempt to make the same point that the development of the moral self is prior to any ethical content and so should be the focal point of ethical inquiry.
Philosophy towards the Novel The protagonist of Dostoevsky’s novel, Raskolnikov, might be cited by the objector regarding evil as an example of a person who is committed to the greatest overall good and to relieving the deserving poor of their suffering, but who, in responding with evil and killing the pawnbroker, appears as ignorant or misguided about what he is conscientiously doing. Raskolnikov is portrayed as a well-meaning person who, had he not given himself up to the authorities, might have built up the feelings of self-worth that accompany love of self while (the objector points out) responding to others with evil.
Yet what we have illustrated in Raskolnikov is precisely what we should find worrying about many modern ethical theories: a person’s belief in or commitment to a secular conception of the ethical as given by some particular content, with an accompanying neglect of the self (the subject of moral understanding). Raskolnikov looks to theory to find out how to behave, and engages in a complete neglect of his own self as a possible locus of the ethical.
Through this characterization, Dostoevsky signals what he saw as a danger inherent in many ethical theories: the preoccupation with objective content. The objector to my account, assuming that good and evil are given by an objective content, regards Raskolnikov’s killing the pawnbroker as the objective content on which a theorist’s ethical attention should focus. The killing is seen as evil, and she questions whether my account of love of self is able to exclude evil: evil being understood in terms of some objective content such as harming, stealing or killing.
Were we to share this supposition regarding objective content, and were we to transpose it to an account of moral understanding, we would have moral subjects who would indeed be open to evil in a way that no moral subjects can afford to be. Furthermore, were we to engage in such a transposition, we would not be able to understand Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Sonia in Crime and Punishment, or what it was about the murder of the pawnbroker that bothered her so.
While Sonia was bothered by the injustice of the murder, the focus of her attention was not on this fact: the killing, as objective content, was not her fundamental worry. Her fundamental worry was, rather, what Raskolnikov had become, this being displayed in his failure to properly understand what he had done. While Sonia was bothered by Raskolnikov’s looking to utilitarian theory for an answer to his moral worries, she was perhaps even more bothered by the very structure of his thinking.
He thought he was ‘ordinary’, and that he could make himself ‘extraordinary’ by rejecting the values and morality of ‘ordinary’ people: “men are in general divided…into two categories, inferior (ordinary)…material that serves only to reproduce its kind, and men who have the…talent to utter a new word…if one (of the latter category) is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can…find…in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood…. The first…preserve the world and people it, the second move the world and lead it to its goal” (pp.
230-1). Raskolnikov set out to ‘overstep certain obstacles’ by killing the pawnbroker, the justification being that he would then be a good member of humanity. We might compare the Hegelian-like thought that to be morally worried is to be a bad member of the rational state. We can imagine this thought to consist of something like: ‘If only I could identify with the state I would be fine and not have these moral worries. Since I have moral worries, I must still be in the grip of some primitive kind of orientation: I have not yet transcended Moralitat’.
In Raskolnikov’s terminology, ‘To be someone, I must transcend the ordinary’. Sonia’s answer to Raskolnikov is that if one transcends that, one transcends selfhood itself. Selfhood, on her view, is not a social or political construction, but something for which each person is solely responsible. Dostoevsky shows that in transcending the ordinary (or in leaving Moralitat behind) Raskolnikov loses his own self. ‘I murdered myself, not her! I crushed myself once for all! ‘ (p. 369).
We have illustrated in Sonia the moral self’s preoccupation with itself and with the moral selves of others. The concerns of modern moral theory, in aiming to establish an objective content for the ethical, do not at any point connect with the kind of moral concern in which a person like Sonia finds herself to be immersed on being confronted by a Raskolnikov. Aristotelian Philosophy on Raskolnikov’s Character Many modern moral theories would likely hold that Raskolnikov’s moral mistake was caused by his not following a particular theory properly.
A rule utilitarian would claim that Raskolnikov failed to engage in a utilitarian calculation that would have revealed that a world containing murders is far worse than one in which murders are absent. Had he properly weighed the relevant benefits and burdens, he would have realised that when a person is murdered, other people are put into fear of being killed, the family and friends of the deceased suffer pain and grief, and the killer is himself brutalised (Devine 1978, p. 22).
Moreover, Raskolnikov applied a utilitarian calculation to his motives as well as to his actions and policies, and this, a sophisticated utilitarian would say, is also a mistake. Had he been aware of the good utilitarian reasons for acting justly and honestly, he would not have killed. He did not realize that utilitarianism does not need to be a decision procedure, but need only be a criterion of rightness (Brink 1986). A Kantian would say that Raskolnikov did not respect rational nature in the pawnbroker, and failed to test for the universalisability of his subjective maxim.
Had he done so, he would have seen the murder as impermissible. Dostoevsky does not locate Raskolnikov’s moral mistake where many theories would want to locate it, but rather in his looking to theory for moral knowledge and guidance. A reader would be right to conclude that Raskolnikov was guided by his own understanding (given by utilitarian theory) of what he ought to do. Yet Dostoevsky shows that, as a follower of moral theory who sought the ethical in an objective content, Raskolnikov could only be in possession of what have been called ‘blackboard conclusions’: the inescapable conclusions of rational arguments (Gaita 1991, pp.
328-9). This meant that he lacked an understanding of the significance of a human life, and of what it would be to take a human life. This lack is tied by Dostoevsky to the fact that a self that looks to theory for an objective content for the ethical is a self that lacks the motivation to engage in the kind of reflective evaluation that might have revealed the pawnbroker to be ‘a human being’, and so have presented her as a limit to Raskolnikov’s will. Through the character of Sonia the reader is shown that a good person’s moral understanding is not given by theory.
One might well take Dostoevsky to be raising a worry in Crime and Punishment about the very need for moral theory, and the reliance on it in the modern West. Raskolnikov arrived at the conclusion, regarding the pawnbroker, that ‘a louse is better off dead’, and he embraced this thought as a result of what might be seen to be a wilful deprivation. For it is not merely the case that he arrived at a false thought; that his thought was false does not tell us what went wrong with his moral thinking.
We need to see that he lacked the quality of character or mind to focus on the meaning or significance of such a judgment, and on the meaning of an action that might flow from such a judgment. He arrived at a false thought as a result of not allowing himself to retain any understanding of the significance, or the ultimate value, of a human life. This willful deprivation can be seen to not be unconnected to his commitment to moral theory. For the commitment that a self that follows moral theory has to the conclusions that theory propounds is a commitment to intellectually constructed conclusions.
Since such a self must be primarily concerned with the ultimate grounds of justification, it must not carry too many presuppositions regarding what is of ultimate value. To commit itself to the conclusions of moral theory, a self must believe that, and behave as though, its reason can overcome the most deeply rooted human emotions. Accordingly, Raskolnikov is shown, via a dream he has of an old mare being cruelly whipped to death by its owner, to be horrified at the taking of innocent life.
When he wakes from this awful dream, ‘He felt utterly broken: darkness and confusion were in his soul’ (p. 54). When he thinks again about murdering the pawnbroker, he says: ‘the very thought of it made me feel sick and filled me with horror. No, I couldn’t do it’ (pp. 54-5). Yet Raskolnikov sets aside the special moral understanding conveyed by his own emotions, effecting a dissociation between his intellectual and emotional-affective life so as to enact the conclusions that utilitarianism demanded.
On restricting his commitment to intellectually compelling beliefs and values, he changed his mind about his ability to murder. Raskolnikov overhears a conversation that repeats his own utilitarian ideas regarding the greater good to be achieved by killing the pawnbroker: “Hundreds, thousands…might be…saved from destitution…. Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all…would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds? …One death, and a hundred lives in exchange-it’s simple arithmetic!
(p. 56). On overhearing this conversation, he focuses again on the specific content that utilitarianism presents as the locus of the ethical. Despite his horror at the spilling of blood, he allows the irrefutability of a ‘blackboard conclusion’ to move him to murder: ‘This trivial talk in a tavern had an immense influence on him in his later action’ (p. 60). Dostoevsky’s Underground Man said that man’s intellect was merely one-twentieth of his make-up (Dostoevsky 1948), and Raskolnikov might be seen in Crime and Punishment to be taking this part as the whole.
A central issue raised in the novel concerns the question of how a human being ought to respond to suffering and injustice, and Dostoevsky can be understood as wanting to convey the idea that a rationalistic humanism is unable to come to terms with the evil in human life, and that moral commitment is far more than merely intellectual commitment to certain beliefs, values, propositions, etc. We have seen that what a person who develops love of self understands about certain values is conveyed by her emotional-affective life as well as her intellect.
Love of self has been shown to involve an affective attachment to certain values. But Raskolnikov had to shut out his emotional-affective life and the moral understanding that this conveyed in order to be able to enact a utilitarian calculation and proceed with his plans to murder the pawnbroker. In looking to moral theory for moral guidance, he had to restrict his commitment to the particular content (certain intellectually compelling beliefs, values, propositions) that the theory propounded as being the locus of the ethical.
Works Cited Brink, D. ‘Utilitarian morality and the personal point of view’, TheJournal of Philosophy, 1986, 83: 417-38. Devine, P. The Ethics of Homicide, Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1978. Dostoevsky, F. ‘Notes from underground’, in A Treasury of RussianLiterature, London: The Bodley Head, 1948. —, Crime and Punishment, trans. C. Garnett, London: Heinemann, 1949. Gaita, R. Good and Evil: an Absolute Conception, London: Macmillan, 1991.