The Ethics of Crime and Punishment
Posted by Michael Dickens on August 17, 2010
Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a story about a very troubled man, Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov. Dostoevsky shows Raskolnikov to be a man of questionable psychological and ethical integrity as he explores the workings of Raskolnikov’s mind. Dostoevsky uses Raskolnikov and his ideas to paint an intriguing picture of the nature of morality. (Warning: Some spoilers ahead.)
The pivotal point of the book is when Raskolnikov murders an old pawnbroker. He justifies it based on his idea: there are certain extraordinary people who have the potential to do great things for mankind and who are justified in committing otherwise atrocious acts to further their cause. For these extraordinary people, laws do not apply.
I maintain that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in duty bound . . . to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity. But it does not follow that Newton had a right to murder people right and left and to steal every day in the market. (p. 211; Part 3, ch. 5)
This is a most intriguing idea, which I contend to be partially true but misguided. I propose a modification, which I shall dub the Dickens Corollary to Raskolnikov’s Thesis.
It is impossible to question whether a person is ethical; only an action may be judged as right or wrong, on the basis that it helps or hinders a higher good. Therefore, no person may be justified in committing murder — but a sufficiently good cause may justify crime. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov recognizes this. He claims that “it does not follow that Newton had a right to murder people right and left and to steal every day in the market,” because murder and theft would only be justified insofar as they made possible his great discoveries — his cause. Newton himself is not justified in murder; rather, murder may be justified as a means to one of Newton’s ideas. It makes no real difference that the idea was Newton’s. Any other man, had he thought of the same ideas as Newton and needed to commit murder to make his ideas known, would have been no more or less justified. It is the idea which makes the difference, not the person.
But perhaps I am being too hasty in assuming Raskolnikov’s thesis to be even partially correct. What makes it correct at all? Before we address any corollaries, let us first examine whether the theory holds water in the first place. If Newton had to commit murder for the sake of discovering the theory of gravity, would it have been justified? Although murder is of course terrible, perhaps it would have been acceptable in this limited case. I would argue that for the sake of discovering the theory of gravity, it would indeed have been justified. The inventions, the societal developments that have burgeoned as a result of the theory of gravity have improved the lives of many, and even saved lives. But suppose someone had a new idea that would not save lives, or even improve anyone’s life by a significant margin. In that case, theft or murder would be unacceptable. The Dickens Corollary states: Crime is justified if and only if it sufficiently furthers a sufficiently good cause such that the suffering of the victim is outweighed by the happiness or growth of the beneficiaries of the cause.
Raskolnikov comes to regret his crime. The Dickens Corollary says he should feel regret: although his crime does sufficiently further his cause, the cause is not sufficiently good. A sufficiently good cause is one that does so much good as to outweigh the crime; no other cause may be considered good enough to warrant the crime. Raskolnikov’s cause failed to meet this definition of sufficiency. What exactly was his cause? He admits that he committed the murder only for himself, not for the benefit of his family or society. In fact, his only real objective was to test his thesis, to prove that he himself was an extraordinary man. In essence, he was committing murder to prove that committing murder is sometimes justified. That simply makes no sense, and certainly does not meet the high standards necessary to justify murder. For this reason, Raskolnikov’s act of murder was as terrible a crime as murder can be.
Another point Raskolnikov argues is that “if [an extraordinary man] is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood” (p. 211; part 3, ch. 5). The Dickens Corollary affirms this proposition. If a man had an extraordinary idea that necessitated murder, he would not only be justified in murder, but would be obligated in the same way that people are ordinarily obligated not to murder. These moral obligations — both the obligation to kill and the obligation not to — arise when the greater good is in mind. In nearly every situation, murder does great harm, not only to the murdered but to friends and loved ones, as well; but on the path towards an extraordinary cause, holding oneself back would do more harm even than murder. In the case of an extraordinary idea, to commit murder might be atrocious, but not to do so would be far worse.
I have said that there are no extraordinary people, only extraordinary ideas; in the strictest sense this is true. However, it is possible to define an extraordinary person as someone capable of bringing an extraordinary idea into the world. This is the sort of person that Raskolnikov meant when he talked about the “extraordinary people” who have an imperative to commit crime. This definition ties in to my point in the previous paragraph: if a person has an extraordinary idea that can only be made known through murder but has not the conscience to see it through, then she cannot be considered extraordinary. To be extraordinary, one must not only have an extraordinary idea but must be willing to act on it. It is fortunate that so many ideas do not require what would otherwise be considered morally repugnant acts; I doubt that Einstein would have been willing to kill for his cause.
In Crime and Punishment, it becomes apparent that Raskolnikov’s thesis did not turn out well at all. Dostoevsky clearly does not agree with Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov himself comes to relinquish his belief after he sees its results.
What are its results? Raskolnikov sees that his murder was not justified, and decides that he must not be one of these extraordinary men. But the results go beyond that: throughout the novel Raskolnikov interacts with a man named Svidrigailov. Svidrigailov is intended to represent the inevitable outcome of Raskolnikov’s thesis: he is a man who sees himself as above the law, and in a way he is because he never gets caught. He murders several people, including his wife, for his own pleasure. (He claims that it’s because he is very bored (p. 231; Part 4, ch.1).) Svidrigailov feels no guilt or even unease about his murders. Raskolnikov may have thought him to be extraordinary, but he does not fit the definition. He had no greater cause; the only motivations for committing his murders were his own selfish desires. According to the Dickens Corollary, crime without a cause is unjustified. Raskolnikov, had he considered his thesis from the proper angle, would have agreed. Svidrigailov was not an appropriate model for the thesis because he had no higher cause. To apply the Dickens Corollary, his cause was not sufficiently good — nowhere close.
Dostoevsky is not wrong that Raskolnikov’s own actions, and the actions of Svidrigailov, were base and immoral. However, the basic idea of Raskolnikov’s thesis is still well-supported. It is not entirely correct, but a modified version of the thesis does make a lot of sense. There are not extraordinary people, in the sense that Raskolnikov proposes; but there are extraordinary causes. Newton’s cause was extraordinary. Svidrigailov’s was not.
Quotations are from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, published by Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1994.