Casuistry and Culpability: Raskolnikov and Utilitarianism

(An English essay I wrote, but I think the critique of utilitarianism is useful. All the page numbers are from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. If you haven't read the book, you should, but you probably won't understand this essay.)

Casuistry and Culpability: Raskolnikov and Utilitarianism

Simple arithmetic. Thus a student in a bar explains his rationalization of murdering Alyona Ivanovna – “simple arithmetic” (68). He says, “Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all. What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?” (68) Raskolnikov himself states “an extraordinary man has the right…to decide in his own conscience to overstep…certain obstacles” (260). These moral justifications are formulated upon the ethical doctrine of utilitarianism, whose major premise is that morality depends solely upon the consequences of an action (summarized colloquially as “the ends justify the means”). Superficially, this argument appears tantalizingly seductive, yet as Dostoevsky eloquently illustrates in Crime and Punishment, the “simple arithmetic” of Raskolnikov’s theories is egregiously flawed. No tortuous ethical legerdemain can justify the brutal murder of two women.

The initial and fatal flaw in Raskolnikov’s proto-Nietzschean ethic is the artificial and arbitrary distinction between ordinary and (allegedly) extraordinary men. Although Raskolnikov claims that extraordinary men are “extremely few in number” – going so far as to say that “the man of genius is one of millions” – and that there is a “definite law” which separates them from the ordinary (263), he seems perfectly content to categorize himself as an extraordinary man. Nevertheless, throughout the novel, Raskolnikov displays no extraordinary qualities besides depression, nightmares, paranoia, pride, rage, hypochondria, indolence, and delirium. He conjectures that crimes fail because “almost every criminal is subject to a failure of will and reasoning power by a childish and phenomenal heedlessness” (74), and then commits incredibly asinine blunders during the murders, culminating in his unplanned execution of Lizaveta. For the majority of the novel, then, Raskolnikov is no ordinary individual, but an extraordinarily perturbed one; to grant him the authority to arbitrate morality unilaterally is patently insane.

Perhaps the more subjective and debatable issue is whether or not Raskolnikov’s intentions validated his legal transgressions. Indeed, even after he is convicted, Raskolnikov finds “no particularly terrible fault in his past, except a simple blunder which might happen to anyone” (535). When he confesses the murders to his sister, he is even more adamant; after his sister protests that he shed blood, Raskolnikov cries, “Which all men shed…which flows, and has always flowed in streams, which is spilt like champagne, and for which mean are crowned in the Capitol and are called afterwards benefactors of mankind….I too wanted to do good to men…” (513) Nevertheless, Raskolnikov’s impassioned words belie his stolid and senseless actions following the murder. In fact, during his trial, the judges note that he makes no use of the trinkets he steals either for himself or for others (527). Indeed, the most obvious result of Raskolnikov’s scheme to murder Alyona is the second murder of the (supposedly) more innocent Lizaveta, highlighting the pitfalls of his utilitarian barbarism. Either Raskolnikov suffers from amnesia, or he was not truly motivated by altruism. Raskolnikov himself admits his true impetus to his sister: “…I only wanted to put myself into an independent position, to take the first step, to obtain means, and then everything would have been smoothed over by benefits immeasurable in comparison…” (513) No matter how he attempts to couch his theory in philanthropic language, Raskolnikov cannot perpetually conceal from himself his true desire to authenticate his theory and thus establish himself as an extraordinary man.

In the end, however, Raskolnikov’s own conscience convicts him. Raskolnikov is tormented constantly by his guilt, though he refuses to acknowledge it as such. When Sonia looks at him, she knows only that he is “terribly, infinitely unhappy” (328). He even dreams of a dystopia of (in essence) extraordinary men who “each thought that he alone had the truth….Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite” (539). Dostoevsky clearly intends to portray his protagonist as a man not merely physically, but spiritually and emotionally ill.

Finally, Dostoevsky indicates Raskolnikov’s guilt by his repentance and regeneration at the conclusion of the novel. After months of nonsensical agony, Raskolnikov finally collapses before Sonia and cries; Dostoevsky writes that he has “risen again” (541). Only the truly guilty are capable of such marked rebirth.