Moral Relativism in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment

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Moral Relativism in Crime and Punishment

At the close of Crime and Punishment, Raskolinkov is convicted of Murder and sentenced to seven years in Siberian prison. Yet even before the character was conceived, Fyodor Dostoevsky had already convicted Raskolinkov in his mind (Frank, Dostoevsky 101). Crime and Punishment is the final chapter in Dostoevsky's journey toward understanding the  forces that drive man to sin, suffering, and grace. Using ideas developed in Notes from Underground and episodes of his life recorded in Memoirs of the House of the Dead, Dostoevsky puts forth in Crime in Punishment a stern defense of natural law and an irrefutable volume of evidence condemning Raskolnikov's actions (Bloom, Notes 25).

            Central to the prosecution of any crime, murder in particular, is the idea of motive. Not only must the prosecutor prove the actus rectus or "guilty act," but also that the criminal possessed the mens rea or "guilty mind" (Schmalleger 77). The pages of Crime and Punishment and the philosophies of Dostoevsky provide ample proof of both. The first is easy; Dostoevsky forces the reader to watch firsthand as Raskolnikov "took the axe all the way out, swung  it with both hands, scarcely aware of himself, and almost without effort, almost mechanically, brought the butt-end down on her head" (Crime and Punishment 76). There is no doubt Raskolnikov caused the death of Alena Ivanovna and, later, Lizaveta, but whether he possessed the mens rea is another matter entirely. By emphasizing the depersonalization Raskolnikov experiences during the murder, the fact that he was "scarcely aware of himself" and acted "almost mechanically" the sympathetic reader might conclude that some unknown force of nature, and not the person Raskolnikov, is to blame for the death of the usurer and her sister (Nutall 160). Dostoevsky's answer to this is contained not in Crime and Punishment, but rather in an earlier work, Notes from Underground.

            The entire story of the Underground Man was intended to parody the works of Nicolai G. Chernyshevsky, and thereby prove that man's actions are the result of his own free-will. The idea that man is alone responsible for his actions is central to proving that Raskolnikov is really to blame for his crime. For under the Chernyshevsky-embraced doctrine of scientific determinism, Raskolnikov cannot be held accountable for his actions. Rather, scientific determinism holds that whatever actions men take are inevitable and unalterable because they are "totally determined by the laws of nature.

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"Moral Relativism in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment." 21 Jan 2017

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" The Underground man was created by Dostoevsky as a man who accepts without question scientific determinism--he is a projection of Chernyshevsky's theories at their most extreme. The result is not the utopian vision of Chernyshevsky, but rather an antisocial animal that is barely recognizable as human (Frank "Nihilism" 37).

            The reason, according to Dostoevsky, for the problems of the Underground Man, is that he is incapable of any moral action because he lives in a world devoid of blame. At one point, the Underground man imagines forgiving someone for having slapped him in the face; but he cannot. Although the human side of the Underground man realizes that it is moral to forgive, determinism convinces him that "the man who would have slapped my face would most probably have done it in obedience to the laws of nature" (Notes from Underground 45). And so he cannot blame the other for slapping him because nature is really to blame (Frank "Nihilism" 50). But, as the Underground Man points out "even if it is the law of nature, it hurts all the same." According to Dostoevsky, blame is central to humanity. We must accept the responsibility and the consequences of our actions, since we alone determine what they are (Frank "Nihilism" 56). So, Raskolnikov cannot blame fate for his misfortune. But what can he blame? Why, then did Raskolnikov, a "handsome young man," well educated, devoted to his family, choose to kill a defenseless old woman?

            Like the main character of Notes from Underground, Raskolinkov finds himself torn between reason and objective morality (Jackson 150). In an essay written six months prior to the start of the novel entitled "On Crime" Raskolnikov lays down the foundation of his rational justification for murder. "On Crime" describes a world split into two groups of people; the "ordinary" and the "extraordinary." The first group, the masses, are content with their lot and docilely accept whatever established order exists; the second, a small elite, is composed of individuals who "seek in various ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better," their aim is ultimately the improvement of mankind, and thus in the they comprise benefactors rather than the destroyers.

            In choosing Raskolnikov's name, Dostoevsky has given an important clue to his character. The word raskol, in Russian, means "schism" or "split." Dualism is key to Raskolnikov's character: he is torn between the desire of his mind to prove his theories through evil, and the necessity to satisfy his conscience by doing good (Nutall 160). Dostoevsky makes clear Raskolnikov is not an evil person. Throughout Crime and Punishment, the reader observes Raskolnikov undertake acts of extreme magnanimity, such as offering to pay for Marmeladov's funeral. And yet his character is ultimately defined by his one evil deed (Frank Dostoevsky 50). The ability of Raskolnikov to ultimately separate (at least temporarily) his conscience from his mind explains his ability to go through with the murderous act. In addition, Raskolnikov's split between reason and morality epitomizes Dostoevsky's view on the relationship between reason and ethics: that reason and morality are completely separate spheres. Despite the impact of rationalization, morality will remain objective and immutable because it is so universal and so far ingrained into the human spirit. No amount of reason, says Dostoevsky, can forever rid a man of his conscience (Frank Dostoevsky 251).

            Raskolinkov argues that "if such a one is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can find in himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood" (Crime and Punishment 199-200). After publication of his article, Raskolnikov becomes monomaniacal: he becomes fascinated at the prospect of a "Napoleonic" personality that he believes, possesses a moral right to kill. To prove this theory, Raskolnikov murders the usurer. Raskolnikov, desperately wanted to prove his existence: like the Underground man when he bumped the officer, he became a criminal to "prove that he was a man and not a key on a piano" (Notes from Underground 62). The choice of a victim was incidental; the real motive according to Dostoevsky was Raskolnikov's egotism in believing in the supremacy of his ideas (Bloom Notes 90).  The reason for establishing a motive in the case of a crime such as murder is to aid the agents of justice in deciding whether or not that crime was justified (Schmalleger 80). Even Dostoevsky would admit that a crime acted in self-defense, under duress, or in error would be morally and reasonably justified. However, in the case of Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky sternly rejects his character's notion of a "crime of principle" and attempts to persuade the reader to reject it, too (Bloom Introduction 7). 

            Dostoevsky already had a chillingly vivid image of what it meant to be a Napoleonic personality: during his time in Siberia, he met what is thought to be the precursor of Raskolnikov in the person of the bandit chief Orlov (Frank Dostoevsky 62). Dostoevsky's experience with Orlov, as chronicled in Memoirs of the House of the Dead, is thought to be an expression of the ideal "extraordinary" man Raskolnikov seeks to become, devoid of all morality and conscience whatsoever. Yet, as Dostoevsky well knew, Orlov, "who had murdered old people and children in cold blood," was not a "good" person. Becoming aware, on one occasion, that Dostoevsky "was trying to get at his conscience and discover some sign of penitence in him," Orlov looked at his fellow inmate "with great contempt and haughtiness, as though I had suddenly in his eyes become a foolish little boy with whom it was impossible to discuss things as you would with a grown-up person. A minute later he burst out laughing at me, a perfectly open-hearted laugh free from any irony" (Memoirs of the House of the Dead 47-48). Like Raskolnikov, Orlov felt that his ideas were superior to all others, and that this granted him a license to kill. Dostoevsky realized that this was the result not of some "extraordinary" aspect of Orlov's personality, but rather Orlov's intense egoism masquerading as utilitarianism (Frank Dostoevsky 62). Before Raskolnikov could transform his ideas into reality, however, he needed a "trigger," or some event which would bridge the gap between the imaginary world of his ideas and the reality of his life in Petersburg (Nutall 158). That event occurs, ironically, just when Raskolnikov is about to disband his journey into the "extraordinary" elite. He overhears a conversation which indicates that the old woman, Alena Ivanovna, will be home alone at a certain hour. His encounter with Alena, then "simply concretized the possibility of applying his ambition, which had been germinating in his subconscious, to the local Petersburg conditions of his own life" (Frank Dostoevsky 108).

Even at this point, however, Raskolnikov is unique. Surely there are many people who dream of killing someone, then hear that the opportunity exists, yet do not actually commit the crime. Dostoevsky asserts that the final factor which predisposes Raskolnikov toward crime is his alienation from the outside world (Bloom Notes 101). Forced to live in squalor, confined to an almost coffin-like room most of the day, Raskolnikov barely ever leaves his apartment. And when he does, he very rarely interacts with others. The research of modern criminal justice specialists, notably Walter Reckless (1899-1988) corroborates Dostoevsky's assertion that social alienation opens up an individual to criminal behavior. Reckless' containment theory hold that all people are subject to inducements to crime. Some of us resist these "pushes" toward criminal behavior, while others do not. The difference, according to Reckless, can be found in the forces which contain behavior (Schmalleger 98).

            Outer containment, that which is experienced by Raskolnikov, depends upon the social role and expectations which apply to certain individuals. Generally, people who occupy significant or well-assimilated roles in society find themselves insulated from deviant tendencies. A corporate executive, for example, is less apt to hold up a liquor store than a drifter. The difference is not based on income, but rather the pressure to conform that the "successful" role exerts upon its occupant. Raskolnikov, not really a member of society at all, is not at all propelled towards conformity, and therefore does not resist his deviant tendencies (Schmalleger 99-100).

            In the moments before the murder, Raskolnikov displays a marked ambivalence about following through with his plan. It is as though he cannot escape his conscience (Nutall 169). Yet through a technique modern criminal jurists have labeled "neutralization" Raskolnikov is able to suppress his conscience and moral code long enough to murder Alena and Lizaveta. Gresham Sykes and David Matza, long after Dostoevsky, proposed that most people drift in and out of criminal behavior, but would not commit crime unless they had available to them techniques of neutralization. Such techniques are actually rationalizations which allow offenders to shed feelings of guilt and any sense of responsibility for their behavior. Neutralization techniques--such as denial of responsibility, denial of the victim ("they deserved it"), and an appeal to higher loyalties ("I did it for the benefit of mankind")--provide Raskolnikov with a respite from guilt that lasts long enough to avoid the twinges of conscience while the crime is being committed (Schmalleger 99).

            Dostoevsky observed the temporary relief of morality neutralization provides in his time in Siberia. During his prison years, Dostoevsky observed what frequently occurred in the case of real-life peasant murderers (Frank Dostoevsky 62). Such a peasant, serf, or soldier, has lived in peace for most of his life; but suddenly, at a certain point, "something in him seems to snap; his patience gave way and he sticks a knife into his enemy and oppressor" (Memoirs of the House of the Dead 47). This explains Raskolnikov's psychology with regard to the murder of Alena, but what about Lizaveta? Dostoevsky observed in these same peasant murderers that after the initial kill the previously quiet and peaceable person begins to kill indiscriminately "for amusement, for an insulting word, to make a round number. It is as though once having overstepped the sacred limit, he begins to revel in the fact that nothing is sacred to him." Once Raskolnikov kills Alena, Dostoevsky holds, he too "begins to revel in the fact that nothing is sacred to him" and kills Lizaveta simply for crossing his path (Memoirs of the House of the Dead 48) (Frank Dostoevsky 63).

            Dostoevsky sought to prove, through the illustration of Raskolnikov's downfall, the folly of moral relativism (Jackson 35). The intense suffering and disorientation Raskolnikov experiences after the murders signal the reemergence of his conscience. Despite his elaborate rationalization, Raskolnikov was able to escape morality only so long as to commit one spree of murders (Nutall 165). And his theory that rationalizations can influence the human conception of right versus wrong is equally flawed: Raskolnikov could no more escape the horrible weight of his guilt than those old Greek heroes could fly close to the sun. After the murders, he falls into a state of sickness and delirium, torn between hiding and confessing. Raskolnikov explains "What is it? Am I still delirious or is it all real? I think its real? . . .oh I remember now I must run" (Crime and Punishment 146). The delirium continues until Raskolnikov finally realizes that he is not the "extraordinary" man he thought he was. Ultimately, not even Raskolnikov's lofty rationalizations can balance the guilt caused by his conscience (Bloom Notes 25). Raskolnikov's "human" side declares victory as he enters the police station and says "softly, with some pauses but distinctly: 'It was I who killed the official's old widow and her sister Lizaveta with an axe and robbed them'" (Crime and Punishment 531). With his confession, Raskolnikov begins his journey towards reprieve.

            In modern times, Dostoevsky would have been an advocate of what jurists refer to as "natural law." Natural law advocates argue that the basis of criminal laws can be found in immutable moral principles and that man must live by an objective ethical standard. Some actions, including murder, are mala in se (evil in and of themselves) (Schmalleger 135).This standard can be known, Dostoevsky holds, not through reason but through the human conscience. In the eyes of Dostoevsky, actions are either right or they are wrong. Ethics are not relative. Accordingly, Raskolnikov had no right to murder the usurer, his reasons notwithstanding (Frank Dostoevsky 69). In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky clearly indicates that reason is not omnipotent. The human conscience, for one, is not reasonable, but it must be followed, for it is the only means by which humans can grasp a universal moral standard (Jackson 35).

            Recent events such as the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh, and the parcel-bombings by Ted Kaczinsky, the alleged "Unabomber" bring modern application to Dostoevsky's theories of criminal justice. At their core, both McVeigh and Kaczinsky are modern-day Raskolnikovs, each with his own justification for their actions; McVeigh to "save" the United States by implementing his right-wing agenda; Kaczyinsky to reverse the "industrial revolution and its consequences" which have been "a disaster for the human race" (Kaczynski 3). Like Raskolnikov, they sincerely believe they are part of an "extraordinary" group which possesses a license to kill in order to help mankind, a frightening extension of Raskolnikov's dream contained in the epilogue to Crime and Punishment.

            In his illness, Raskolnikov dreams the world falls victim to a plague of "microscopic creatures that lodged themselves into men's bodies." Those who received the creatures into themselves then immediately became possessed and mad, but "never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakable in their beliefs as these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgments, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakable." In this apocalyptic vision, no one understands anyone else because "each thought the truth was contained in himself alone" (Crime and Punishment 547-8). Raskolnikov's dream, or Dostoevsky's nightmare, is intended to show the reader the extreme consequences of egoism and moral relativism (Bloom  Notes 110). The problem is not that people do not accurately justify their crimes, but that all crimes become justified because everyone thinks themselves, in the words of Raskolnikov, "extraordinary." It is in this environment of moral relativism, which Dostoevsky warned us of years ago, that we live today. And we are still fighting to save ourselves.


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