The Arithmetic of Moral Decisions - Excerpt from Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" Part I - Ch. VI
Crime and Punishment
Dostoyevsky's novel Crime and Punishment is one of the most famous novels ever written. Briefly, it deals with the psychological drama of a character named Raskolnikov. He, and his family, are in dire straights in that his family is struggling with money. He is partly in university, but runs out of funds to keep in class continually. His family, to support him, is going to marry off his younger sister to a man who is wealthy, but they know isn't the best person. He tries to keep up with his bills by pawning the few nice things that he has to an old woman. We come to understand that this old lady pawnbroker is not a good person. She is very stingy, takes advantage of people, hordes money, mistreats her niece, and is on the brink of death anyway. The idea enters Raskolnikov's mind that he could kill the woman and take her money and no one would really care. While this idea has entered his mind he actually runs into some other young people in a bar who are discussing the same such thing.
Excerpt from Crime and Punishment Part I - Chapter VI
“Well, listen then. On the other side, fresh young lives thrown away for want of help and by thousands, on every side! A hundred thousand good deeds could be done and helped, on that old woman’s money which will be buried in a monastery! Hundreds, thousands perhaps, might be set on the right path; dozens of families saved from destitution, from ruin, from vice, from the Lock hospitals—and all with her money. 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? For one life thousands would be saved from corruption and decay. One death, and a hundred lives in exchange—it’s simple arithmetic!
Besides, what value has the life of that sickly, stupid, ill-natured old woman in the balance of existence! No more than the life of a louse, of a black-beetle, less in fact because the old woman is doing harm. She is wearing out the lives of others; the other day she bit Lizaveta’s finger out of spite; it almost had to be amputated.” “Of course she does not deserve to live,” remarked the officer, “but there it is, it’s nature.” “Oh, well, brother, but we have to correct and direct nature, and, but for that, we should drown in an ocean of prejudice. But for that, there would never have been a single great man. They talk of duty, conscience—I don’t want to say anything against duty and conscience;—but the point is, what do we mean by them?" 1
Philosophical Analysis of this Passage
Here Dostoyevsky seems to portray some of the philosophical thinking of the time through the mouths of these young people. Though the student backs away from his claim somewhat by claiming it's a thought experiment, he mouths the very familiar idea of Nietzsche's of the Uber Mensch. Nietzsche's idea was that man could die and be reborn in a way which was free from the moral influence of Christianity. By realizing that Christianity was simply a tool of power of the weak to manipulate the strong with their moral claims, then the new man could destroy the old man who had been formed in the old culture, and be reborn to create his own values. That's the whole question of the book, it seems ... can man truly be free from morality? "I could kill that damned old woman and make off with her money, I assure you, without the faintest conscience-prick..." Or if not free from morality altogether, can man create moral calculations about human beings to such a degree as to reshape society in a new image of his own desiring? Not only is Nietzsche's philosophy present, but we can see the contemporary ideas of Utilitarianism, that man can calculate the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people, justifying any action in the process since the majority is served by it. One can clearly see this reflected in the quote where they weigh the balance between all the lives that would be helped by the woman's money to her old, horrible, life. The benefit of killing her would surely be outweighed by the good that would be done from using her money. "...it’s simple arithmetic!"
1 - Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Part I, Ch VI.