The Morality of Murder: Dostoyevsky’s Complication of “the Trolley Problem”

April 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

When is one morally sanctioned to take another’s life? In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s highly acclaimed philosophical detective story, Crime and Punishment, the author casts light on several important existential and metaphysical quandaries that are universally applicable to understanding the human condition. The story centers on the tale of “our hero” Raskolnikov’s premeditated murder of the old “louse,” Alyona, a self-serving, morally reprehensible pawnbroker. Additionally, it describes the “other” murder, of Alyona’s largely ignored (but philosophically crucial) pitiful, vulnerable, and victimized half-sister, Lizaveta, in the novel’s opening section, as well as Raskolnikov’s subsequent (largely internally driven) “Punishment.” Dostoyevsky sets up several dichotomies between philosophical binary extremes, a number of which Raskolikov attempts to reconcile in the remaining five sections of the novel and its epilogue. These polarized philosophical issues include the relationship between the secular (nihilistic) and the religious (faithful), free will and determinism, anarchy and the law, and utilitarianism and social ethics, among others. While Raskolnikov–whose name, in translation, implies a split personality–struggles to find his own place in the polarized world of moral/ethical extremes, Dostoyevsky poignantly confounds the terms of his existential debate through the impulsive murder of Lizaveta. Throughout the novel, Raskolnikov’s moral compass vacillates between the two ethical extremes of crude utilitarian nihilism/brutally rational intellectualism and utterly humane, religious, emotion-based social morality. The two polarizing characters with whom Raskolnikov shares intimate relations, Sonia and Svidrigaylov, strengthen this binary classification. They serve as living embodiments of their respective moralistic values, each profoundly impacting Raskolnikov’s outlook on life. Sonia, a childlike, victimized, self-sacrificing, and God-fearing individual, maintains her faith in religious moral precepts, despite her first-hand experience of worldly suffering and, thus, life’s irrationality. After Raskolnikov confesses to Sonia that “He…did not mean to kill that Lizaveta…he killed her accidentally. He meant to kill the old woman when she was alone…” (322), she replies, “What have you done to yourself…there is no one – no one in the whole world so unhappy as you!” (323). While the reader learns that Lizaveta and Sonia were best friends, and that Sonia wears a locket that Lizaveta gave her, Sonia nevertheless, like Raskolnikov, quickly forgets about her friend’s brutal murder. Instead, she selflessly recognizes Raskolnikov’s own moral crisis, hoping to guide him toward spiritual salvation, despite her significant personal loss.Svidrigaylov, conversely, represents emotional detachment, nihilism, and utilitarian morality. He articulates to Dounia what he believes to have been Raskolnikov’s primary rationale for murder: “I for instance consider that a single misdeed is permissible if the principle aim is right, a solitary wrongdoing and hundreds of good deeds…Napoleon attracted [Raskolnikov] tremendously…that a great many men of genius have not hesitated at wrongdoing, but have overstepped the law without thinking about it” (386). In this statement, Svidrigaylov combines Raskolnikov’s two principal motives for his crime. The first is his belief that the murder of the old “louse” represents a socially justifiable act, as he convinces himself that she is an authoritarian victimizer par excellence. Therefore, killing her represents a socially just act, as her death will revenge wrongdoings to hundreds of her victims. The second motive lies in his metaphysical need to believe that he has the free will to break the constraints of the legal and ethical framework that binds society and commit an act of utter rebellion against the social order. This notion, which is tied to Raskolnikov’s belief that he is a super-man and that it is his destiny to kill Alyona, stems from his high self regard, as well as from various articles of circumstantial evidence that work to justify these murders. Nevertheless, Lizaveta’s murder, while at first appearing a plot detail of relatively trifling importance, profoundly complicates Raskolnikov’s moral universe and discredit the utilitarian, Napoleonic, and deterministic justifications by which he rationalizes his criminal actions. Yet Lizaveta’s murder does not fit into any of his intellectual, philosophical, and moral categorizations. Raskolnikov thereby reveals that his philosophical underpinning for committing a criminal act is inconsistent and flawed. Lizaveta does not represent a morally reprehensible individual, but is innocent, kind, spiritual and saintly (Sonia’s character parallel). In another context, Raskolnikov might have been quite charitable toward her, as she fits the profile of those towards whom “our hero” shows unrestrained, and quite impractical, generosity. Because her murder carries none of the moral justifications of Alyona’s, but is rather done out of Raskolnikov’s impulsiveness to avoid being caught, as he immediately reacts by “rush[ing] at her with the axe” (65), Lizaveta’s murder is a utilitarian sin. Raskolnikov appears to be her ethical inferior, and thus does not have the “right” to kill her. Likewise, Raskolnikov attempts to intellectually rationalize his crime based on circumstantial evidence that he interprets as proof of his Napoleonic authority over the rule of law. He considers his eavesdropping of Lizaveta’s statement that she will be away from her residence at seven the next day, as well as of a conversation between a student and an officer in which the student claims “A hundred thousand good deeds could be done and helped, on that old woman’s money which will be buried in a monastery!…Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all” (54), as proof of his destiny. However, Lizaveta’s unexpected early return and subsequent murder discredit his deterministic justification for Alyona’s murder. A rational higher power calling him to action surely would not give him such mixed signals–he would not be encouraged to believe Lizaveta would be away, for example, only to find her at home and be forced to commit a double murder. Therefore, Lizaveta’s unplanned killing adds additional layers of complexity to the simple binary ethical universe that Raskolnikov imagines himself inhabiting.As Lizaveta’s murder cannot be justified by either of Raskolnikov’s rational, intellectual, and emotionally detached precepts (Svidrigaylov’s moral influence), nor by the opposing polar extreme of a spiritual, faith-based, emotional set of principles (Sonia’s moral influence), Raskolnikov can neither rationalize nor reconcile her murder in his mind. Rather, he represses this memory for the greater part of the novel. He recognizes that he rarely ever thinks about it “as though I had not killed her”; for example, upon confessing his crime to Sonia, he proclaims, “I’ve only killed a louse…a useless, loathsome, harmful creature” (327). Raskolnikov thus rarely acknowledges Lizaveta’s prior existence before his final blanket confession to Petrovitch that “It was I killed the old pawnbroker woman and her sister Lizaveta with an axe and robbed them” (417). Should Raskolnikov have tried to apply the same level of scrutiny to this deed as he does to Alyona’s murder, he would have had no metaphysical grounds for action, and, thus, should have suffered immense existential guilt and torment. Svidrigaylov’s suicide (which Raskolnikov almost completely ignores) evidences the pitfalls to which utter rationality may subject us. He must face his harshest reality directly when, in Dounia’s failed attempt to shoot him from close range, he questions her, “‘Then you don’t Love me?’ he asked softly. Dounia shook her head. ‘And…you can’t? Never’ he whispered in despair. ‘Never!'” (390). By addressing his unrequited love of Dounia and his general inability to be loved, Svidrigaylov, unlike Raskolnikov, cannot bear his existence. He is driven to suicide. Raskolnikov, whose spiritual awakening/religious revival in the novel’s epilogue comes about through Sonia’s guidance and love, results in his prima facie rejection of his calculating, nihilistic, utilitarian alter-identity associated with his “angel of darkness,” Svidrigaylov. Rather, “our hero” chooses to be both morally and legally “reformed” by his “angel of light,” Sonia, as well as the Russian legal system. While this somewhat sentimental and conciliatory happy ending neatly tries to tie together some of the loose ends left unresolved in the novel, the reader may have trouble accepting the finality of Raskolnikov’s moral purification. After all, Lizaveta’s murder has served to greatly complicate Raskolnikov’s moral universe. Thus, having established a morally ambiguous universe in which troubling and seemingly irreconcilable metaphysical existential quandaries lie at its core, Dostoyevsky’s epilogue, while an interesting resolution to the novel, slightly detracts from his subtle philosophical characterizations.

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