Utilitarianism in the Novel Crime and Punishment
“Which action would give the greatest number of people the greatest happiness?” is a question a utilitarian would ask him or herself before making a decision. Utilitarianism is the belief system in which an action is considered ethically acceptable if that action benefits a large number of people. The novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky explores mid-nineteenth century utilitarianism as a motivation of characters’ actions, while demonstrating his own perspective on the philosophy. Dostoyevsky is able to reveal the true selfish and unselfish nature of characters, such as Raskolnikov and Sonya, through each of their uses of utilitarianism.
First, Raskolnikov selfishly uses utilitarianism to hide his true motivations behind murdering the pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna. Raskolnikov reasons to himself that Alyona Ivanovna is a bane to society by hoarding all of her money instead of helping the poor. By killing her and using her money to help others, Raskolnikov decides that he would be carrying out a good deed. Raskolnikov first gets the idea of murdering her when overhearing one man in a bar saying to another, “A hundred thousand good deeds could be done and helped, on that old woman’s money which will be buried in a monastery! […] For one life thousands would be saved from corruption and decay” (Dostoyevsky 54). Here, the author emphasizes the negative outcome of letting Alyona Ivanovna live. Killing her would have beneficial results for the poor, who would be given another opportunity at life. Despite Raskolnikov’s utilitarian pretenses, his logic proves to be meaningless when he also kills Lizaveta Ivanovna, the pawnbroker’s innocent sister whose death would not have benefited anyone. Moreover, Raskolnikov himself confesses later on that he really killed Alyona Ivanovna in order to prove that he was an “extraordinary man” who can break moral barriers for the greater good. This shows that Raskolnikov did not completely accept his vulnerable situation; though he was destitute, he wanted to establish that he was still above others and seize some sort of liberty by some means, even violence. In this example, Dostoyevsky recognizes that utilitarianism could easily be misused to disguise motivations behind ignoble actions.
Next, Dounia’s decision to marry Pyotr Petrvich Luzhin is also based on an unselfish type of utilitarianism. Dounia was not in love with her fiancé. In fact, Pulcheria even wrote in her letter to her son, Rodion Raskolnikov, “[Dounia] has been in a sort of fever for the last few days, and has already made a regular plan for your becoming in the end an associate and even a partner in Pyotr Petrovich’s legal business […] we have [great hopes] of his helping us to pay for your university studies” (Dostoyevsky 30-1). Dounia and Pulcheria have based their decision of Dounia’s marriage solely on the prospect of improvement of their family’s welfare. When Dounia, as a bride-to-be, should be preparing and being excited for her wedding, she instead excites herself over the idea that her brother may get a prestigious job and finish his studies at the university. Raskolnikov, recognizing from the letter itself that Luzhin is not a generous man, reacts by saying, “It’s clear enough: for [Dounia’s self], for her comfort, to save her life she would not sell herself, but for someone else she is doing it! […] That’s what it all amounts to; for her brother, for her mother, she will sell herself! She will sell everything!” (Dostoyevsky 36). Dostoyevsky uses the dialogue of Pulcheria and Raskolnikov to reveal both the hopes of mother and daughter set on Luzhin, and Raskolnikov’s rejection and sense of self-pride. In a sense, however, this is another side of utilitarianism’s negative aspects, with Raskolnikov in an anti-utilitarian position in this situation. Thus, Dostoyevsky demonstrates once again that a utilitarian attitude and justification for actions that hurt people, Dounia in this case, can be dangerous and can end up making everyone involved worse off.
Dostoyevsky juxtaposes Pulcheria’s and Raskolnikov’s personalities through their dialogue. While Pulcheria has a motherly, family-oriented nature, Raskolnikov’s dialogue displays his excessive conceit and insecurity in accepting others’ help. Furthermore, by choosing to marry Luzhin for her family’s sake, Dounia is choosing the action that benefits the most people. She would sacrifice her happiness and a chance at marrying someone she truly loves for her family’s happiness. However, this plan backfires later when she realizes that marrying Luzhin will not benefit her family at all because of his miserly personality. In this case, utilitarianism attempts to undo the problems of Raskolnikov’s family, and Dounia’s selfishness is reflected in the way she implements utilitarianism. It also highlights the differences between Dounia and her brother, by contrasting Raskolnikov’s haughtiness with Dounia’s humility and honesty.
Sonya displays unselfish utilitarianism by becoming a prostitute in order to support her poverty-stricken family. Her father, a drunkard, is perpetually unemployed. Any job he gains, he loses soon after. It’s up to Sonya to bring home money, and therefore food to the table, so the family can survive. When Raskolnikov visits Sonya for the first time, he says to her, “But you are a great sinner, true […] and your worst sin is that you have destroyed and betrayed yourself for nothing. Isn’t that fearful? […] It would be better, a thousand times better and wiser to leap into the water and end it all!”(Dostoyevsky 255). Sonya responds to him, “But what would become of them?” (Dostoyevsky 255). Sonya does not mind in the least that Raskolnikov insults her so directly; she seems to think what he is saying is true. The author juxtaposes Raskolnikov’s and Sonya’s personalities in this example. The fact that Raskolnikov is so forthright with the way in which he takes liberties when speaking with Sonya demonstrates his arrogance. This contrasts sharply with her humility and moral innocence. She understands that though her prostitution does not help her family rise out of poverty, it is only because of her that they are able to survive. She has sold herself for her family, and it becomes apparent to the reader that she would go to even greater lengths in order to secure a better future for her family. As both Raskolnikov and Sonya know, even suicide would only serve to put her out of her misery, but it would not help her family in any way. By doing the utmost that she can to help her family, Sonya is applying a utilitarian calculus to her life. She becomes a martyr for her beloved family, and by accepting the responsibility of breadwinner, she demonstrates her capabilities of empathy and understanding, the very attributes that Raskolnikov lacks.
Finally, Svidrigailov displays unselfish utilitarianism after he realizes that he only causes pain to Dounia and that she will continue to refuses his love. Soon, Svidrigailov performs various acts of charity and good deeds before his suicide, for the purpose of injecting his existence with meaning. He takes Sonya’s siblings to an orphanage and secures their well-being, giving Sonya three thousand rubles to use to travel to Siberia with Raskolnikov when he is imprisoned, and giving fifteen thousand rubles to his fiancée’s family. When Sonya’s father dies, Svidrigailov even tells Raskolnikov, “I will undertake all the arrangements, the funeral and that. You know it’s a question of money and, as I told you, I have plenty to spare” (Dostoyevsky 343). Additionally, he lies to everyone that he is going off to America for some time. This lie allows him to disappear without question and to die without opposition to his suicide. His generous acts give his death a utilitarian meaning as his death leaves others better off. Finally, even his suicide is a utilitarian act. By dying, he is removing himself from Dounia’s life, in which he had only caused unhappiness and struggles. Svidrigailov’s acts of utilitarianism are different from others’ acts in that he performs them as a result of becoming a changed man. Even though Svidrigailov’s true nature is not generous, he becomes so once he realizes he has no point in life any longer. Overall, Svidrigailov’s true personality ultimately succumbs to utilitarianism. The author’s choice of making Svidrigailov a dynamic character allows Dostoyevsky to portray a different potential application of utilitarianism. The author recognizes that the utilitarian outlook could also be used in an attempt to atone. Moreover, utilitarianism used in a purely unselfish way can provide for some people a better, more meaningful life.
The lesson Dosteyevsky leaves the reader with is that sacrifice is essential to utilitarianism, and the sacrifice is not always worth the reward. The pawnbroker’s life is sacrificed to supposedly help society; Dounia attempts to sacrifice her married life for her family’s welfare; Sonya sacrifices her life for her family’s survival; and Svidrigailov sacrifices his own money and life to help others. Throughout Crime and Punishment, utilitarianism demonstrates the true nature of a character through his or her willingness to sacrifice. Additionally, the author’s use of juxtaposition and characters’ behavior allows Dostoyevsky to convey his own viewpoint that ideologies, such as utilitarianism, should not be followed blindly and are useful or not depending on the specifics of a given situation.
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