The Ethics of Social Reform in Crime and Punishment
How Dostoevsky’s Masterpiece Uses the Experience of An Individual to Comment on the Ethics of Reform Movements in 19th Century Russia
“I could kill that damned old woman and make off with her money, I assure you, without the faintest conscience-prick.” — From Chapter 6 of Crime and Punishment.
Dostoevsky spends all of Part 1 of Crime and Punishment building towards an act of murder.
Our point-of-view character, Raskolnikov, is broke, depressed, lost, and lonely. He is behind on his rent and is furious at the terrible financial arrangements he has locked himself into with a pawnbroker named Alyona Ivanovna.
Ivanovna is an elderly woman who is known in the neighborhood for being stingy and cruel. The quote atop this piece is one that Raskolnikov overhears in a tavern as he eavesdrops on two men talking about her.
“I could kill that damned old woman and make off with her money without the faintest conscience-prick.”
The young man speaking about how he could just murder the elderly pawnbroker is a student, and he has more to say on the subject:
“Look here; on one side we have a stupid, senseless, worthless, spiteful, ailing, horrid old woman, not simply useless but doing actual mischief, who has no an idea what she is living for herself…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!”
This crucial conversation in Chapter 6 serves two purposes in the novel.
- It advances the plot, because Raskolnikov has been thinking seriously about doing exactly what the student suggests: murdering Ivanovna and stealing her stuff. As he eavesdrops on this conversation he tells himself it’s a sign that he is meant to do the deed.
- It gives Dostoevsky a chance to comment on the social reform movements afoot in Russia in the mid 19th Century, when he wrote Crime and Punishment.
The conversation Raskolnikov is listening to serves up central themes of the novel. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky is challenging the ethics of the social reformers in Russia whose ideas would eventually lead to the Russian Revolution.
“One death, and a hundred lives in exchange — it’s simple arithmetic!” the student goes on. “Besides, what value has the life of that sickly, stupid, ill-natured old woman in the balance of existence!”
Before his imprisonment and exile in Siberia, Dostoevsky was a regular in meetings of an intellectual circle that discussed ideas like the one captured in the quote above. Ideas like: How does society balance the value of the life of an old woman who is stingy and mean versus the life of a young person is kind and poor?
In his later novel, Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky would answer that question definitively, and his answer is: An ethical society makes no such calculation at all. But here, in this early scene of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky doesn’t have time to dive deep into a philosophical digression. He needs to get back to the plot.
But before he does, he allows another speaker to get at the heart of the matter with one simple question.
The man bloviating about how he would kill the pawnbroker and give her money to the poor is identified as a student. The man he’s talking to is identified as an officer, and the officer challenges the student’s argument.
“You are talking and speechifying away,” the officer says, “but tell me, would you kill the old woman yourself?”
And there’s the question.
It’s easy to talk about how much better the world would be if we could take all the money away from stingy, grouchy Scrooges and spread it among the poor, but someone has to do the deed.
It’s easy to talk about trading one life for thousands, but someone has to take the life.
This is the philosophical heart of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky was active in 19th century intellectual circles that were enamored with the idea of a top-to-bottom reengineering of Russian society, one that would undo centuries of feudalism to start over with everyone on an equal footing.
In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky is asking those reformers to really think long and hard, not about their utopian vision of a society that’s been “fixed,” but about the actual act of trying to “fix” society.
Because the old woman’s possessions are better spread among the poor, somebody has to forcibly take them from her. If society is better off with the old woman dead, somebody has to kill her.
Framing the argument at the level of the individual forces the argument away from an abstraction about the ethics of trading one life for hundreds, and into the reality of what it actually means to take a life.
Dostoevsky’s brilliance was that he approached these quandaries not from the abstract perspective of politics or economics or even philosophy, but from the practical perspective of what it looks like to commit acts of murder and theft, and what acts of murder and theft do to the soul of the individual committing them.