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Essay/Term paper: Dostoevsky's crime and punishment: raskolnikov's mathematical evaluation of moral dilemma presented to him exemplifies the empirical view of utilitarianism

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Philosophy

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Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment: Raskolnikov's Mathematical Evaluation of Moral
Dilemma Presented To Him Exemplifies The Empirical View of Utilitarianism


"One death, and a thousand lives in exchange--it's simple arithmetic."
-Raskolnikov

Raskolnikov's mathematical evaluation of the moral dilemma presented to
him in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment exemplifies the empirical view of
utilitarianism. Utilitarianism attempts to distinguish between right and wrong
by measuring a decision based on its calculated worth. Raskolnikov appears to
employ the fundamentals of utilitarianism by pitting the negative consequences
of murdering his old landlady against the positive benefits that her money would
bestow onto society. However, a true follower of utilitarianism would be
outraged at Raskolnikov's claim that murdering the old woman can be considered
morally right. Raskolnikov arbitrarily leaves out some necessary considerations
in his moral "equation" that do not adhere to utilitarianism. A utilitarian
would argue that Raskolnikov has not reached an acceptable solution because he
has not accurately solved the problem. On the other hand, a non-utilitarian
would reject even the notion of deliberating about the act of murder in such a
mathematical manner. He might contend that Raskolnikov's reasoning, and the
entire theory of utilitarianism, cannot be used to judge morality because it
rejects individual rights and contains no moral absolutes.
A utilitarian bases his belief upon two principles: the theory of right
actions and the theory of value. These two principles work together and serve
as criteria for whether or not a utilitarian can deem an action morally right.
First, the theory of right action argues that the morally right decision is the
one whose consequences are at least as good as any other available option . For
example, upon receiving the assignment for this paper, I could have chosen to
ignore the assignment and spend my time on something more enjoyable, or I could
have worked diligently on my paper, actually turning it in. Employing the
utilitarian principle, I would have to weigh each option and then decide which
one has consequences at least as good as or better than any of the other options
possible. But, what standard do I use to gauge the consequences in order to
choose the best alternative?
The theory of right action does not stand alone as the only condition
for ethical evaluations. To measure the given alternatives, I would have to
apply the theory of value. The theory of value bases itself on the premise that
pleasure is the only thing valuable in itself and as an end. Mill clearly
states, "that all desirable things are desirable either for pleasure inherent in
themselves or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain ."
In my moral dilemma, I had to take each alternative and calculate the total
amount of pleasure that each would produce, minus the total amount of pain each
alternative would induce. So while not doing the paper might give me the most
amount of immediate pleasure, the pain that I would incur upon receiving an F in
my class would greatly reduce the amount of net pleasure. On the other hand, I
might experience some pain (due to boredom, frustration, etc.) from writing the
paper. However, this amount of pain would be outweighed by the pleasure of
receiving an A on it, thus in turn raising my GPA, making my parents happy,
graduating with honors, securing a six-figure salary job, marrying the perfect
man, and having 2.5 kids.
Therefore, utilitarianism not concerned with just the short-term
consequences of the decision nor with the sole effects on the agent himself. A
utilitarian must consider the long-term effects and the amount of pleasure or
pain that others will experience as a result of his decision. The agent cannot
just consider his personal level of pleasure or pain. In fact, there may be
cases where the utilitarian's right decision may cause the agent only pain.
However, in accordance to the greatest good for the greatest number philosophy
of utilitarianism, the decision that is morally right produces the greatest
amount of net pleasure for everyone involved.
Raskolnikov seems to be employing utilitarianism when he justifies the
murder of his landlady. According to Raskolnikov, he has two available options:
murdering the old woman and giving away her money to benefit society or letting
her live and watching the money waste away in a monastery when she dies of
natural causes. Apparently, Raskolnikov has formulated an equation in which the
old woman's death has a greater positive differential between the pleasure and
pain than not murdering her. He states that the pleasure the old woman's money
would bring to the poor would outweigh the pain inflicted upon her.
Although Raskolnikov's reasoning seems to be a clear example of the
utilitarian principle, in reality it simplifies utilitarianism to the point of
distortion. A utilitarian would argue that Raskolnikov has not shown the murder
to be morally justifiable because Raskolnikov abstracts the situation, does not
develop key variables of utilitarianism, and thus has not accurately solved the
problem.
First, Raskolnikov does not fulfill the requirements for the theory of
right action. Whereas the theory of right action deems an act morally right if
it is the best choice out of all available options, Raskolnikov simplifies the
situation and ignores other available options. Murdering the woman is not the
only possibility for Raskolnikov if he truly wants to better society. He could,
for example, steal the money which would inflict less pain on the old woman. He
could find alternative ways to raise money (fundraising, donations, etc.) which
would cancel out any factor of pain. Both alternatives would produce a greater
amount of net pleasure than the single, drastic option Raskolnikov has
considered.
Raskolnikov has also not applied the theory of value because he has not
weighed all the consequences accurately. In measuring the level of pleasure and
pain associated with each outcome, a utilitarian must base his evaluation on the
probabilities of all likely consequences. However, Raskolnikov, in his
subjectivity of the situation, has not considered the likeliness of several
possibilities. Raskolnikov might be caught in the act. He might prove to be
ineffective in helping society. Mill clearly warns against using the
utilitarian thought in trying to fix something as large and general as society .
Therefore, Raskolnikov may cause a high degree of pain with no resulting
pleasure to show for it. It is easy to see why Raskolnikov thinks that the old
woman's life is expendable. However, his reasoning is not applicable towards a
utilitarian definition of "morally right". Only in an abstracted situation as
the one Raskolnikov portrays, can his simplified conclusion be considered. In
reality, his reasoning leaves out several elements such as numerous
alternatives and unforseeable consequences, which true utilitarian arguments do
not take for granted.
The difference between utilitarian arguments, which Raskolnikov's
reasoning does reflect to some extent, and non-utilitarian arguments, is that
non-utilitarian moral theories do not cancel out an individual's pain as easily.
Even if Raskolnikov could prove to the old woman that her death is the morally
right decision according to utilitarianism, I doubt that she would go along with
the plan. She would not be so hasty to overlook her personal pain, although it
is outweighed by the positive consequences of her murder. A non-utilitarian
would argue that one cannot simply dismiss the factor of pain, even if
overshadowed by a greater amount of pleasure.
In Raskolnikov's reasoning the pain of the old woman could never compete
with the pleasure gained by society; therefore her suffering is tossed aside.
This is because the theory of value cannot measure the value of an intangible
quality such as life. However, a non-utilitarian would contend that the human
life of an individual should be valued more than any other consideration,
especially one as superficial as money, because once it is taken away, it is
irrevocable. They would also assert that because utilitarianism values only
those things which promote pleasure, it does not value human life. Life, like
pleasure, is valuable in itself. A non-utilitarian would not look at moral
dilemmas with the calculated objectivity that one uses when looking at a
mathematical equation. To a non-utilitarian a human life holds a tremendous
amount of value, a value that cannot be quantified into simplistic factors and
then dismissed.
Another problem that a non-utilitarian might have with Raskolnikov's use
of utilitarianism is that his reasoning is not held to any moral absolutes. If
Raskolnikov could prove that an act of murder was morally acceptable through a
utilitarian equation, then anyone could calculate such heinous actions. We
would have mobs of people murdering their rich, old landladies because they
would feel that they are justified, if only they donate some of the money to
charity. Anarchy and a disregard for human life would ensue if everyone
subscribed to Raskolnikov's thinking. A non-utilitarian would argue that moral
absolutes provide a standard by which people can gauge the morality of their
decisions. However, in utilitarianism, there are no moral absolutes. So, who
provides the standards to make sure that people do not feel justified in
committing murder? Unfortunately, Mill does not make allowances for competent
judges, so any practitioner of utilitarianism must come up with his own scale to
measure pleasure and pain (and in turn morality). As we see in the Crime and
Punishment, Raskolnikov is not a competent judge. Therefore, he commits an
immoral act, while feeling justified because he the utilitarian theory protects
him.
In conclusion, utilitarianism is the most democratic of moral theories.
The greatest good for the greatest number mentality secures justice for the
majority but fails to provide the rights due to the individual. However, unlike
our democratic government, which employs a system of checks and balances to
regulate itself, utilitarianism has no set standards to deem certain acts wrong.
Raskolnikov demonstrates the mathematical objectivity of utilitarianism,
although he miscalculates somewhat in his justification of murder. In such a
calculated manner, personal pain and suffering are dismissed in lieu of the
emphasis placed on monetary value. So while utilitarian would describe his
formula as "the greatest good for the greatest number", a non-utilitarian would
characterize it as "the happiness of many overshadowing the happiness of the
individual".


 

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