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Crime and Punishment

A Lecture
Russell McNeil

Crime and Punishment illustrates an important idea. The idea is that "reason," that grand and
uniquely human power, is limited in reach and scope. Social critic Friedrich August von Hayek
commented once that, ". it may be that the most difficult task for human reason is to comprehend its own
limitations. It is essential for the growth of reason that as individuals we should bow to forces and obey
principles we cannot hopefully to understand, yet on which the advance and even the preservation of
civilization may depend." Such limitations imply that on life's most important questions - particularly those
of a moral or ethical nature -- reason alone can produce chilling consequences. Without adequate or any
moral illumination, reason alone, when pushed to its limits, can produce consequences which stand
dramatically opposed to those moral demands. Dostoevsky's narrative is directed as a specific critique of
Russian manifestations of purely rational political theories current in the 1860's in his homeland. But the
challenge he poses has meaning for us at the end of the 20th century.
Dostoevsky's parable focuses on a particular brand of 19th century Russian ideology, as it
begins to crystallize in the mind of a young idealist. But the modeling procedure Dostoevsky uses in
teasing out the contradictions of Raskolnikov's unguided application of a morally bankrupt theory, could
equally well be applied to contemporary thinking around several important and equally bankrupt modern
ideas - ideas harshly criticized by thinkers such as Hayek.
Without direction - the source of which is ultimately beyond rational understanding - in the
domain of the meta-rational -- reason-as-reason will, sooner or later, run aground. Directed reason on the
other hand provides an orientation - an orientation that gives purpose and direction to inquiry -- by allowing
us to select from an infinite range of possibilities the right path - the "right" reason. Problems emerged for
Raskolnikov then, and for us now when we deny the need to recognize, acknowledge and bow to
external guidance. The rational and the meta-rational must operate symbiotically: one pointing the way, the
other uncovering the Truth.
Raskolnikov rationalized murder. We are appalled. Why? Each of us will attempt to answer in a
different way. Fundamentally though I think that most of our answers boil down to the same idea. We are
appalled because it wasn't the right thing to do.
We know that - Raskolnikov himself eventually came to know that too. But the reason his crime
wasn't right had nothing to do with Raskolnikov's rational theories. Political theories, scientific theories,
medical theories, anthropological theories, psychological theories, as theories are nothing more than
intricate exercises in calculus. They apply a coherent set of rules to the objects they reference. Like
arithmetic or calculus this involves plugging in values, applying the rules, and observing the consequences.
Theories as calculus have no moral content. Whatever moral framework we as humans use to regulate the
operation of theories comes from a domain outside of the calculus. This all seems so obvious.
But is it? Our century seems a poor test case for the symbiotic and morally illuminated
application of theory. Global wars, genocide, environmental decay, and massive economic disparity are but
a few examples of theories running aground in our century. We seem no better that our ancestors.
We may be worse off. Not just because the consequences of unguided applications of reason are
more far reaching now - global population is large and our technologies powerful. We may be worse off
now because of the emergence of theories that not only deny the importance of a symbiotic relationship
between the rational and meta-rational, they deny the meta-rational altogether. These theories enable their
practitioners - like Raskolnikov tries to do in our story - to cross over the barriers erected by traditional
morality, by denying the barriers. They are not meta-rational to Raskolnikov; they are irrational. Hence
they are destructible. In crossing those barriers Raskolnikov is in a position to act outside the constraints of
good and evil.
Such theories (i.e. those of Raskolnikov) - unlike most ideas we draw on to shape our lives and
give meaning to our existence - actively close off and deny mystery.
This is not true for physics or biology or political science generally. None of those systems
make explicit moral demands as such - but nothing in those sciences as traditionally articulated expects
their practitioners to be blind to the moral universe.
I'd like to offer three contemporary examples. While each of these streams offers differing
approaches, they are similar in this respect to the specific form of pure rationality Dostoevsky warns about:
none of these systems are open to, make reference to, or are guided in any meaningful way by reference to
externals. Universes onto themselves these systems attempt to capture the universe and make it their own.
The first of these ideas is called historicism. An underpinning principle of the approach is that
"Truth" with a capital "T" or "Truths" have no enduring meanings in human cultures In fact, the claim is
that all historical ideas and arguments and moralities are relative only to the times in which they were
developed. No amount of dissection, interpretation or critical analysis of the past can provide us with
anything other than a measure of Truths as they once were. There may be nothing rationally wrong with
such a claim.
If we deny the main claim of historicism and accept a priori that truth does endure we must
draw on a belief which really can not be established rationally. To believe that Truths are intelligible and
invariant is to believe something about the universe we can not establish with certainty - except as a kind of
A second modern purely rational stream is represented by an approach from within the positive
sciences. It's called "scientism." Not all scientists think this way. In fact scientism isn't particularly
scientific - it is more an attitude toward the positives sciences held by some both in and out of the sciences.
The basic contention - and it may account for the disdain many of us have for modern science - is that the
only knowledge in the would that has any validity is knowledge derived from the positive sciences.
Scientism as scientism would claim that all ethical, moral, aesthetic, or metaphysical statements are
meaningless. The only real meaning is that which can be attached to technical feasibility. If something is
technically possible - it is morally admissible. We don't need Dostoevsky to respond here - Mary Shelley
has already done so. What's wrong with building a monster, detonating a hydrogen bomb or cloning a Bill
Clinton? Nothing - from the perspective of this purely rational approach.
A third example arises from a position that argues that moral decisions should only be based on
pragmatic considerations and that practical concerns should always prevail over theory or ethics. From a
purely rational point of view - if we deny the universality or existence of external forces, we are rationally
bound to follow such a course. In fact, the very word "rationalize" has come to imply the kinds of
consequences flowing from this sort of reasoning. If you think about it, pragmatism - in this guise - taken to
extremes can be used to rationalize just about any action any one or any nation has ever taken.
The rational ideologies that were capturing the imaginations of the Russian intelligentsia in the
1860's were a blend of ideas influenced by an intermingling of the currents of English Utilitarianism (Mill),
Utopian Socialism (Marx and others), and Social Darwinism: all of these are reflected in some way in the
character of Raskolnikov. For example, Raskolnikov's notion that superior individuals had the right to act
independently for the welfare of humanity reflects an influence of Social Darwinism. But Dostoevsky's
main target seems to have been what has come to be known as Russian Nihilism - a rather negative doctrine
which found nothing to approve in the established order of anything: morality, religion or politics.
Joseph Frank who writes on this in the commentaries at the back of the Norton text. He argues
that Raskolnikov's crime is planned on the basis of a rational Utilitarian calculus. Raskolnikov believes that
his reason can overcome the most deeply rooted human feelings. Ordinary criminals, according to
Raskolnikov's theories, are motivated by greed or viciousness. They break down when they do their deeds
leaving all sorts of clues about, because inwardly they understand the justice of the laws they are
transgressing. Conscience - which is outside rational framework - and after all a product of an irrational
belief - interferes with such purely rational actions.
For Raskolnikov this crime was not really a crime. His reason had persuaded him that the harm
- he accepts some harm - would be far outweighed by the good. That's the calculus. Raskolnikov had to
show that he was indeed up to the task. This conscience thing had to be overcome. Conscience - which is a
product of some mythological conditioning in Raskolnikov's mind -- could not be allowed to distort his
Dostoevsky's procedure was to take such an ideological theory and show how -- when pushed to
extremes - it would generate distasteful contradictions. The contradictions that emerge are in the form of a
clash between Christian values - love, altruism, sympathy - and the amorality of his ideology.
Of course in the novel Raskolnikov is not successful. Under the influence of the meek and
illiterate Sonya - an embodiment of wisdom of the meta-rational kind - Raskolnikov's project eventually
falters - or seems to. What did the defeat mean? Has Dostoevsky demonstrated the necessity of a symbiosis
between the rational and mystery (or the meta-rational)?
Let's examine the problem.
My starting point works like this. I freely acknowledge that these meta-rational forces are not
subject to rational analyses. But, when I ask myself this question: Can Truth present itself to me via a meta-
rational path? I cannot say no. I can't say no because my reason alone can not negate the transcendental.
Reasoning - as I understand reasoning - can not rule out the possibility that there are regions where
conventional human reasoning is inoperative.
The best way I understand to express this is to say that it is not irrational be receptive to
mystery. This in no way proves the meta-rational - it simply declares that openness to mystery is not
In Christian discourse the label attached to this act of receptivity to mystery or meta-rational
knowledge is called Faith. Enormous tensions emerge when rational reason - in Raskolnikov - encounters
Faith - in Sonya. For Raskolnikov life is a calculus. Sonya knows but cannot express rationally why that
cannot be so. She says simply that, "God has to be. "
In Christian terms Faith provides the illuminating knowledge which guides reason. That
knowledge - for Christians - as claimed in the gospels - is that Jesus Christ is, "the way, the Truth, and the
Life." But this "knowledge" is offered, in the gospels, not as a rational argument, but as a revelation -
provided by God as a free gift to anyone who is disposed to receive the gift.
That knowledge provided through Faith is represented as fundamentally different from rational
knowledge because it is experiential and interpersonal. It is analogous to the knowledge that we
"experience" of "love" or "friendship" when we enter into human relationships. Loving relationships
generate awareness and sensibility purely rational analyses of such relationships can never adequately
explain. These mysterious understandings emerge when we surrender to the idea of love. Plato alludes to
this sort of thing in a pre-Christian context in the Republic and the Symposium when he references the
domain beyond the divided line. In the Christian context, this openness to Faith requires that we divest
ourselves of arrogance, egoism and pride. That of course is a painful thing to do. Any such surrender is
painful and humiliating. We must symbolically fall down, kiss the earth and accept the inevitable suffering
- as Sonya urges Raskolnikov to do:
"Go at once, this instant, stand at the crossroads, first bow down and kiss the earth you have
desecrated, then bow to the whole world, to the four corners of the earth, and say aloud to the world: `I
have done murder.'"
And that Raskolnikov does seem to do - albeit half-heartedly: "He knelt in the middle of the
square, bowed to the ground, and kissed its filth with pleasure and joy. He raised himself and then bowed a
second time.[but] . stilled the words `I am a murderer'."
The importance of grounding certainties derived from meta-rational sources which then serve as
references for philosophic inquiry is not confined to Christianity.
Divested of the labels of religious terms, all Truth seeking can be seen as driven at its deepest
level by what can best be described as a sense of "wonder." That wonder itself may be seen as powered by
a rationally unconfirmed and unconfirmable "belief" that the search itself is meaningful - that there is some
purpose for the search, and that although the goal may be only dimly perceived - there is a goal and that the
goal is enduring. This "wonder driven" impulse can itself be understood as the external reference necessary
for any meaningful inquiry. Wonder is a kind of faith.
This notion that there are unverifiable universal principles that all philosophic systems share is
sometimes also called "right reason." The abandonment of the idea of common references shared by all
philosophies leads invariably to confusions and fragmentation. Each system of thought claims ownership
of the all. This is sometimes called "philosophic pride."
Whenever we abandon external reference our inquiries are subject to caprice and their
achievements judged by pragmatic criteria or empirical data. The neglect of "right reason" leads to
agnosticism and relativism and skepticism and undifferentiated pluralism. In effect all positions are equally
valid and everything becomes reduced to "opinion." In his specific critique of Raskolnikov Dostoevsky
shows how all of the above may emerge when any proudful theory rules our thinking.
You might maintain that setting faith aside, trivializing wonder, or dismissing "right reason" is a
sign of rational maturity - a liberating decision as we free ourselves from the chains of irrational
mythologies. My only response to that is to offer that it is NOT freedom to decline to be open to the
transcendental. Faith, wonder or right reason may be seen as the keys that can liberate reason - by enabling
reason to attain correctly what it seeks.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition - the context of external reference in this novel - the first man
and woman in the allegory of Genesis - - had no need for reason - represented in Genesis by the tree of
knowledge of good and evil. Human pride caused man to seek unreferenced knowledge. He did not need
The Fall meant that from that point forward the path to Truth would become strewn with
obstacles - reasoning would become inclined to falsehood. The coming of Christ was the saving event
which redeemed reason from its weakness - in effect setting reason free. Faith for the Christian became the
external reference and provided the orientation in the seeking of Truth through reason. Such faith is not
grounded on rational evidence because it indeed is based on an interpersonal relationship which in some
way is deemed richer than evidence.
The Faith/Reason model in Truth seeking abandons the elitism attached to the purely rational
Russian ideologies Dostoevsky is challenging in the novel. Truth is NOT something accessible only
to the privileged few.
All of the above brings intelligibility to the novel.
What is the meaning and role of suffering? It is for Raskolnikov the experience of divesting
himself firstly of his innate connection with external reference - that makes him ill. Redemption causes
suffering too - Raskolnikov must abandon all he holds dear: that he is a superman, his pride, his arrogance,
his despotism.
What lies beneath the unexpected and unbelievably tumultuous psychological struggle
Raskolnikov experiences? I think Dostoevsky is showing us how difficult it is to abandon the external
reference: that the demands of conscience are so harsh points to the Truth of the source. The psychological
struggle is represented as a real spiritual drama between the protests of conscience and the justifications of
In the same sense finally, the duality of motive throughout the novel is another manifestation of
that spiritual drama. Far from being a flaw in the story the conflicting motivations become the devices
Dostoevsky uses to portray the struggle between a rejected morality that refuses to go away and
Raskolnikov's rational ideology. Before the crime Raskolnikov in the early tavern scene with Marmeladov
characterizes his motive in his theory of the altruistic Utilitarian crime.
But the motive he confides to Sonya in his confession some time after the deed is far from
altruistic. He admits that he committed the crime solely for himself - that is completely opposite to
altruism. He killed to show that he was a superior being who - as such - stood outside of moral law -
beyond good and evil. He did it to see if he was strong enough to have the right to kill - a kind of egomania.
So what was it, egomania or altruism? The two motives seem mutually exclusive.
I take Dostoevsky's warning seriously. Human survival may indeed - as Hayek says - depend on
bowing to principles which will remain a mystery. Individual or global refusal to do that is represented in
the character of Svidrigaylov. For Svidrigaylov good and evil are completely equivalent. Murder or
generosity are morally neutral. Faced with the meaninglessness of such a life, Svidrigaylov realizes - as we
might one day - that there is at the end of the day but one option for such a life - annihilation - or, "a trip to