You can be larger than life, just not death… I suppose we hear it so often that we have stopped believing it altogether. The excerpt from Crime and Punishment stages a scenario which accentuates upon the function of making tough choices. What we have here is a story in which on one side there is a woman iniquitous in the most literal sense of the word and kind towards none. All she has of value is a ton of money. Then there’s the other side which portrays score of individuals, dwelling in misery lacking the basic necessities to continue vitality. The suggestion that the author makes is to end the life of the abominable woman and use her wealth to end the despair of the unfortunate individuals. The big question remains, can it be justified? Let’s visit utilitarianism to test the author’s stance.Order now
When put to the test of utilitarianism, it can be seen that the excerpt employs a rather simple calculus to weigh the pleasure of sustenance of thousands of individuals against the pain caused by the death of an “evil” soul. According to Raskolnikov as the expected benefits of killing the lady exceed the pain, he asserts that it is a valid alternative. Such rationale brings into play act-utilitarianism. The theory maintains that that action must be done which maximizes the total benefit for the majority. It assesses the rightness or wrongness of the action on the value principle i.e. how much pleasure and pain does the action produce as a consequence: maximizing the pleasure and minimizing the pain. It is a consequentialist theory which suggests that the ends justify the means. Thus, according to Raskolnikov, killing is right if the end result brings about more net happiness than the alternative. However, this hedonistic equation is flawed. It over simplifies the moral dilemma to the point of distortion and leaves out cardinal considerations for utilitarianism such as evaluating all possible alternatives and assigning equal weight to the pleasure and pain of everyone.
Firstly, leaving the pain and moral element aside, the argument to kill the landlady to maximize the total pleasure can be dubious as there is an understandable ambiguity in defining what pleasure is and how it is to be measured. To test the hypothesis that taking the old woman’s life will render more happiness, let us assume that the lady has one million dollars and when she is murdered the money is distributed identically among the homeless families: each family getting a small proportion. It is evidently debatable as to which pleasure is greater: the pleasure the woman acquired from having one million dollars disposing it off at her own will or the cumulative marginal pleasure the homeless families derive from their share of the money. Hence, it is plausible that the total pleasure may be maximized by the lady consuming the money rather than it being distributed among the dispossessed poor. It is therefore safe to assume that the conclusion may deliver a superior cumulative pleasure if it is the landlady keeping the money and leaving it to the monastery as she dies; dies her own natural death. Thus, the whole pleasure principle on which Raskolnikov centralizes his utilitarian argument parades significant dispute. It is but a subjective opinion of the author as pleasure cannot be reliably compared. His choice exudes subjectivity which bribes his judgment.
Propagating the argument further, the other component of the value principle is pain. Raskolnikov may have underestimated the “pain” element involved in choosing this option. I say this because he failed to evaluate all possible negative outcomes. By annotating the life of the landlady as “useless” he is assigning negligible weight to her life. However, the intangible things such as life have their intrinsic value and such qualitative factors should also be considered. He has taken into account only the quantifiable measures, the numerous beings of poor faction and has left out the intrinsic components and other negative consequences. The pain element may not be limited to just the loss of life and can be of a greater magnitude. Raskolnikov’s claim that the old landlady is “necessary to no one” may be biased. He disappoints the principal of impartiality, the decision making matters to her as much as it does to the other people. Hence, her death may father a multitude of other negative consequences which the oversimplified equation conveniently ignores.
Thirdly, it is essential in utilitarianism that all possible alternatives are analyzed and then and only then that alternative must be chosen that causes the maximum pleasure and inflicting the minimum pain: thereby justifying the right action. Raskolnikov’s earnest aim behind killing the land lady was to save “a dozen families from hunger, want, ruin, crime and misery”; let’s just for argument’s sake say; agreed, granted that he had a heartfelt intention: but what about all the other alternatives that had to be analyzed and meditated on? Doesn’t it look pre-meditated of him suggesting killing her without waiting to even consider any other substitute? He could ask the lady for voluntary donation; start a campaign for collection of money by crafting awareness and motivation. These alternatives that I talk about even constitute dire steps such as stealing some money from her and providing for the poor. I mean who isn’t familiar with the unorthodox Robin Hood tactic of distribution of wealth. But considering killing as the only resort? That is too intense. All the other alternatives may have imposed lesser pain in comparison to the choice suggested by Raskolnikov. Hence, it austerely violates the utilitarian concept as he does not consider all available options which could have brought about a reduced pain and could have maximized the value generated.
Now that it has been established the murder contradicts the action principle in utilitarianism, how to defend value? If only the value principle is followed it can lead to dire consequences and the majority can perform any unjust act under the notion of “a greater good”. If killing the lady to provide sustenance to the needy is followed as a rule then all the disadvantaged individuals can group together and kill their landlords to cease their wealth, a situation which absolutely discourages the welfare principle which utilitarianism holds in reverence. This will then initiate a vicious cycle whose costs in terms of loss of life, absolute lawlessness and anarchy will outweigh its potential benefits. The entire world will be like Wild West once again. Using Raskolnikov’s argument many unwarranted deaths can be justified under the guise of the greater good. For instance, if there be a hundred starving individuals subsisting on scarce resources, according to this equation, by killing half of the individuals the other half may be able to live a better life. Even worse, killing each successive man would make the life of the other one better and hence a loop will be created till only one man is left to profit from the wherewithal. Is this the kind of message he is attempting to universalize? Because utilitarianism venerates only those actions applicable to anyone anywhere and this hardly qualifies that condition. Thus, when adopted as a rule this argument fails to provide an overall net positive value and hence a true utilitarian will disagree with Raskolnikov’s act.
In conclusion, it is pretty evident that the notion which utilitarianism after evaluating Raskolnikov’s position imparts is that certainty of the outcome holds supreme importance. Raskolnikov just cannot steal someone’s right to live because she has money and others may need it. How happy is she living with all that wealth and disposing it off however she chooses? Does he know that? He doesn’t. Also, impartiality is the essence of the decision you make, the way he puts it, “evil-minded, sulky old woman”, bias emanates out of every fragment of word he uses to describe her. It is a big decision, to take someone’s life. And unless you are absolutely sure, just don’t decide which lives to take too soon and which to let live till late.
The structure of your essay is clear, and it seems that you have put effort into writing it. But in some places, you’ve compromised on important philosophical details of your position in the interest of saying things elegantly. It’s either that, or you are not entirely clear about some of the key issues. For example, look at my comments above about rights and respect for persons. Rights have no place in consequentialist ethics, but in the final paragraph you seem to suggest that the question of the old woman’s rights can be addressed by looking at a different question of whether she is happy etc.