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Moral Relativism in Crime and Punishment

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Essay title: Moral Relativism in Crime and Punishment

At the close of Crime and Punishment, Raskolinkov is convicted of Murder and sentenced to seven years in Siberian prison. Yet even before the character was conceived, Fyodor Dostoevsky had already convicted Raskolinkov in his mind (Frank, Dostoevsky 101). Crime and Punishment is the final chapter in Dostoevsky's journey toward understanding the forces that drive man to sin, suffering, and grace. Using ideas developed in Notes from Underground and episodes of his life recorded in Memoirs of the House of the Dead, Dostoevsky puts forth in Crime in Punishment a stern defense of natural law and an irrefutable volume of evidence condemning Raskolnikov's actions (Bloom, Notes 25).

Central to the prosecution of any crime, murder in particular, is the idea of motive. Not only must the prosecutor prove the actus rectus or "guilty act," but also that the criminal possessed the mens rea or "guilty mind" (Schmalleger 77). The pages of Crime and Punishment and the philosophies of Dostoevsky provide ample proof of both. The first is easy; Dostoevsky forces the reader to watch firsthand as Raskolnikov "took the axe all the way out, swung it with both hands, scarcely aware of himself, and almost without effort, almost mechanically, brought the butt-end down on her head" (Crime and Punishment 76). There is no doubt Raskolnikov caused the death of Alena Ivanovna and, later, Lizaveta, but whether he possessed the mens rea is another matter entirely. By emphasizing the depersonalization Raskolnikov experiences during the murder, the fact that he was "scarcely aware of himself" and acted "almost mechanically" the sympathetic reader might conclude that some unknown force of nature, and not the person Raskolnikov, is to blame for the death of the usurer and her sister (Nutall 160). Dostoevsky's answer to this is contained not in Crime and Punishment, but rather in an earlier work, Notes from Underground.

The entire story of the Underground Man was intended to parody the works of Nicolai G. Chernyshevsky, and thereby prove that man's actions are the result of his own free-will. The idea that man is alone responsible for his actions is central to proving that Raskolnikov is really to blame for his crime. For under the Chernyshevsky-embraced doctrine of scientific determinism, Raskolnikov cannot be held accountable for his actions. Rather, scientific determinism holds that whatever actions men take are inevitable and unalterable because they are "totally determined by the laws of nature." The Underground man was created by Dostoevsky as a man who accepts without question scientific determinism--he is a projection of Chernyshevsky's theories at their most extreme. The result is not the utopian vision of Chernyshevsky, but rather an antisocial animal that is barely recognizable as human (Frank "Nihilism" 37).

The reason, according to Dostoevsky, for the problems of the Underground Man, is that he is incapable of any moral action because he lives in a world devoid of blame. At one point, the Underground man imagines forgiving someone for having slapped him in the face; but he cannot. Although the human side of the Underground man realizes that it is moral to forgive, determinism convinces him that "the man who would have slapped my face would most probably have done it in obedience to the laws of nature" (Notes from Underground 45). And so he cannot blame the other for slapping him because nature is really to blame (Frank "Nihilism" 50). But, as the Underground Man points out "even if it is the law of nature, it hurts all the same." According to Dostoevsky, blame is central to humanity. We must accept the responsibility and the consequences of our actions, since we alone determine what they are (Frank "Nihilism" 56). So, Raskolnikov cannot blame fate for his misfortune. But what can he blame? Why, then did Raskolnikov, a "handsome young man," well educated, devoted to his family, choose to kill a defenseless old woman?

Like the main character of Notes from Underground, Raskolinkov finds himself torn between reason and objective morality (Jackson 150). In an essay written six months prior to the start of the novel entitled "On Crime" Raskolnikov lays down the foundation of his rational justification for murder. "On Crime" describes a world split into two groups of people; the "ordinary" and the "extraordinary." The first group, the masses, are content with their lot and docilely accept whatever established order exists; the second, a small elite, is composed of individuals who "seek in various ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better," their aim is ultimately the improvement of mankind, and thus in the

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