One of the philosophical theories that Dostoevsky tested in his novels was the utilitarian notion that the end justifies the means. As John Stuart Mill put it, that action is right which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The position was not new, of course. Machiavelli put it forward in the Prince, either in jest (as many claim) or as a way of pointing out the way things are done in the “real world” of politics circa 1500 in Florence. In any event, Dostoevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment could be said to be the reductio ad absurdum of the view: it won’t stand up to the withering test of actual human experience when we attempt to justify the taking of another human life. Like so many philosophical theories it is just that: a theory.
In his even greater novel that very few people bother to read these days — if they bother to read at all — Dostoevsky visits the claim once again. In this novel the situation involves a discussion between Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov in the novel about The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan, the intellectual skeptic confronts his pure and naive brother Alyosha with the following conundrum:
“Tell me straight out, I call on you — answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the end, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny [child]. . . and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears — would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth?”
And Alyosha said softly, “No I would not agree.”
“And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and, having accepted it, to remain forever happy?”
“No, I cannot admit it, brother.”
Ivan is alluding to a story that he told Alyosha (one of several) — which Dostoevsky himself clipped from the newspaper and worked into his novel — about a five-year old child who was beaten and kicked by her parents and then locked in an outhouse over a cold winter’s night because she had wet her bed the night before. In the night she “beat herself on her strained little chest with her tiny fist and weeps. . . for ‘dear God’ to protect her” to no avail. The next day her parents washed her face with her own excrement so she would learn her lesson. It’s a horrible story, but that sort of thing happens in the “real world” while philosophers in their studies sit and muse about the right and the good and come up with theories about what is good “in the long run.”
We live today in a world where little girls are not beaten and locked in privies overnight, we hope. But we live at a time when it has become commonplace to direct small, pilotless planes into crowded streets alive with women and small children to target a “known” enemy of the political state. We, of course, rely completely on the veracity of spies and agents to correctly identify the “target.” These trustworthy people know who the “bad guys” are and they point them out. The planes are then sent in and if they hit a few innocent women and children it does not matter as long as the bad guy is “taken out.”
This is done in the name of “national security,” of course. The end justifies the means, just as Machiavelli said. And because “they” hit us first and killed 3000 innocent people we can justify killing half again as many of “them” in the name of self-defense, even if we know we are killing innocent women and children. It is not quite as terrible as the story that Dostoevsky tells, but apparently, unlike Alyosha, we seem to be perfectly happy with it.