The End Justifies Any Means?

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.

Fyodor DostoevskyCourtesy of Wikipedia

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Courtesy of Wikipedia

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.

The Novelist as Liar

Some of Dostoevsky’s best friends were philosophers. He was not himself one, though he pondered many of the deepest philosophical problems much of his adult life. But when he came to conclusions he was often conflicted and his novels reflect the many levels of awareness that he came to as well as the many opposing positions he seemed to allow. He was a poet who embraced paradox, something that would repel the philosopher. He did not think systematically, he thought intuitively. He worked in metaphors and images and usually avoided discursive thought, though some of his characters were given to philosophical reflection from time to time.

If you read Dostoevsky’s notebooks, where he planned his novels, you will see a number of options and character sketches and even rough outlines of a plot. But when the poet sat down to write the novels they took on a life of their own. And Dostoevsky was enough the poet to allow that to happen; he rarely demanded that the novel conform to preconceived ideas. One obvious exception is the epilogue to Crime and Punishment which I have argued elsewhere flaws the novel as a work of art. In that epilogue, Dostoevsky the man took the novel away from Dostoevsky the poet.The same thing happens in Notes From Underground.

To be sure, Notes was one of the more philosophical works that Dostoevsky wrote. The first part is an extended series of reflections that reads like a journal in which the author draws a number of tentative conclusions about freedom and suffering, two themes that recur in a number of his novels. The underground man says, near the end  of the first part, “I’m certain that man will never renounce real suffering. . . why, this is the sole cause of consciousness.”  This comment echoes almost exactly a remark Dostoevsky made while preparing for Crime and Punishment. In his notebook he says, “Man is not born for happiness. Man earns his happiness, and always by suffering. There’s no injustice here, because the knowledge of life and consciousness. . . .is acquired by experience pro and contra, which one must take upon one’s self.” This is a thesis that a number of critics have, reasonably, attributed to Dostoevsky himself through the years: the necessity for suffering in order to achieve full humanity. But if you read the novels themselves, and even the second part of Notes, you come to the realization that Dostoevsky was of two minds (at least) on the subject of suffering.

In that second part. his hero, who is unnamed, suffers dreadfully and makes a young prostitute suffer as well. This tortured relationship seems to suggest that suffering does not lead anywhere, except to a breakdown of the psyche of the one who suffers and also those he makes suffer. Granted, the hero is close to a breakdown as the novel begins, but by the end he is over the edge. If as the author suggests in the first part, suffering leads to a deeper humanity, the second part of the novella gives the lie to that claim. No one benefits from the suffering that the hero has brought on himself and inflicted on the young woman who reaches out to him and is crushed.

In the end, we must say that Dostoevsky was conflicted about the possible value of human suffering. The poet was too sensitive to close his eyes and mind to the terrible price the sufferer pays — as he himself knew first hand. So the philosophical conclusion that suffering is necessary for human freedom, or a deeper awareness of the world around you, may have been a thesis that Dostoevsky, the man, embraced as part of his deep convictions about the truth he found in the New Testament. But Dostoevsky the poet worked closer to the fact of human suffering and he wept. The poet could see no value in suffering, while the man was convinced it was worth the price.

As D.H. Lawrence reminds us, if we want to know what the novel says we must read the novel. “As for the novelist, he is a dribbling liar.” If we want to know what Dostoevsky really believed about the value of human suffering, it is wise to read his novels.

Poets uncover the hidden truths that are deep within human experience; philosophers occasionally mull over those truths and try to make systematic wholes out of them. At times Dostoevsky confused the two roles and tried to play them both. He almost pulls it off, but in the first part of Notes, and the Epilogue to Crime and Punishment, he failed.