June 26, 2012
A brief Dostoevskian critique of utilitarianism.

It is easy to critique a deontological ethical system; Laplace spoke well when he commented that nous n’avons besoin de cette hypothese, and da Vinci was insightful in commenting that he who adduces authority does not rely on his intellect but his memory, although in my opinion it was Christopher Hitchens who spoke most truthfully when commenting that that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Mounting an attack upon utilitarian ethics is more difficult as the premises are much less flawed, largely due to being less extant, but is very possible, and is well conducted through an assessment of utilitarianism in the two foremost works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. 

Primarily, the most well-known attack of utilitarian ethics occurs in the Brothers Karamazov, where Dostoevsky postulates that utilitarian ethics may be held theoretically, as in the case of Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov, but when taken seriously by an impressionable person, such as Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov, is not a tenable position; in contrast is the shining appraisal of Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, or Alyosha, a novice monk whose enlightened understanding of Christian ethics is heralded as the most virtuous. When Ivan propounds his godless ethical system to Smerdyakov, Smerdyakov interprets it to mean that there is truly no morality, and murders Fyodor Pavlovovich Karamazov, which is Dostoevsky’s view of what a world without deontological ethics would be like, as opposed to the new philosophical trends that were only promulgated among intellectual circles in his time.

The Dostoevskian criticism of utilitarianism does not finish with the Brothers Karamazov, however; perhaps the most eloquent and well-constructed argument against utilitarianism is encapsulated in Crime & Punishment, where Raskolnikov defends his murder of Alyona Ivanovna by invoking Nietzsche’s concept of the übermensch (albeit presciently), reasoning that he has full awareness of the consequences of his action and can therefore justify them on a utilitarian basis; Crime & Punishment’s attack on utilitarianism is veiled in Raskolnikov’s conceited belief that he knows all of the consequences of his actions and can therefore make a proper decision based on utilitarian principles, believing that he is ridding the world of a parasite, which Dostoevsky disproves with all the disastrous effects implicated by his murder of Alyona, not least the corollary murder of her sister Lizaveta. In this, Dostoevsky expounds the notion that it’s infeasible to explore and evaluate all of the consequences of your actions effectively, especially when the aftermath is impossible to predict.

While these selected works of Dostoevsky certainly do not constitute the entire rational opprobrium against utilitarian ethics, it certainly proves to be an intriguing insight into the views of one of the great minds of the nineteenth century as regards utilitarian consequentialism.

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