Faulty Premises

I’ve been re-reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and I’m surprised to have happened upon the answer to an ethical riddle. The question which was asked in philosophy class I sat in on once was “Is it ethical to kill one innocent person if in doing do you save the lives of ten other innocent people?” At the time I was first confonted with that question it seemed to be a case of the ends justifying the means. You wouldn’t like to do it, I reasoned, but it would be the right thing to do.

Doestoevsky’s novel confronts that logic head-on with his protagonist Raskolnikov contemplating the murder of a stingy old pawnbroker woman so that her hoarded wealth can be used to benefit a thousand needy souls, thus blotting out that one sin. He continuously turns this idea over in his head, apalled at the ghoulishness of it but time and again he arrives at the same conclusion.

“No, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t do it. Granted, granted there is no flaw in all that reasoning, that all that I have concluded this last month is clear as day, true as arithmatic. . . My God! Anyway I couldn’t bring myself to do it! Why. . . why then am I still. . .” 

When you think you’ve got the answer to an ethical question and there’s still a bad feeling in your gut you’ve probably got a flaw in your reasoning. In this case the reasoning supposedly justifies the murder of an innocent (if contemptible) woman due to the good that can be accomplished by helping the needy thereafter (please note I refrained from saying “so everyone can get some of her booty”).

The flaw in the reasoning is the premise that a person’s need gives them a moral claim to someone else’s money. It is this premise that Raskolnikov uses to justify the sin of the murder itself. The one murder will be outweighed by the good that is done when the wealth is resitributed to the poor who so richly deserve it by virtue of their being poor. It is when this idea is taken to its logical conclusion that Dostoevsky reveals the true horror of such a worldview were the ends justify the means and force takes precedence over mutual consent.

Whacking an innocent old woman in the head with an axe, as entertaining as that might seem, is not justifiable on any grounds. Tearing one person open so that four might feast off his innards is not an ethical way for human beings to act. Poverty is not a vice but neither is it a moral value which entitles one to the profits or work product of another. Simply put there is more need in this world than there are resources so if wealth redistribution and force are our moral premises then we must all fight each other to loot and redistribute until we’re all beaten up and equally poor.

I’m not sure if Dostoevsky intended his novel as an argument against socialism but that’s what I saw in it so there you have it. Argue if you must that I’m like Bruce Wayne seeing a bat in every ink blot but wealth redistrubution by force is unethical and this novel clearly shows it. Is there a flaw in that logic?

8 Responses to “Faulty Premises”

  1. guy in the UNLV jacket says:

    I haven’t had old lady innards since the summer of 1983 before that we would have them every May 1st to correspond with the Bolshevic Revolution. mmmmmmmm old lady innards

  2. You are right on the money. I wish more people took the time to point out the true moral underpinnings of socialism.

  3. R says:

    Old lady booty. Now that’s flawed logic.

  4. I really wasn’t going to comment again. I was just cruisin’ thru to see your latest. Yet, I see Dostoevsky is still at the top of the list. This, coupled with your previous post on murder/suicide brings one to mind. It is called “Moral Dilemma #1,” and is too long for a comment so here’s the link:

    This is completely out of my (honest) reach. That is because Stephen Speicher hates my guts and he owns the forum.

    If you do decide to post on it, please tell them: INNOCENT BY REASON OF INSANITY.

  5. Well, yeah, I think you’re wrong, in that I don’t believe Dostoevsky was talking about the merits of socialism at all.

    About your ethical riddle: it makes me cringe when professors pose questions like that, because it implies that an answer is impossible. It’s not–what answer you come up with depends on what ethical philosophy you espouse.

    If you’re a utilitarian like Bentham, your philosophy is “the greatest good for the greatest number,” so you MIGHT agree to kill her.

    If you’re a follower of Kant, then you judge solely on the basis of your actions, not on any expected outcome, so if it’s wrong to kill, then it’s wrong to kill, period, even if four other people would benefit.

    If you’re a believer in natural law, then you believe that there is a “right order” of things implicit in the world, which does not include killing old ladies to spread the wealth.

    I am not saying that there is no Universal Truth, so one answer is as good as another one. What I am saying is that the question should not just be thrown out there willy-nilly–there are very disciplined ways to think about it, and to answer it.

  6. Mexigogue says:

    The point of my bringing up the question was. . . like. . . didactic. . or something. An extreme case like this shows that human sacrifice is wrong no matter how many people it benefits (assuming the sacrificee objects). See, if we were to argue about a 1% rise in income tax to benefit the homeless, someone might say it’s no big deal, you can afford it. But when we raise the “tax” to 100% and take it from a person by force, I think we all would agree that is wrong.

    So at what percentage point does taking loot from one (against their will) to give to another become ethically wrong? I would argue it is wrong at any percent.

    Of course this opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms and begs the question whether the will of the masses shoul take precedence over individual property rights and whether the idea of the ‘social contract’ is even valid. I vote no on both questions.

    I hope that unwilly-nillified the issue.

  7. Mexigogue says:

    Oh thank you Citizen for posting that link. I like ethical questions dealing with Objectivism.