Dostoevsky and ethical dilemmas

I wanted to start off this blog with a excerpt from Crime and Punishment – a conversation between two characters on the moral justification of a murder. The conversation highlights the way in which our ethical beliefs often come in to conflict with one another.

“…Hundreds, thousands perhaps, might be set on the right path; dozens of families saved from destitution, from ruin, from vice, from the Lock hospitals—and all with her money. Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all. What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds? For one life thousands would be saved from corruption and decay. One death, and a hundred lives in exchange—it’s simple arithmetic? Besides, what value has the life of that sickly, stupid, ill-natured old woman in the balance of existence? No more than the life of a louse, of a black beetle, less in fact because the old woman is doing harm.”

“… You are talking and speechifying away, but tell me, would you kill the old woman yourself?”

“Of course not! I was only arguing the justice of it.… It’s nothing to do with me.…”

“But I think, if you would not do it yourself, there’s no justice about it.… Let us have another game.”

The former argues for the murder of the old woman using consequentialist/utilitarian ethics (in short – the greatest amount of good for the greatest number), whilst the latter points out the apparent discrepancy between his theory and his action, implying that his ethical beliefs are actually closer to deontology (duty based, according to some rule or other) than to consequentialism.

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Thought experiments, hypothetical situations designed to test our intuition, reveal how easily our ethical convictions can be shaken. Take for example the trolley problem series of thought experiments – in one experiment we are asked whether we would divert a train on course to kill five people towards a track where one person will be killed.

Under consequentialism, it would be right to pull the lever and divert the track, as five people would live and one person die, resulting in the most amount of good (five people live and one dies, vs one person living and five dying) possible for that particular situation. But under a deontological ethic, it would never be right to pull the lever and divert the train, even if refraining from doing so would result in the death of five people. This is because in our actions we are bound to certain rules that dictate what is right and not right to do. Bringing about the death of one person because of our action would violate this rule and therefore be unambiguously wrong.

Even self-proclaimed consequentialists can find themselves in a quandary over such ethical dilemmas, demonstrating that our ethical belief systems are seldom as straight forward as the underlying rules propose.

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5 thoughts on “Dostoevsky and ethical dilemmas”

  1. “The ends don’t justify the means.” is one such principle. Everything is a judgement call. I think perhaps the nature of past karma creates situations, or more of them, in which there is no possible good solution.

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    1. Could you explain what you mean by ‘the nature of past karma’? Certainly there are many situations when no one ethical framework seems satisfactory. Perhaps the problem is with subscribing to just one to the exclusion of all others – do you think it would be permissible to pick and choose depending on the situation? (I think this is what most people in fact do, but in philosophy it is a virtue to be consistent in your beliefs).

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      1. Coming from an Eastern philosophy standpoint in which there are long time periods in the reincarnation and karma context (and less so in one lifetime) – if one has always solved problems with force, then the likelihood goes way up that situations involving potential violence occur in the future. If one changes his philosophy and wants to rely on compromise, etc. – then you’ll still get these nasty situations arising when compromise is impossible. (maybe like with Hitler or violent fundamentalists.)
        Yeah, you have to become consistent in your beliefs if you don’t want to become schizophrenic, but I’ve found in life that sometimes or often you can’t live up to one’s principles unless you also want to cause your own destruction, so you just have to do the best you can in an uncooperative world…. and hope one is changing the future by making good decisions whenever possible.
        Like you imply, most all people are inconsistent in their values and are blissfully unaware of it.

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