One death and a thousand lives in exchange : it is simple arithmetic. Raskolnikov
Raskolnikov's mathematical evaluation of the moral dilemma presented to him in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment exemplifies the empirical view of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism attempts to distinguish between right and wrong by measuring a decision based on its calculated worth. Raskolnikov appears to employ the fundamentals of utilitarian philosophy by pitting the negative consequences of murdering his old landlady against the positive benefits that her money would bestow onto society.
However, a true follower of utilitarian philosophy would be outraged at Raskolnikov's claim that murdering the old woman can be considered morally right. Raskolnikov arbitrarily leaves out some necessary considerations in his moral equation that do not adhere to utilitarianism. A utilitarian would argue that Raskolnikov has not reached an acceptable solution because he has not accurately solved the problem. On the other hand, a non-utilitarian would reject even the notion of deliberating about the act of murder in such a mathematical manner. He might contend that Raskolnikov's reasoning and the entire theory of utilitarianism cannot be used to judge morality because it rejects individual rights and contains no moral absolutes.
A utilitarian bases his belief upon two principles - The theory of right actions and the theory of value. These two principles work together and serve as criteria for whether or not a utilitarian can deem an action morally right. First, the theory of right action argues that the morally right decision is the one whose consequences are at least as good as any other available option. For example, upon receiving the assignment for this paper, I could have chosen to ignore the assignment and spend my time on something more enjoyable or I could have worked diligently on my paper actually turning it in. Employing the utilitarian principle, I would have to weigh each option and then decide which one has consequences at least as good as or better than any of the other options possible. But, what standard do I use to gauge the consequences in order to choose the best alternative?
The theory of right action does not stand alone as the only condition for ethical evaluations. To measure the given alternatives, I would have to apply the theory of value. The theory of value bases itself on the premise that pleasure is the only thing valuable in itself and as an end. Mill clearly states that all desirable things are desirable either for pleasure inherent in themselves or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain. In my moral dilemma, I had to take each alternative and calculate the total amount of pleasure that each would produce, minus the total amount of pain each alternative would induce. So while not doing the paper might give me the most amount of immediate pleasure, the pain that I would incur upon receiving an F in my class would greatly reduce the amount of net pleasure. On the other hand, I might experience some pain (due to boredom, frustration, etc.) from writing the paper. However, this amount of pain would be outweighed by the pleasure of receiving an A on it, thus in turn raising my GPA, making my parents happy, graduating with honors, securing a six-figure salary job, marrying the perfect man and having 2.5 kids.
Therefore, utilitarianism not concerned with just the short-term consequences of the decision nor with the sole effects on the agent himself. A utilitarian must consider the long-term effects and the amount of pleasure or pain that others will experience as a result of his decision. The agent cannot just consider his personal level of pleasure or pain. In fact, there may be cases where the utilitarian's right decision may cause the agent only pain. However, in accordance to the greatest good for the greatest number philosophy of utilitarianism, the decision that is morally right produces the greatest amount of net pleasure for everyone involved.
Raskolnikov seems to be employing utilitarianism when he justifies the murder of his landlady. According to Raskolnikov, he has two available options: murdering the old woman and giving away her money to benefit society or letting her live and watching the money waste away in a monastery when she dies of natural causes. Apparently, Raskolnikov has formulated an equation in which the old woman's death has a greater positive differential between the pleasure and pain than not murdering her. He states that the pleasure the old woman's money would bring to the poor would outweigh the pain inflicted upon her.
Although Raskolnikov's reasoning seems to be a clear example of the utilitarian principle, in reality it simplifies utilitarianism to the point of distortion. A utilitarian would argue that Raskolnikov has not shown the murder to be morally justifiable because Raskolnikov abstracts the situation does not develop key variables of utilitarianism, and thus has not accurately solved the problem.
First, Raskolnikov does not fulfill the requirements for the theory of right action. Whereas the theory of right action deems an act morally right if it is the best choice out of all available options, Raskolnikov simplifies the situation and ignores other available options. Murdering the woman is not the only possibility for Raskolnikov if he truly wants to better society. He could, for example, steal the money which would inflict less pain on the old woman. He could find alternative ways to raise money (fundraising, donations, etc.) which would cancel out any factor of pain. Both alternatives would produce a greater amount of net pleasure than the single, drastic option Raskolnikov has considered.
Raskolnikov has also not applied the theory of value because he has not weighed all the consequences accurately. In measuring the level of pleasure and pain associated with each outcome, a utilitarian must base his evaluation on the probabilities of all likely consequences. However, Raskolnikov, in his subjectivity of the situation, has not considered the likeliness of several possibilities. Raskolnikov might be caught in the act. He might prove to be ineffective in helping society. Mill clearly warns against using the utilitarian thought in trying to fix something as large and general as society. Therefore, Raskolnikov may cause a high degree of pain with no resulting pleasure to show for it. It is easy to see why Raskolnikov thinks that the old woman's life is expendable.
However, his reasoning is not applicable towards a utilitarian definition of morally right. Only in an abstracted situation as the one Raskolnikov portrays, can his simplified conclusion be considered. In reality, his reasoning leaves out several elements such as numerous alternatives and unforeseeable consequences, which true utilitarian arguments do not take for granted.
The difference between utilitarian arguments, which Raskolnikov's reasoning does reflect to some extent, and non-utilitarian arguments, is that non-utilitarian moral theories do not cancel out an individual's pain as easily. Even if Raskolnikov could prove to the old woman that her death is the morally right decision according to utilitarianism, I doubt that she would go along with the plan. She would not be so hasty to overlook her personal pain, although it is outweighed by the positive consequences of her murder. A non-utilitarian would argue that one cannot simply dismiss the factor of pain, even if overshadowed by a greater amount of pleasure.
In Raskolnikov's reasoning the pain of the old woman could never compete with the pleasure gained by society. Therefore her suffering is tossed aside. This is because the theory of value cannot measure the value of an intangible quality such as life. However, a non-utilitarian would contend that the human life of an individual should be valued more than any other consideration, especially one as superficial as money, because once it is taken away, it is irrevocable. They would also assert that because utilitarianism values only those things which promote pleasure, it does not value human life. Life, like pleasure, is valuable in itself. A non-utilitarian would not look at moral dilemmas with the calculated objectivity that one uses when looking at a mathematical equation. To a non-utilitarian a human life holds a tremendous amount of value, a value that cannot be quantified into simplistic factors and then dismissed.
Another problem that a non-utilitarian might have with Raskolnikov's use of utilitarianism is that his reasoning is not held to any moral absolutes. If Raskolnikov could prove that an act of murder was morally acceptable through a utilitarian equation, then anyone could calculate such heinous actions. We would have mobs of people murdering their rich, old landladies because they would feel that they are justified, if only they donate some of the money to charity. Anarchy and a disregard for human life would ensue if everyone subscribed to Raskolnikov's thinking. A non-utilitarian would argue that moral absolutes provide a standard by which people can gauge the morality of their decisions. However, in utilitarianism, there are no moral absolutes. So, who provides the standards to make sure that people do not feel justified in committing murder? Unfortunately, Mill does not make allowances for competent judges, so any practitioner of utilitarianism must come up with his own scale to measure pleasure and pain (and in turn morality). As we see in the Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is not a competent judge. Therefore, he commits an immoral act, while feeling justified because he the utilitarian theory protects him.
In conclusion, utilitarianism is the most democratic of moral theories. The greatest good for the greatest number mentality secures justice for the majority but fails to provide the rights due to the individual. However, unlike our democratic government, which employs a system of checks and balances to regulate itself, utilitarianism has no set standards to deem certain acts wrong. Raskolnikov demonstrates the mathematical objectivity of utilitarian stance, although he miscalculates somewhat in his justification of murder. In such a calculated manner, personal pain and suffering are dismissed in lieu of the emphasis placed on monetary value. So while utilitarian would describe his formula as the greatest good for the greatest number, a non-utilitarian would characterize it as the happiness of many overshadowing the happiness of the individual.