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  • Christian Burke

Crime and Punishment: Morality and the Importance of First Principles

It is the mistake of every new generation to assume that they are the first of their kind. Every child rebels against the wishes of his parents, and believes he is doing something new and bold. He matures, gains a small measure of experience and knowledge about the world, and comes to the conclusion that all of the prevailing authorities are wrong, that he alone holds the secret truth of the universe. It is not wrong that he feels this way; rebellion is a natural part of growing up. He reaches adulthood when he realizes the wisdom of that old adage, “honor thy father and thy mother.”

As it is now, so it was in nineteenth century Russia. Rodion Raskolnikov, the arrogant college student who is the protagonist in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel Crime and Punishment, is a mirror image of many of today’s young revolutionaries. Like them, he rejects the moral system of his society, believing it to be the product of false and outdated religious belief. However, this leads him to commit a heinous crime: murdering a wealthy pawnbroker and stealing several of her valuables to help him pay for his college education. At first glance, this seems like something insane and irrational. No matter one’s religious beliefs or political views, we all agree that murder and theft are wrong— right?

For Dostoevsky, the matter is not so simple. One’s moral intuition, which instinctively tells him to condemn Raskolnikov, must be predicated on some objective moral reality; otherwise, any action becomes justifiable on subjective grounds. In Raskolnikov’s case, he wants to imitate his hero, Napoleon, who to him represents a man who reserves the right to violate traditional expectations of moral behavior for his own benefit. Dostoevsky challenges us to defy him: on what grounds can we hold that what he did was wrong? From what fundamental reality, what independent, objective truth can we derive our deepest intuitions, which shape the way we see the world and act within it? What are our first principles, and why should the Raskolnikovs of the world respect them?

This is no pie in the sky philosophy; these are the practical things which we must consider before we act politically. Many a political battle has been won by the side making the moral argument, which is far more compelling to the average voter than utilitarianism. From the civil rights movement in the 1960s to the LGBTQ+ movement of today, victory is framed by the winners as a fight of good against evil. This is why, for the first time since the 80s, the cultural right is making real political headway: the power balance in the Republican party has shifted away from the libertarian tendencies which have dominated it for the last three decades, and back toward its more conservative and religious wing. From the overturning of Roe vs. Wade to the restrictions on transgender expression in conservative states, they have learned again to frame their arguments through a moral lens, attacking their opponents, rightly or wrongly, as the side of evil.

So, it must be gravely considered, what exactly is good, and what is evil, and how do we know? Dostoevsky made no attempt to hide that his first principles were those of Christianity; what, then, are ours? How can we fight for progress in our political landscape, without first knowing toward what we are progressing, and where our notions of progress come from?

The conservative can always fall back upon his religion for justification of his moral views (though whether or not he really believes in it is another question); the great challenge of secular liberalism is to come up with a rival framework of first principles from which to build a coherent moral system. Dostoevsky did not believe it was possible. Raskolnikov tries and fails, nearly going mad in the process; his heart cannot accept the ways he has justified his crime to himself, and after months of agonizing guilt, he is driven to repentance. Some will reject the question entirely and embrace moral relativism, but this mindset will only worsen our most potent problems. Racism cannot be fought effectively unless on the basis that it is objectively immoral, even if some people wrongly think it to be acceptable; social justice cannot be done unless justice is a real and raging thing like fire, which shines upon the innocent and burns the wicked. Moreover, we all know deep down that moral relativism is not true. It is not merely an evolutionary byproduct, or an instinct of self preservation, or some socially constructed set of rules, which cause us to hate cruelty and love righteousness. It is the work of some higher muscle, an innate and transcendent knowledge. Some have called it the soul.

It is because of this moral sense that many of us rebel in the first place. We rightly perceive that power and greed corrupt those who rule, and take a stand against the injustice and inequality that we see. Like Raskolnikov, however, many of us make the mistake of abandoning the moral system which we believe to be enforced by the world, without offering a coherent replacement. It is no sin to seek a better world, but we must be sure of our first principles, and of the moral system for which we advocate. If we are not, we will be as impotent as the child who rebels against his parents, or worse, we will become like Raskolnikov, and fall farther even than the fallen world against which we stand.


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