Sunday, October 25, 2009

Utilitarianism and Russian Literature

Harvard University and WGBH Boston have posted online a popular course “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” Moral aspects of murder, price tag for human life, can we sacrifice one life in order to rescue thirty people? These and other moral questions are discussed during this course.

The first two episodes are devoted to utilitarianism. Wikipedia defines utilitarianism as “the idea that moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to overall utility: that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed among all people. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome.” The idea is rooted in the philosophy of Epicurus, and in many ways resulted in thousand of years of European cult of rationality.

In Russia, it is literature that does the job of philosophy. Ethical dilemmas and moral choices are widely discussed in Russia’s novels of the 19th century, less so in philosophical works. Case in point, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, with all the power of his artistic gifts, demonstrated in his novels that a single person and a society cannot build happiness upon the suffering of another.Raskolnikov, the protagonist of “Crime and Punishment” killed a disgusting, wicked old woman. She was an evil. Dostoyevsky intentionally portrayed the old woman as a person with a black soul, so to speak. Presumably, the world would not miss this terrifying old lady; however, this presumption does not excuse the crime of murder. The moral bans for murder and violence against other human beings are more important than overall utility. Moreover, happiness can never be achieved by making another suffer. The most noble and bright idea isn’t worth a single tear of a child. This is what Dostoyevsky illustrated in his novels.

Now let’s turn from literature into the real life. Does primacy of human life declared in Russian novels work in reality? To be continued…