Saturday, 2 November 2013

The teleological suspension of the ethical and the great man theory of murder : Raskolnikov and Abraham as knights of faith or murderers

In Crime and punishment Raskolnikov gets into a discussion with Porifry, the investigator, about  an article Raskolnikov wrote for a periodical. Porfiry notices an interesting hint in the article whereby “the extraordinary have the right to commit all sorts of crimes and in various ways to transgress the law, because in point of fact they are extraordinary” (p. 259) Raskolnikov qualifies this statement. He does not think, for instance, that the extraordinary have a duty to transgress, but that they do have the right to.  One way for instance that this transgression might be allowed is “in the event that the fulfilment of of his idea - sometimes perhaps salutary for the whole of mankind - calls for it” (p. 259) He says, for instance, that if the discoveries of Newton could only come about by the deaths of one or even one hundred people that it would be justified and Newton would have the right, even the duty to remove those people. It does not follow that Newton has the right to kill whomsoever he pleases or to steal. Only if these deaths are for the sake of something great is it justified. He goes on to list certain great men like Napoleon who shed innocent blood along the way and moreover in creating new laws transgressed the old ones. From this he develops the idea that “not only great , but even those who are a tiny bit off the beaten track - that is, who are a tiny bit capable of saying something new  - by their very nature cannot  fail to be criminals - more or less to be sure” (p. 260)



Before looking at this in any greater detail it might be worth pointing out how this is similar to another story concerning murder. In Fear and trembling, written by Kierkegaard's pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, there is a long discussion of Abraham setting out to murder Isaac. The section however that most directly corresponds with Crime and Punishment however, is the one with the heading “Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?” (p. 54) Kierkegaard describes the ethical as the universal which applies to everyone at all times. The single individual has his telos or goal in the universal and has the task to annul his singularity in order to become the universal. To assert his individuality is to sin and he must surrender this individuality in order to rest once more in the universal. Kierkegaard admits the consistency of this view, but if it is maintained, then Hegel is right and moreover Abraham is a murderer. On the other hand “Faith is namely the paradox that the single individual is higher than  the universal” (p. 55). This alternative is literally against logic. He writes therefore  “This position cannot be mediated, for all mediation takes place only by virtue of the universal; it is and remains for all eternity a paradox, impervious to thought” (p.56) It is for this reason that he asserts that “The story of Abraham contains just such a teleological suspension of the ethical” (p.56) The telos for Abraham, the reason he sets out to murder is “because God demands proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake so that he can prove it” (p. 59-60)



Let’s look a little more closely at the comparison between these texts. For Raskolnikov there does not seem to be anything particularly paradoxical about Newton committing murder in order to develop his theories. He would appear to be using some sort of utilitarian idea that if a greater good emerges from an evil action, then  it is justified. Thus a discovery that will benefit millions is justified by the deaths of a few. We think this way quite commonly with regard to war. Killing these innocent Germans is justified by the need to defeat Hitler. But the basic idea of the universal ethical applying to everyone, but that under certain circumstances an individual may transgress is clearly similar to the idea presented in Fear and Trembling. Raskolnikov is suggesting that anyone with individuality, with the ability to say something new, is something of a criminal. Kierkegaard is saying something similar with the suggestion that anyone who wants to be a single individual, who wants to have faith likewise transgresses against the universal.

Lets look at these individuals practically. We know that Raskolnikov is a murderer of a pawnbroker. Is the justification for this murder his theory that he developed in his article? It’s not clear that it is, though perhaps the theory contributed to the state of mind, which led him to murder. He is poor, but thinks that he has the potential to do great things, if only he had some money to get started. Let’s imagine that he gets away with the murder and goes on in life to create great things, a cure for cancer, a solution to poverty etc, etc. Would then the murder that got him started be justified? Obviously this depends on whether we are willing to follow the utilitarian theory of ethics, by which the murder could under certain circumstances be justified, given that it led to a greater happiness. But what of the poor pawnbroker? It did not help her happiness. The more deontological side of ethics cries out that this murder was wrong, that we cannot use people, that they are not a means to an end. But crucially all this depends on Raskolnikov getting away with it. But so too does it apply to the other great men. If Newton needs to kill a hundred people to develop his theories, but gets caught immediately, as soon as he has killed the first of them, he will straight away be tried, convicted and executed. The same goes for Napoleon. If he starts a coup and kills hundreds, all will be well if he wins and becomes the Emperor. But if he loses, he will be tried as a traitor. It may well be possible for these people to justify themselves with hindsight. History may judge them kindly. But the risk for the individual who acts outside the bounds of the law and the ethical is that history will not be there to judge. These people are not great yet. And so the law will see no mitigation.

Let’s take Abraham. He acts because God commands him and to show his faith. He acts for the sake of this telos or goal, which he takes as being higher than his duty to the ethical, his duty to Isaac. But just as when Raskolnikov murders for the sake of a higher goal, we still have to take into account the interests of the pawnbroker, so there is a danger that in Kierkegaard’s account he forgets to take into account the interests of Isaac. Abraham wants to fulfil God’s command, wants to show his faith. But what of what Isaac wants? Perhaps he too wants to fulfil God’s command and show his faith.

But again let’s look at Abraham’s situation practically. What would have happened to Abraham if he had actually killed Isaac. Let’s imagine that a person today felt that he was commanded by God to kill his son. What would happen if I took my son to a mountain a killed him with a knife? When caught by the police, what would happen if I said God commanded me to do it as a test of faith? I would immediately be tried for murder and would most certainly be detained in a prison or in a mental hospital. Abraham too would have faced whatever laws existed when he lived. No doubt these would have been rather harsh, an eye for an eye etc. Abraham is only really justified in two circumstances. Either he gets away with the murder, no one finds out, or he doesn’t have to commit the murder, the sheep is provided.

But how does this affect individuality? Of course there are genuine moral dilemmas, where individuals must make up their minds in difficult circumstances. As Sartre asks somewhere, should I look after my aging grandmother or join the resistance? There are instances like Napoleon where someone must dare in order to succeed, where the risk is great and failure may mean death. But these situations are relatively rare.

What strikes me as odd in both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky is the idea that it is not possible to express individuality, to be a single individual with something new to say, without being a criminal in some way. There are laws that apply to everyone. But these laws only apply to certain things, aspects of life that affect everyone else. There are massive areas of private life which are unconstrained by law, especially if laws are written such that I have the liberty of a liberal morality that says so long as I harm no one else I may do as I please. In such circumstances I can think what I please, write what I please. What need have I for criminality?

Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling is deliberately putting forward an extreme example of faith. Abraham’s example does transgress the universal. But most faith even if it is likewise a belief in a paradox and an acceptance of the absurd, need not transgress universal morality. If as a Christian I believe the paradox of God made man who died but rose again, but who left me with an example to imitate and the task to follow him and live how he lived. Here my faith does not require me to transgress the universal. Quite the reverse.

There may be a teleological suspension of the ethical, but as Kierkegaard will develop in works such as “For Self Examination” our task is to be doers of the Word, followers of the Book of James and that requires no such heroics. And yet the task is far more difficult than that faced by either Abraham or Raskolnikov. So difficult indeed that almost no one, except perhaps a saint, is able to do what is required.


Fyodor Dostoevsky Crime and Punishment translated by by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, London, Vintage, c1992

Søren Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling ; Repetition edited and translated by Howard Hong and Edna Hong, Princeton, Princeton University Press, c1983.