Crime and Punishment

In Dostoevsky‘s Crime and Punishment, we see how the legal system becomes just one of several function systems in modern society. Whereas once the law, religion, morality, politics, art, education, art, etc., were all tightly integrated, since the late 18th century these aspects of life have been fragmented and none is more fundamental or essential than another. When Raskolnikov decides to kill Alyona Ivanovna, the pawnbroker, he reasons that the ends justify the means. If he can acquire Alyona Ivanovna’s money, he can resume his university studies, free his sister from her engagement to a man she doesn’t love, and ultimately make the world a better place. To Raskolnikov, these are all noble things. To him, the pawnbroker is no more important than an insect. As he says to his sister,

“Crime? What crime?” he cried in sudden fury. “That I killed a vile noxious insect, an old pawnbroker woman, of use to no one!… Killing her was atonement for forty sins. She was sucking the life out of poor people. Was that a crime?

Under functional differentiation, the legal system does not take priority over any other system; they are all operationally autonomous. This is why social justice activists are willing to break laws to further their cause. Similarly, an artist might decide to break a law in the name of art. If the law stands in the way of art, then the law can be transgressed (though the legal penalty might have to be paid). In the education system, some laws (e.g. Jim Crow segregation laws) might need to be broken in the name of education. In other words, the laws no longer derive from God, Nature, or a king. Every law is contingent rather than necessary or inevitable.

Raskolnikov reflects the dark side of utilitarianism. The pawnbroker’s life is useless; she is “of use to no one.” Her money could be put to much greater use by Raskolnikov. In his hands, the money could bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number.

But as novelist, Dostoevsky could never endorse this erasure of a person. Novelists create individual characters, and these characters should be more interesting than society in general. (Novelists are not sociologists or historians). If the life of the individual loses its value, or perhaps its autonomy, then society itself has no value. This is what Orwell wrote about in 1984. It’s what all good novelists–Kafka immediately comes to mind–write about. The survival of Homo sapiens isn’t of much value without respect for the individual person.

We can see the same kind of thing in popular television or Netflix shows such as Breaking Bad, Ozark, and many others where ordinary people decide to become criminals in the name of something “higher” or more important than the law. Sometimes these people take up a life of crime in the interest of their families. This is what happens in Breaking Bad, until our antihero, Walter White, realizes that he just loves the work. Even in reactionary films such as Dirty Harry (1971), we see how laws are broken, even by cops, when they get in the way of some higher good.


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