The Reading Room

Misreading Dostoyevsky on Moral Responsibility

A 2018 article in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics entitled, “Clinicians’ Need for an Ecological Approach to Violence Reduction” presents an illuminating example of moral overreach, apparently inspired by a line from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which serves as its epigraph and is referred to several times throughout: “We are all responsible to all for all.” 
The authors assert that “structural violence” is far more harmful than any type of direct violence and argue for an obligation on the part of health professionals to consider the “adverse effects of structural violence generated by bad policies.”  Specifically, they are obliged to protect patients from injustice, which the authors take to mean policies that fail to prevent “avoidable deaths and disabilities.”  
 There is good reason to question the authors’ grasp of the teachings of the elder Zosima in Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece.  Did the monk really teach that every single person is or should become, as one scholar puts it, “morally and metaphysically responsible for everyone else and everything?”  The answer, of course, is no.  For one thing, to presume that anyone could assume moral responsibility for all other persons would be the height of hubris.  None of us, even the most well-networked, will even meet, let alone get to know, more than an infinitesimally small fraction of our fellow human beings.  To be sure, it would be wrong to put the lives of remote strangers at risk, but none of us can meaningfully take responsibility for them, for we cannot know what each individual has experienced, thought, felt, and done.  Only a god could operate with such all-encompassing understanding.
 What the elder Zosima is in fact calling for is the opposite of hubris; namely, humility – a humility born of love.  Each person leads but one life, and none of us is up to the task of serving as an exemplar of a truly holy life.  The elder gives the example of a person who casually utters a cruel remark, which to him seems like nothing, but because it is overheard by a small child, works on the child’s heart and produces very bad fruit.  The problem is not that creation is defective, but that we human beings cannot measure up, and therefore must act humbly toward one another.  Even when we act well, we still come up short.
 If we were the kinds of creatures we are meant to be, we would, by our very presence, offer encouragement to others struggling with temptation.  But because we fall short, we must recognize that the best that we can hope for is to forgive others as we wish to be forgiven and hope that this humility inspires others, at least on some occasions, to choose the good and merciful path.  This means refraining from vengeance, when someone has offended us by word or act, and recognizing that despite our best efforts, we sometimes give offense to others.  Instead of nursing our grudges, we should rededicate ourselves to the call to love one another in joy.  We should savor the good in the world.
 To feel the full force of this message, it is necessary to read The Brothers Karamazov, and do so with care.  The passionate Dmitri Karamazov has made many mistakes in life, including wishing his biological father dead and nearly killing the man who raised him, but he discovers the beauty in creation and resolves to carry his joyous message to the convicts in Siberia.  The learned Ivan, too, wishes his father dead and speculates irresponsibly about the suffering of innocents and the consequences of godlessness, but he too saves a freezing peasant and takes responsibility for his role in precipitating his father’s death.  Even the devout Alyosha experiences doubt, but his acts of kindness and forgiveness lead others to redemption.  
 The article advising an ecological approach to violence reduction expresses not the spirit of the elder Zosima but precisely what Dostoyevsky is counseling against, namely the ideas expressed by Ivan before the novel’s most famous passage, the allegory of the Grand Inquisitor.  Ivan describes terrible instances of violence against children, including a peasant child torn to bits by his master’s hounds as punishment for a trivial infraction.  Ivan sees in such accounts, many drawn from press accounts of Dostoyevsky’s own day, the occasion for moral outrage.  Such crimes cry out for vengeance, an eye for an eye, the meeting of violence with violence.
Yet to stoke the fires of resentment and outrage is to be guilty of hubris, the presumption of judgment, and an incitement to violence.  It means thinking we have things figured out, taking upon ourselves the mantle of judge and prescribing punishment.  This point is driven home in the novel by the fact that the law enforcement officials, judges, and penal officials all assume they have served justice by securing the conviction and imprisonment of the innocent Dmitri.  
One of the most hubristic of all the novel’s characters, Rakitin, believes that social causes, not human character, should be invoked as the cause of crime.  Yet those who presume to divine the social causes in play are the guiltiest of all, for they are presuming to see with the eyes of a god while in fact merely sowing the seeds for the worst kind of tyranny.  As the novel indicates, human life is simply too rich and complex for anyone to pretend that violence can be ascribed to a set of social circumstances that includes poverty.
 Our mission, as the elder Zosima sees it, is not to seize the reins of creation or society and set about building a perfectly just and equitable world.  To presume to take it upon ourselves to rid the world of murder, assault, and bullying would be to give in to our hubristic impulses, which result in condemning others and pursuing vengeance.  Instead of mistakenly supposing that we are responsible to all for everything, we should dwell on our own inadequacy, which renders us guilty before all and should give us pause against the temptation to set ourselves up as judge, jury, and executioner.  
Our calling, according to Dostoyevksy, is to be the best human beings we can with as many of the people we encounter as often as we possibly can, something we can only do with one person, or at most a few people, at a time.  We inevitably fall short, but when the forgiving, merciful, loving, and joyful potential in each of us shines through, we are providing our most authentic response to what we are called to be and do, including with someone prone to resort to violence.