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“Love life more than the meaning of it”

Crime and Punishment

You’ve seen them and met them, self-righteous do-gooders who seem to love humanity more than any one individual. They are always talking about saving humanity, saving the planet, saving the American people, saving the environment, saving the American way of life, saving the poor etc., and they know exactly what needs to be done. However, they don’t quietly lead by example, changing their lifestyle and contributing their own time and resources to their chosen cause, rather they spout clichés, angrily attack opponents and lobby for legislation to force other people to change their lifestyles and contribute their resources. The classic and extreme literary example is Raskolnikov, the young ex-law student in Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, who kills a miserly old pawnbroker for money, justifying his actions by the utilitarian calculation that he could do much more good with the money than leaving it in her possession where it will just be horded and then left to the Church to pay for masses for her soul.

Raskolnikov has different facets to his character but it is his rational side that leads him to commit murder. He is always thinking and trying not to let his feelings get in the way of his actions. His idée fixe is that extraordinary men like himself know better and therefore have a right to transgress any cultural norms, even the one prohibiting murder. Raskolnikov is supremely overconfident and has no concept of the unintended consequences of human action until he is also forced to kill Lizaveta, the pawnbroker’s sister, who makes an unexpected appearance at the murder scene. Lizaveta is often beaten by her sister and protecting Lizaveta was one of the reasons Raskolnikov gave to justify murdering her sister! Once Raskolnikov has crossed the line he becomes far worse than the people he despises and causes no end of distress to the people who still care for him. While holding on to his theory of the superior man he is incapable of love and lives mostly in his head, arrogantly refusing closer ties to family and friends who would deflate his over-arching pride and ambition.

Compare Raskolnikov to the slightly ridiculous figure of Leopold Bloom, one of the two protagonists in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bloom is everyman but above all he is sensuous rather than cerebral. He can enjoy eating fried kidneys, defecating and urinating, participating in an orgy in a brothel or just contemplating water. He has plenty of faults, he talks too much, uses big words and never buys a round of drinks. However, his cardinal rule is to do no harm. He is mature and even-headed, recognizing that one government is as good as another because they interfere equally in people’s lives, and so he refuses to be drawn into politics. But it is his ability to empathize and to be charitable that renders Bloom heroic. He is compassionate both to humans and to animals and during the course of a single day performs a remarkable number of good deeds becoming, in many ways, a modern Christ figure. He attends a funeral knowing he will not be accepted by the other mourners because they think him Jewish, he visits the widow to help her understand the life insurance policy, feeds hungry sea gulls, helps a blind youth cross a street, visits a woman who has been three days in labor, and cares for Stephen Dedalus, a virtual stranger, eventually taking him home, feeding him and acting in loco parentis.

Bloom exemplifies the principle that good things happen when people are left alone to tackle the important matters of life. Unhindered, people will, according to political scientist, Charles Murray “continually make small, incremental changes in their lives that facilitate their pursuit of happiness, and the mechanism whereby they accomplish this is voluntary affiliations with other people.” Raskolnikov, on the other hand, represents hubris and  his actions illustrate the idea that reason is limited in scope. As the Nobel Prize winning economist and social theorist, Friedrich Hayek once commented:

“…it may be that the most difficult task for human reason is to comprehend its own limitations. It is essential for the growth of reason that as individuals we should bow to forces and obey principles we cannot hope to understand, yet on which the advance and even the preservation of civilization may depend.”

Such limitations imply that relying  on reason alone to solve life’s most important questions, particularly those of a moral or ethical nature, may lead to  ghastly consequences. Raskolnikov rationalized murder and we are horrified. Why? Each of us will answer that question in a different way but I suspect that most of our answers will come down to the same idea. We are horrified because it wasn’t the right thing to do. Raskolnikov eventually comes to that conclusion too, but the reason his crime wasn’t right had nothing to do with his rational theories.

________________

“Love life more than the meaning of it?”

“Certainly, love it, regardless of logic, as you say, it must be regardless of logic, and it’s only then one will understand the meaning of it.”

Fyodor Dostoyesky, The Brothers Karamazov

 

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

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40 Comments on ““Love life more than the meaning of it””

  1. insanitybytes22 Says:

    Ah, what an awesome and timely post. I have spent the past couple of days arguing in favor of non reason, in favor of crazy things like love. Reason is all well and good but we can also reason and rationalize ourselves right to murder.

    Conversely however, many of those do gooders don’t really care about others, they care about themselves. They will care, so, so much, they will actually annihilate the object of their affection in the process of proving just how much they care.

    Reply

  2. Michael Denny Says:

    Most excellent Malcolm….one of your best. “Love is all we need”.

    Reply

  3. Bonnie Marshall Says:

    Thinking…how well spent is the time we invest in reading your wisdom, Malcolm. Smiles…

    Reply

  4. Christian Wignall Says:

    Regarding your opening paragraph:

    “You’ve seen and met them, self-righteous do-gooders who seem to love humanity more than any one individual. They are always talking about saving humanity, saving the planet, saving the American people, saving the environment, saving the American way of life, saving the poor etc., and they know exactly what needs to be done. However, they don’t quietly lead by example, changing their lifestyle and contributing their own time and resources to their chosen cause, rather they spout clichés, angrily attack opponents and lobby for legislation to force other people to change” theirlifestyles and contribute their resources.”

    James Bartholomew wrote an article in the UK Spectator last year on exactly this subject, which he terms ‘virtue signaling’. The article caused such a stir in England that he was invited onto TV to expand on the theme, and the term ‘went viral’. If you google around a bit you’ll find a recent rejoinder in the Guardian and other references to the term. Here is the original article.

    http://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/04/hating-the-daily-mail-is-a-substitute-for-doing-good/

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Christian, thank you. That’s a great article. From googling I discovered that James Bartholomew is now content to retire early, having added a phrase to the English language that is now in daily use virtually everywhere. Incidentally, I noticed you didn’t ‘like’ my post. What are you signaling? 🙂

      Reply

  5. Cindy Bruchman Says:

    Outstanding article–I love how you tie in the literary classics to make your philosophical points. I dislike how homogeneous our world is becoming; we are global humans. Our world is also crowded and the classic struggle between individual expression and the utilitarian good of the group/region/country/globe has never been more relevant.
    In education, we teachers are expected to foster individual uniqueness by granting agency with choices while simultaneously teaching team building skills connected to group grades. The individual expects entitlements and the team expects an egalitarian treatment.

    With regards to your article, it reminds me of the debate — Should we have dropped the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima? Morally, of course not. Intellectually, the paradox kill to save lives rings true for many.

    Reply

  6. Jon Sharp Says:

    Hi Malcolm,
    Very interesting post Malcolm. But I feel compelled to wade in and start arguing (as usual) albeit with a smile on my face…
    Is this not just a philosophical tool to allow someone to simply dismiss anything they don’t agree with even if it is presented as being for the public good?
    Or is it a long-handed way of saying, “it isn’t what you say, it’s what you do?” If so, why is Donald Trump doing so well in the primaries?
    Cheers,
    Jon

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Jon, I’m always happy to receive your cynical (smile not withstanding) comments 🙂 I’m not sure exactly what you are referring to when you say “Is this not…”, however, I do believe the post is addressing substantive issues. Please read the article by James Bartholomew that Christian Wignall included in his comment above. Nowadays so many people get brownie points not for actually doing something helpful, but just for signaling whose side they are on and social media just makes this a great deal easier. The debate between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment thinkers on the role of reason in social policy is just as relevant today as it was in 1860’s Russia. The two leading academics I mentioned, Charles Murray and Friedrich Hayek, both wrote tomes on the subject, either directly or indirectly. It’s also a historical fact that in modern times secular (communist) regimes have been responsible for up to 100 million deaths so arguing that reason cannot and should not play a role in determining fundamental values for society, is much more than a rhetorical trick. Lastly, the Trumps of this world always appear as a natural outgrowth of dysfunctional societies and governments.

      Reply

      • Jon Sharp Says:

        Thanks Malcolm,
        I did read the article Christian referenced (thank you Christian). When I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s my parents referred to such people as ‘Champagne Socialists’ so I guess nothing has changed much and, apparently, even since 1860. I guess I am reacting to the angle of your post that castigates self righteous do-gooders. I know some self righteous do-gooders who actually do do some good as well as preach. I think your line of thinking applies to everyone to a greater or lesser degree.
        “Is this not…” refers to the idea that polarised debaters frequently hurl ‘facts’ and logic at each other and become exceedingly irritated (and entrenched) when the opposing side dismiss them. (think of climate change). But the ‘facts and logic’ are merely the tip of the iceberg and what lies beneath are moralistic principles that will not be easily displaced. I am increasingly of the view that only by recognising and embracing the moralistic underpinnings of the opposing side can any kind of meaningful discourse and compromise take place (something lost on today’s political discourse). So I was suggesting your castigation of do-gooders was merely another part of the tip of the iceberg – another item in the bag of ‘facts’ to hurl at the opposition on any topic that your underlying moral principles disagree with.
        But before you get entrenched 🙂 , I also think the main thrust of your post is really another angle on my point. The role of reason in social policy is perhaps a more intellectually robust way of describing my iceberg model. It recognises the limitations of pure logic in anticipating the sheer complexities and unintended consequences of human social interactions and between humans and nature.
        As usual, you have set my mind going like only you (and some of the folks who write for The Economist) can do.
        Cheers
        Jon.

        Reply

        • Jon Sharp Says:

          Err, I just re-read this and it sounds a bit arrogant. I don’t mean to put my thinking in the same category as Murray, Hayek, or you for that matter….

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          “I know some self-righteous do-gooders who actually do do some good as well as preach.”

          Of course, most people combine traits and I was generalizing but generalizations are nevertheless useful and I think the type I described is very recognizable.

          “what lies beneath are moralistic principles that will not be easily displaced”

          Exactly right. Thomas Sowell has written about this extensively (A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles).

          “I was suggesting your castigation of do-gooders was merely another part of the tip of the iceberg – another item in the bag of ‘facts’ to hurl at the opposition on any topic that your underlying moral principles disagree with.”

          Certainly I have my own vision and I was definitely criticizing people with another vision. How else can it be? I was criticizing people who believe in their own unlimited ability to change society, in categorical decision-making, and in their own absolution from any unforeseen consequences of their decisions on the basis of their good intentions. To these “anointed” those who disagree are evil. My vision on the other hand is that human actors have limited power to change society and that all outcomes are the result of hundreds or thousands or millions of discrete individual decisions, and that all change comes as the result of trade-offs and that cost and negative consequences must be considered in decision making. You might call this position, in Sowell’s words, “the tragedian”. To the tragedian, those who disagree cannot understand or just don’t get it.

  7. Sirius Bizinus Says:

    Hello there!

    Couldn’t you just as easily characterize Raskolnikov’s behavior as a deficiency in reason or a critique of Utilitarianism? I mean, he’s using Utilitarian reasoning to excuse his actions. It’s like when Bugs Bunny tells the hunting dog, “If you’re following train tracks, then you’re trying to catch a train.” Moreover, his behavior strikingly does not conform to the later proposition you offered of people acting in accordance of the common good.

    One could also just as easily differentiate between Raskolnikov and Bloom by saying Raskolnikov’s guiding principles were devoid of ethics or morality. Raskolnikov’s conceit is that he is above moral principles, but his actions show he is not. So, he’s either being irrational because he’s not following his own principles, or at the least he’s not considering relevant facts.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for this thoughtful comment Sirius.

      “Couldn’t you just as easily characterize Raskolnikov’s behavior as a deficiency in reason or a critique of Utilitarianism?”

      Of course we could because we know how things turn out and Raskolnikov’s actions in murdering Alyona and Lizaveta are certainly not reasonable from the reader’s perspective. But what’s important is that, in the context of Raskolnikov’s theory, his actions appear reasonable to him. My “ghastly consequences” link takes you to a post on the eugenics movement, a horrific idea endorsed by ‘reason’ and some of America’s best minds. The point is that in the absence of moral restraints reason alone is likely to lead us astray because we can use it to justify almost anything.

      “Raskolnikov’s conceit is that he is above moral principles, but his actions show he is not. So, he’s either being irrational because he’s not following his own principles, or at the least he’s not considering relevant facts.”

      I agree with you that Raskolnikov is a complex character and as David Isenman points out in another comment there is constant tension in his thinking between two different worlds of thought. However, I have some other thoughts about Raskolnikov’s actions showing he is not above moral principles. What moral principle is he following when he gives away all his mother’s money to Sonia’s step-mother, endangering his own family at the expense of a stranger’s? Isn’t this more a case of reason leading him astray again because rationally why should one person matter more than another?

      Reply

  8. David Isenman Says:

    1. For the most part, Dostoevsky did not vote one way or the other. He is interested in the tension between two worlds of thought. Dostoevsky’s thinking is dialectical. To the extent that he tended towards an Eastern Orthodox “resolution,” he let us down.
    2. You opined that R. is not psychotic. Upon reflection, I realized that you are quite right. Certainly the character is unsteady as D uses R. to represent Russia’s cultural/historical struggle, East vs West etc. In fact R. represents a struggle of philosophical systems within the mind of one man. The lesson: every outcome has shortcomings.
    3. As far as I can tell the best study that addresses your interest is Joseph Frank, “The Miraculous Years” Chapter 7, “A reading of Crime and Punishment.” Chapters 4 + 5 are also pertinent.
    4. A fascinating background piece is Chukovsky “The Poet and The Hangman.” page 24-90. Small pages, quick read. It fleshes out the wild political situation when D. wrote the book. It is probably only available on an interlibrary loan. A regular page turner. Stalinism before Stalin. Poor Poland.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      David, thank you for this scholarly reply.

      “To the extent that he tended towards an Eastern Orthodox “resolution,” he let us down”

      I’m not sure about that, after-all Dostoevsky was a Slavophile religious believer so the Eastern Orthodox resolution does make sense.

      The book references are much appreciated and I have ordered them from the library. Interesting that my wife knew Joseph Franks quite well before he died a few years ago.

      Reply

  9. chr1 Says:

    Just a great post, with great comments.

    Doing actual stuff in the real world, like loving your family, listening to others, helping a friend and aiming for competence and humility at work; these constantly engage in ways that remind of the limits of reason and the emotions.

    I suppose we have artists/thinkers to thank and blame for bringing forth these works out of their minds, hearts and solitude.

    There often seems to be too many Chiefs and never enough Indians….so much opinion and so little actual knowledge..so much fame and no actual accomplishment….so much talk about ourselves as subject and no humble discussion of objects.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Chris, thank you for this supportive comment.

      “…these constantly engage in ways that remind of the limits of reason and the emotions.”

      That’s an interesting point you raise. Actually engaging with the world rather than just theorizing about it in the abstract, helps to root us in reality and makes us happier as well as less likely to rely solely on our intellect, which is likely to lead us astray. I think Charles Murray makes a similar point when he talks about the work of “small platoons” and how people take great pride and satisfaction in helping others when given the opportunity to do so.

      Reply

  10. Stiiv Says:

    Your post vividly illustrates the gospel for this Wednesday in Holy Week, Malcolm, in which a woman breaks into a private gathering in the Jerusalem suburbs and anoints the feet of Jesus of Nazareth and wipes them with her hair. She is criticised by Judas Iscariot, who points out that the cash value of the ointment is 300 denarii and she would have done better to donate this sum to alleviate poverty. Jesus’ rejoinder to this is the uncomfortable statement, “The poor you have with you always”. The altruism of Judas appears more generous than the response of Jesus and perhaps Judas finds the scene, not just ill-considered, but erotic too. And of course, Judas is being generous with someone else’s money. The irony is that the price of Judas’ pact with the religious police to betray Jesus, is just a tenth of this sum, thirty pieces of sliver.
    I feel that many of our responses to absurd self-publicists is self-indulgent. I refrain from naming any of these self-publicists, because I would like to clamp, not only their oxygen supply, but also the oxygen supply of those, who identify themselves in opposition to populist ideas. Their posturing is so demonstrably ignorant and unreasonable, that we can create our own identity as “good” people by saying that we aren’t like them, and do this at no personal cost. But this does nothing at all for rational debate. We can be generous in our good responses to say, for instance, the refugee crisis, because we know very well less liberal responses will prevail. Personally, I will continue to argue for generous political responses to injustice, but I do so without vilifying the politicians, who have to perfect the art of the possible. I know only too well that I can occupy the moral high ground because on the moral low ground, the seats are all already taken.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Stiiv, it’s rare to find a comment that raises as many issues as the original post but your one does.

      “Your post vividly illustrates the gospel for this Wednesday in Holy Week”

      I can’t help but feel that the overlapping subject matter you refer to is an example of what Jung called synchronicity or a meaningful coincidence. The correspondence between the issues raised in the passage and the post is quite unnerving although I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I’m putting them both at the same level. I would love to hear your exposition on that passage Stiiv.

      I swallowed hard after reading that you want to cut “the oxygen supply of those, who identify themselves in opposition to populist ideas.” Are you referring to me? Was I really virtue signaling? I hope not but do let me know if you think otherwise.

      I understand your reluctance to vilify the politicians because they “have to perfect the art of the possible” but I have to part ways with you on that one. I for one see politicians as part of the problem, not the solution. You see them serving the ‘public’ interest (whatever that means) while I see them as a carbuncle on the body politic. The only advantage that Trump’s election might bring is a better realization that our political system is broken beyond repair.

      Reply

      • Stiiv Says:

        I’m sorry to be unclear Malcolm, I wasn’t thinking of you at all. My thought was that Trump (let’s name him, though I prefer not to) is so easy to hate, that energy that could be expended usefully on a realistic debate, is wasted on virtue signalling around Trump, as if that’s all that’s needed. The only alternative I see to politics and politicians, is the system that prevails just a couple of hundred miles from where I sit at the moment, namely in Russia. The faulty systems in the West are preferable, but are under threat from our general disenchantment with politicians, and our willingness to try populists in protest. I shall follow your blog avidly to see what your alternative to politics as we have known it, to be. I’m certain you must have one.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          “I shall follow your blog avidly to see what your alternative to politics as we have known it, to be. I’m certain you must have one.”

          Stiiv, thank you. Of course I have a vision of the direction I would like things to move. However, I have no easy blueprint on how this is going to happen. However, the following three posts will give you a good idea of where I am going with all this if you haven’t guessed already 🙂

          Freedom works

          Anarchy has a bad rap

          The view from the top

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I should add to my acerbic comment about politicians that people generally get the government they deserve 🙂

      Reply

  11. UpChuckingwords Says:

    Malcolm, I am way out of my league in this stream of commenters so I will briefly say that I thoroughly enjoy your thought provoking posts here– and that includes the comments and your astute replies.

    Reply

  12. aaforringer Says:

    The wind up and the pitch.
    Malcolm swings.
    Crack.
    There it is a high fly ball to deep center field, going, going gone.
    Malcolm gets another home run with that piece about Self, Motivation, and the Individual. And he did it with his bat labeled “Examples from Great Literature.”
    It is always exciting to see him at the plate.

    Reply

  13. Psychic Nest Says:

    The thought of waiting savior or saviors to get me out of a specific situation or fix our society, it is scary and always made me feel helpless. Big changes start from small ones and we can all start with those.There are only a few people who are leading by that example. Thank you for this excellent post!

    Zaria

    Reply

  14. authorbengarrido Says:

    Interesting post. I am curious as to where Raskalnikov was insufficiently left alone, though. I read him as a supremely self-determined character.

    I promise I’m not picking at that ever so sticky problem of being self-determined without imposing one’s values on the world being, well, kind of a dead end. 😉

    Reply

  15. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Thank you for the linkback.

    Reply

  16. cattalespress Says:

    You never fail to amaze me, Malcolm. What brilliant work from a brilliant mind.

    Reply

  17. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    No cattalespress. There are brilliant minds like Joyce and Dostoevsky. I’m just a regular guy that gets turned on by brilliant minds.

    Reply

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  1. Not Reason, But Excuse | Amusing Nonsense - March 24, 2016

    […] posts (here and here) by Insanitybytes and Malcolm Greenhill, respectively, have hosted a couple discussions on reason […]

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