Sunday, January 29, 2012

Engineers, the Public, and Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment was completed in 1866, but even that long ago there were signs of the coming upheavals that would lead to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the USSR, a government founded on the principle that the coming future utopia of fulfilled Communism justified any amount of butchery in the present. This idea was presaged in miniature by Raskolnikov, the protagonist of the novel. A failed law student in whom noble idealism waged a constant struggle with depression and anger, Raskolnikov tried his hand at journalism and wrote an essay on the idea that humanity could be divided into two types: ordinary and extraordinary. For the vast majority of ordinary souls, obedience to law and custom was obligatory and kept the wheels of society turning. But for a few rare extraordinary individuals—Keplers, Newtons, or Napoleons—rules and morality itself were things to be overcome along the journey to break new ground for the ever-upward progression of history. Here is Raskolnikov explaining his idea to a friend:

"I believe that if circumstances prevented the discovery of a Kepler or a Newton from becoming known except through the sacrifice of a man’s life, or of ten, or of a hundred. . . Newton would have the right. . . to remove these ten men, or these hundred men, so he could make his discoveries known to all mankind."

His point is that if a person has something of great enough worth to give to mankind, its value to later generations is worth the sacrifice of a few lives, if killing a few people makes the gift possible.

Raskolnikov’s academic speculations turn to grim reality when he later finds himself actually carrying out the murder of an old pawnbroker woman and her sister. The rest of the novel is a brilliant exploration of Raskolnikov’s complex psychological turmoil as he struggles with the burden of his crime and what it means to himself and others.

The lessons of this novel should be borne in mind by engineers who participate in ambitious projects that propose to reshape the way people live. The 19th-century world that Dostoevsky lived in was just beginning to be changed by technological innovations such as the railroad, steam power, and the electromagnetic telegraph. Physics and chemistry transformed the world of the twentieth century, and technologists are now learning how to use biological knowledge to meddle with things that former generations viewed as immutably fixed by evolution—or God.

The recent debate about the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research turns on the questions of what people are for, and who counts as a person. Raskolnikov liked to reassure himself that the old woman he murdered was of no more value than a cockroach, and that he was doing the rest of humanity a favor by exterminating her. Those who advocate the destruction of frozen embryos for embryonic stem cell research must believe that the potential good, in the form of possible cures and treatments for presently incurable illnesses, outweighs any harm to the embryos, which are only potential human beings, after all. And some philosophers have been outdoing Raskolnikov’s essay by proposing that some mature animals may be of more intrinsic worth than some immature human beings: it is permissible to kill certain disabled infants, for example, according to some schools of thought.

Engineers are extraordinary people, in the statistical sense. Out of the world’s population of some six billion, perhaps 15 to 20 million could generously be classed as engineers. That is less than one percent. But from Raskolnikov down through the abominations committed by dictatorships of the last two hundred years, we have seen what can happen when we start to view some elite individuals as exempt from the usual laws, rules, and moral strictures that most of us obey. Surely we can allow some moral license to those men and women in the white coats who promise us such wondrous treatments, and eventually biological enhancements, at the price of a few frozen embryos whose fate was probably annihilation anyway, can we not? We can, but we may not like what happens to the elites who get used to flouting the rules, or what happens to us when the elites take advantage of their privileges.

Without spoiling the novel for those who haven’t read it, I will say that Raskolnikov comes to regret his willingness to put his academic theory into practice. Dostoevsky being Dostoevsky, it is a complex regret, full of ambivalence and shot through with seemingly good things that could happen if Raskolnikov conceals his crime and tries to live out his dream that he is indeed one of the few extraordinary souls for whom ordinary law is nullified. Dostoevsky, ever the Christian artist, portrays both the simple trust of believers who have never questioned God as well as the convoluted thoughts of Raskolnikov, who at some points confesses belief in the miracles of the Bible, but at other times talks like an atheist from Central Casting. While fiction cannot directly teach us to be better people, a thoughtful reading of Crime and Punishment will challenge you to think about the meaning of life, the purpose of love, and the values of will and judgment.

Sources: The quotation from Crime and Punishment is from the Sidney Monas translation (New York: New American Library, 1968), p. 257. The latest (Winter 2012) edition of The New Atlantis magazine carries a fine series of articles on the theme of “The Stem Cell Debates.” For more details about how some philosophers have valued mature animals over some immature humans, see the works of Peter Singer.

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