Crime and punishment: the moral dilemma of justice

Is there ever, any morally justified reason for committing a crime? 

If you ever had come across an investigation for the crime, the first question is always “what was the motive?” the science of criminology seems to get puzzled when we include the dilemmas of morality and motives to the crime. A crime is always outlined by the authenticity and the leverage of the motive, and how a particular act can be murderous as well as heroic. This argument gives rise to another important question- Can a crime be pardoned if the motive is morally good?

The Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky takes this question to depth and explains how the both ‘moral’ and ‘motive’ can influence the gravity of the crime in his remarkable book ‘Crime and Punishment’. This article takes you through the gist of the book but most importantly highlights the different aspects of crime and criminology.

Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s Masterpiece

The book in its first half explains the moral dilemma of Rodion Raskolnikov (protagonist) for committing a crime. Raskolnikov is an ex- law student living in extreme poverty who sought to kill an elderly pawnbroker and snatch her wealth. The dire situation of poverty, his mother’s sickness and his sister’s marriage motivates Raskolnikov to act through his heinous thoughts of murder. But after committing the crime, Raskolnikov is completely distressed and soon become ill. The book also has a female lead Sonya, who too challenges her dilemma of morality and chastity. Sonya under the influence by her father turns to prostitution to feed her family. Crime and Punishment takes us through the journey of crime, run, redemption and retribution.

It is important to understand that an Individual engaged in criminal behaviour is typically influenced by any of biological, psychological, or social factors. But does these factors justify the act is a hard thing to comprehend, especially for the criminal itself. Raskolnikov goes through several levels of redemption like initially running away from the investigation, resenting the act or even committing good deeds to pay off the burden of murder. He even attempts to aid Sonya and helps her overcome the prostitution business. Not only this, but he also tries to help his sister choosing a partner that understands and loves her. He reconciles with his lost consciousness in order to pursue a life of the greater good. But the major challenge in his way is to accept the punishment for what he had done. One has to understand, that a deed committed is committed; you cannot overturn or pay off a crime once done. You can always resent and turn to redemption, but the major step is finally acknowledging the act. Everything comes second to acknowledgement. Raskolnikov illness is not just physical; it comes from his mind and psychological state after the crime. Through the empathetic characters like Raskolnikov and Sonia, Fyodor tends to much larger questions about good and evil which surprisingly are still relevant even today.


Svidrigailov is yet another intriguing character in the book, perhaps the most relatable yet evil character. He cheated his wife and seduced his servants, he harasses his nanny and molested children- he is definitely an evil man. Dostoevsky makes him and Raskolnikov the main antagonist as well as the protagonist of the story. Both the characters take us through the darkness, social anxiety but most importantly a balance between sanity and lunacy. Though Svidrigailov is the villain of the story his end too is not much satisfying. At the end of the novel, haunted by bad dreams Svidrigailov commits suicide depicting his own terms with justice and redemption. For many it may seem as an escape from justice for the crimes he had committed, but his moral dilemma here is far complex as he struggles with acceptance yet guilt. Even though he never faces a court for the crimes he committed, Svidrigailov has indeed been punished.  

The character of Raskolnikov keeps on developing by each chapter. At the beginning of the story he is seen running away from the punishment but by the end of the novel he confesses to the crime he committed. He is thus sentenced to eight years in Siberia.

Ethics that Influence Justice

We believe that ethics are the foundation of justice, especially the official criminal justice. It is very important for moral reasoning as well as criminal’s acceptance to punishment. The eccentric sinful story of Crime and Punishment helps us understand how the culprit’s acceptance to crimes is influenced by the society as well the police system. Ilya Petrovich is the police officer who encounters Raskolnikov after the murder, and also the one whom he confesses in the end. He has a big role in shaping the character of Raskolnikov, as he suspects the protagonist of murder. Petrovich is a high-strung, easily offended man who interrogates a crime in much more direct and oblivion manner.

The moral of the story is Raskolnikov fake ideals about Nihilism which makes him reject any loyalties and knowledge of life making him more dejected and radical in the first half of the story. Raskolnikov’s mental state was constantly battling between guilt and justification of the crime. But by the end of the story this nihilism of Raskolnikov is transformed into Utilitarianism. Given by Sonya, Raskolnikov now has the courage to accept the crime and face the punishment. His newly discovered ethical approach to his actions finally cures the moral dilemma he had been facing throughout the story. At the end of the novel, we can see Raskolnikov starting a new life with Sonya, perhaps keeping just a chunk of past with him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *