Using Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to Teach Ethics in the Twenty-First Century

By Ani Kokobobo, University of Kansas

This article was originally published in the June 2016 edition of NewsNet

Following a common trend in higher education, beginning in Fall 2013 the University of Kansas introduced a series of core educational goals intended to revise our undergraduate curriculum. (1Amounting to twelve courses in a student’s education, the core goals package knowledge into practical terms for a generation of students reticent to subscribe for classes that do not convert to marketable skills. As the home page for the Core states, students are expected to learn “fundamental skills,” develop “a broad background of knowledge,” achieve awareness of “global diversity,” and cultivate “ethical integrity.”(2) At a time when our Slavic department struggles with more scrutinized enrollment numbers, proposing courses that fulfill these requirements has become essential to drawing students into our classrooms. With as many as seven or eight different languages offered, our department contributes its fair share of “global diversity.” But, as someone who teaches Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I believe we can also make the case that Russian literature, with its far-reaching messianic and spiritual ambitions, can also help foster “ethical integrity.” After all, one of the twentieth-century philosophers most passionate about ethics, Emmanuel Levinas, claimed to have begun his philosophy career with the Russian classics. As he put it in an interview, “the philosophical problem understood [in Russian literature] as the meaning of the human, as the search for the famous ‘meaning of life’” is invaluable preparation for the study of philosophy.(3)

Significant ethical questions arise while reading works such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment where we see represented virtually all commonly taught ethical theories, such as ethical relativism, egoism, consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, and feminist ethics. Raskolnikov’s reasoning about the murder of the pawnbroker frequently incorporates ethical perspectives such as “utilitarianism” or “egoism,” which can rationalize murder. On the other hand, Dostoevsky’s project in the novel is to discredit this manner of thinking; in fact, as one of my students recently pointed out, the author might be said to advance a feminist ethics of care through loving figures representative of this ethos, like Razumikhin and Sonya. The ethical valences of Tolstoy’s or Dostoevsky’s writings, as well as the prospect of more robust enrollments, motivated me to create a course in which I could rely on these authors to teach different ethical theories. Working with the Humanities Grant Development Office at our university,(4) I applied for the NEH Enduring Questions course development grant (5) to support the preliminary work. The NEH Enduring Questions program asks for course proposals that explore some of the following, broad interrogations: “What is good government?”; “Can war be just?”; “What is friendship?”; “What is evil?; “Are there universals in human nature?”; “Is peace possible?”; “Can greed be good?”; “Am I My Brother’s Keeper” and other similar prompts.

I recently learned that I was awarded this particular NEH award for a proposal focusing on the subject: “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” This particular question derives from Genesis, where Cain denies knowledge of his brother Abel’s whereabouts to God after having killed him. As many of you know, this question, often directed as a form of protestation, also assumes a special significance in the Russian tradition. It appears multiple times in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, where both Ivan Karamazov and the bastard Smerdyakov declare that they do not know the whereabouts of their brother Dimitry and absolve themselves from being his keepers. Tolstoy indirectly evokes similar ideas in Anna Karenina where individualistic pursuits sometimes blind characters to their moral responsibilities toward others. For instance, caught up in his first marriage proposal to Kitty, Levin forgets about his brother Nikolai in the beginning of the book.

For my purposes, the question, with its deep roots in the biblical and Russian traditions, became the basis for a course about the ethical meaning of community. To ask whether one is the keeper of one’s brother invites a multitude of related questions that sustain open inquiry such as: what is one’s relationship and responsibility to others? How do we define brotherhood? Who are our brothers or sisters? Are our fellow citizens our moral brothers and sisters? Are we supposed to respect and show them civility? What are the boundaries of our community? Should we aspire toward national or human brotherhoods? What kind of moral responsibility do we have toward someone who we loosely understand as a human brother? Are there different layers of moral responsibility depending on different definitions of community? Finally, depending on where we place the boundaries of community as such, are we absolved from moral responsibility toward those who fall outside the immediate communities where we see ourselves as members?

The far-reaching implications of the prompt allowed me to propose a course that could be deeply rooted in the Russian tradition, with significant explorations of ethical philosophy, and a contemporary component that could help make the Russian works more immediately relevant to students. In Russian culture as reflected in the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, community is often understood in capacious and almost universalist terms – both authors stress the importance of communal love, or agape, and wide-ranging moral responsibility. At its most basic level, the course presents iterations of community that appear in works by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I include excerpts from longer works like Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and Brothers Karamazov, as well as shorter narratives such as Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches, Bethink Yourselves, The Gospel in Brief, and Dostoevsky’s Dream of a Ridiculous Man, “The Peasant Marey,” and fragments from Diary of a Writer. When reading these works, we will pay particular attention to the significant moral responsibility that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky believe community members should hold toward one another and the challenges that come with upholding these responsibilities.

Rather than being considered in isolation, texts by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky will be paired with a series of philosophical writings selected to help expand and contextualize views of community. Students will read a representative sample of well-known theories of ethical behavior that touch on the ethical implications of communities. For instance, they will be introduced to perspectives that counter the importance assigned to community in Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s works. “Ethical relativism,” as introduced in William Sumner’s Folkways or Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and “egoism,” as reflected in Max Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own or Plato’s “The Ring of Gyges,” move away from the obligatory communal responsibility advocated in the Russian tradition. Reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky alongside works like Jeremy Bentham’s treatise of utilitarianism, A Fragment on Government, or Kant’s deontology, which present morality and community on rationalist terms, can also be a productive exercise. At the same time, if the comparisons between Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Bentham or John Stuart Mills prove quite polemical, we might see more intellectual commonality between Russian authors and Aristotle’s virtue ethics in the Nichomachean Ethics or Carol Gilligan’s book about feminist ethics, In a Different Voice. My hope is that the dialogue between all these thinkers will help students develop a rich and varied ethical perspective on community, while also grasping the distinctiveness of the Russian viewpoint.

During the last month of class students will direct their acquired ethical tools to issues of community and communitarian ethics in contemporary America, with a special focus on how race shapes our communities. To this end, we will read W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Martin Luther King Jr.’s last book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Amitai Etzioni’s The Spirit of Community: The Reinvention of American Society, and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. From this perspective, I hope to take advantage of the rich Civil War history of the city of Lawrence (KS) and its surroundings. I plan to visit nearby historic Lecompton with students, where we will see sites like the Hall where the famous 1857 Lecompton Constitution was drafted, admitting Kansas to the Union as a slave state.(6)

The writer and mystic Thomas Merton wrote that at its best, ethics is not a code of rules by which we play social games with one another, but rather, “ethics blends into the art of living, and becomes, in fact, the education of human love.”(7) As citizens of an era of social media avatars and networks, students can also use the readings of this class to consider what constitutes genuine community and moral responsibility in their own lives. Writing at the height of Russia’s modernization, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were coming from a perspective of shifting familial and societal loyalties that altered their sense of community. Students attending college or close to graduation may find themselves in similar situations of having to navigate shifting allegiances and communal boundaries.

For this reason, there will also be a significant applied ethics component to the course, as students will be asked to refine their understanding of their own communities, both inside and outside the university. For a percentage of their participation grade, students will be required to volunteer at least three hours of their time with a local organization like the local soup kitchen L.I.N.K (the Lawrence Interdenominational Nutrition Kitchen).(8) Such service-learning experiences will help ground the ideas of the course by getting students to evaluate their own communities and their responsibilities toward others more concretely.

My plan is to teach this course in Spring 2017, and I will use this summer to develop the final syllabus. If the questions from the NEH Enduring Questions course development grant are any indication, many literary texts or films in our field fit the parameters of the grant. Questions of pacifism, war, friendship, and evil could be quite successfully investigated through the lens of Russian literature. If colleagues are interested, I would be happy to share my materials and any other relevant information. In a budgetary climate where some of us are increasingly in a position to justify our continued relevance and perhaps our very existence as a field and a profession, it seems worthwhile joining larger national conversations like the ones launched by the NEH Enduring Questions grant, or the more recent grant program – Humanities Connections (9) – that help us articulate for a larger audience the continued significance of the authors we study. 

1. For more information on the Core, see, accessed 5/10/16/. 
2. See
3. Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, Conversations with Philippe Nemo, trans. Richard Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985), 22.
4. For more information about this office, see: http://hallcenter., accessed 5/10/16. 
5. For information on this particular grant, see: http://www.neh. gov/divisions/education/featured-project/enduring-questions-corner, accessed 5/10/16. 
6. For more information, see: http://www.lecomptonkansas. com/constitution-hall-state-historic-site/, accessed 5/10/16. 
7. Love and Living, ed. Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart (Toronto: Macmillian, 1979), 127. 
8. For more information about this program, see: http://www., accessed 5/10/16. 
9. For more information on this new program that appears to be supplanting the Enduring Questions Program, see: http://www.neh. gov/grants/education/humanities-connections, accessed 5/10/16.