Overcoming Prejudice with Agape-Love

Hubert Dreyfus has argued[1] that The Brothers Karamazov[2] sets up an “existentialized form of Christianity” in which the religious practices retain meaning without relying on traditional metaphysical beliefs. Existentialized Christianity is founded upon agape-love. When one has agape-love, she sees the potential for good in people and tries to actualize that potential. Dreyfus argues that agape-love is “world transforming” in that it makes new possibilities come to light. However, Dreyfus did not explain exactly how agape-love does this. I will argue that agape-love makes new things possible by dissolving what Dostoyevsky calls prejudice. Prejudice is a mechanism or habit that was arbitrarily set beforehand to dictate how decisions should be made, particularly decisions involving one’s interactions with other people. I will discuss three cases that elucidate the relationship between agape-love and prejudice. First, agape-love constitutes Dostoyevsky’s response to the Grand Inquisitor’s prejudice against humanity. Second, Grushenka is able to overcome self-prejudice with the aid of agape-love. And finally, the prosecutor and the jury mistakenly convict Dmitry of murdering his father because they are not able to overcome their prejudice toward him. Agape-love is the antidote to prejudice.

Prejudices make decisions easier. For this reason, we use prejudices every day. They are often called habits, heuristics, or rules of thumb. By making tough or routine decisions ahead of time we prevent ourselves from getting bogged down with all the details surrounding each decision we have to make. To live without ever relying on a prejudice would certainly require superhuman ability. Whenever we use prejudice, we run the risk of making mistakes, but the chances of error are usually pretty low. However, when we are over reliant on our prejudices or when we refuse to give them up in the face of relevant details, when we force ourselves to be certain when there is a possibility that we may be wrong, they hurt more than they help. Prejudice covers up possibilities. By judging an individual or situation beforehand, one runs the risk of overlooking some beneficial possibilities. For example, racism covers up the possibility of mutually beneficial interactions with members of another race. Agape-love, on the other hand, sees the potential for good in people. Agape-love dissolves prejudices and thereby allows us to see the possibilities that our prejudice had covered up. By refraining from pre-judging others, one is able to see the possibility of a productive interaction.

The most important example of agape-love overcoming prejudice is Dostoyevsky’s solution to the dilemma presented by the Grand Inquisitor. The Grand Inquisitor argues that Christianity expects too much of us. Christianity, according to the Grand Inquisitor, expects its followers to believe without miracles, and even without food. The Grand Inquisitor believes that if people are given the freedom to choose, they will inevitably fall short of Christianity’s expectations and probably even do evil most of the time. In short, the Grand Inquisitor has a prejudice against humanity in general. The Grand Inquisitor is too pessimistic about humanity’s capability to overcome evil tendencies and earthly desires. It is clear that the rest of the novel after the Grand Inquisitor chapter, including the cases I will now discuss, constitutes a response to his attack. The book is meant to show that the Grand Inquisitor—or anyone who adopts a similar view—refuses to see that people are capable of good, even if it is not the amount of good that Christianity expects of them.

Alyosha’s encounter with Greshenka is another example of agape-love overcoming a prejudice. Grushenka is distraught about returning to see her former lover after he had rejected her before. To her, it seems that the only available options were to either go back “like a beaten dog” or to “take a knife with [her]” (429). Neither option is attractive to Grushenka. Each option would speak poorly of her moral character and individual worth. But Alyosha does not judge Grushenka, saying that he thinks she is “a true sister, a treasure, a loving soul” (425). This helps Grushenka to see herself in that way. She releases herself from a purely negative self-image. She then is able to see that there might be a non-self-destructive possibility open to her. She decides that she can go back to her former lover without having decided to take him back beforehand. She can retain her dignity and not make a violent scene. By pre-judging herself to be essentially “wicked and horrible” (427), the only options that seemed available to her were wicked and horrible ones. Alyosha helped her to see her own potential for good, or at least that she was not merely doomed to always do wrong. A new possibility was open to Grushenka, which was covered up by her prejudice against herself.

Finally, the trial at the end of the novel shows a failed case in which the prosecutor and the members of the jury are not able to overcome their prejudice and, as a result, they convict an innocent man. The defender claims that the prosecutor “has developed a mistaken and prejudiced opinion of my poor client” (876). He argues that the prosecutor must be prejudiced against Dmitry because his arguments are supported only by psychological “fictions.” Psychological support must be arbitrary because it can be used to come up with an opposing explanation “that is no less convincing” (877). The prosecutor’s argument only sounds convincing because psychology can be used to “arrive at whatever conclusions suit you best” (878). He claims that the prosecutor “arbitrarily decided not to suspect Smerdyakov” (890) and likewise simply chose to disbelieve Alyosha’s corroborating testimony (885). Prejudices are often arbitrary decisions made before seeing evidence that then lead one to disregard or reinterpret contradictory evidence.

The jury was also prejudiced against Dmitri. The defender accepts that Dmitry “may perhaps have offended as many as a hundred people in our town, thus prejudicing them against him” (875). And since the members of the jury were residents of the town—although not very well known members—it is reasonable to assume that they at least knew someone who had been offended by Dmitry. At the very least, the jury certainly knew that Dmitry had a reputation as a troublemaker. Due to his reputation, most people thought Dmitry was clearly guilty and that “the whole trial had been staged merely for form’s sake” (797). The jury most likely decided to convict Dmitry before the trial had even started. Even if they hadn’t decided to convict him beforehand, they see that as the case goes on “the case for the prosecution seemed more and more clear cut” (807). The “lopsidedness of the case” (797) made it all too easy for the jury to “put dear Mitya-boy right out of the way” (910).

We the readers know that however lopsided the case, Dmitry is innocent. The defender casts plenty of doubt upon the prosecutor’s argument and then justly argues that “as long as there is a shadow of a possibility that things might have happened as I suggested, you may not declare my client guilty as charged” (894). They decide that Dmitry is not only guilty, but guilty on every account for which he was accused “always without extenuating circumstances, without recommendation for leniency. That the jury produces an extremely condemning verdict when much of the prosecutor’s case could be doubted shows that they forced themselves to be certain. This shows that their prejudice is hindering their judgment. The evidence is insufficient to support their desired conclusion, but they accept it anyway. The jury has made a huge mistake by convicting Dmitry.

In convicting Dmitry, the jury overlooked another possibility. For them, the only options were to allow Dmitry’s troublemaking to continue or to get rid of him for good. The defender saw another option. He pleaded with the jury for a punishment that would “save his soul and regenerate him.” He wanted a “just punishment, but also the rehabilitation of our lost fellow [man]” (902). The jury did not see the change toward good that Dmitry had already undergone. Dmitry promised to “become a better man than I was before” (906) should they acquit him. The jury did not think Dmitry would follow through with his promise. They believed that he was troublemaker and would always be one. In short, the jury did not have agape-love. If they did have agape-love, they would not have judged Dmitri so harshly. They would have allowed for his innocence or at least they would have allowed for the possibility that he could change for the better.

In each of the cases I have presented, the presence of agape-love allows people to see productive possibilities that are missed when it is absent. The Grand Inquisitor cannot accept that a community might remain faithful without coercion or bribery. Grushenka comes to recognize her own worth despite her history of wrongdoing. And the jury is merciless to Dmitry because they cannot accept that he might change. When one refuses or is unable to see a potential for good in people, these possibilities do not even appear. A prejudiced view of humanity or of individuals often leads to terrible mistakes.

[1] Lecture course give at UC Berkeley, Spring of 2012. http://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/philosophy-7-001-spring-2012/id496140928

[2] Translated by Andrew MacAndrew. Bantam Classics, (1982).

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