Dostoevsky to those who want to change the world: Part 1 of 2

Sao Yang Hew


September 21st, 2018

Can we really change the world? Can we really build a heavenly utopia on Earth? Sao Yang Hew uses the perspective of a Russian author’s psychological literature to answer these questions.

Who is Dostoevsky?

As economic enthusiasts, many of us would know of the phenomenal works of academic giants within the field. Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” which established the ground for modern economics to flourish, John Nash’s “Non-Cooperative Games” which catalysed the intellectual development of strategic negotiation, and John Maynard Keynes’ “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” which contributed to economic prosperity in the early 20th century are all well-known publications for their analysis and impact in economics.

The person I am introducing today did not produce material of this kind. He was not an economist, nor has he ever published any academic journals. His name is Fyodor Dostoevsky, a writer who lived through the end of the Russian empire, where secularist and progressive ideas flourished in Russian society before it became the precursor to the 1917 Russian revolution. Dostoevsky is known for his exploration of the human psyche and fierce critique of the social atmosphere surrounding his life.[1]

But why am I talking about him exactly? You might ask. Well, for many of us who study economics, or even someone who is remotely interested in this field, we often want to make the world a better place to live in, and we might sometimes come across ideas that may seem promising in eliminating mankind’s unnecessary suffering. Understanding Dostoevsky’s interpretation of humans and society will lead you to curb any delusion regarding your motives, be sceptical of seemingly lucrative ideas, and better understand the human condition and society.

I will include spoilers to two of his novels, “Notes from Underground” and “Crime and Punishment” in this piece. You may wish to turn away from here to avoid them.
Irrationality of the rationality assumption

As mentioned above, Dostoevsky lived through the 19th century, where progressive and idealist aspirations were looming right beneath the noses of the Tsars, the ruling family of the Russian empire. The spread of these ideas is not spontaneous, as workers’ discontent towards the Tsars’ regime only grew stronger in Dostoevsky’s lifetime as a result of widespread poverty and oppression. A small number of the royals and their cronies virtually owned most of the wealth and means of production, which planted deep resentment within the urban working class.[2]

Dostoevsky however, seemed very sceptical of these ideas of rapid human improvement through political intervention, which he directly criticised through his novella, “Notes from Underground”. As its name suggests, the book contains a series of existential monologues known as “notes” by “the Underground Man”, an unnamed civil servant living in Saint Petersburg who uses these records to detail his antagonistic position towards society. Though highly intelligent and relatively well-off, he comes off as extremely spiteful and miserable, and attempts to manoeuvre his surroundings to be as miserable as he is. The Underground Man believes that it is impossible to remove sadness and suffering regardless of how much you fulfil a human being’s desire, and that intelligent beings should remain miserable since they would never be completely blissful anyways.[3]

Through the Underground Man’s perspective, Dostoevsky condemns the naivety of crafting hypothetical social systems based on the assumption that under optimum education and guidance, human beings would strive to act rationally and progress society into a utopia. Dostoevsky asserts that like the Underground Man, we are far less rational in reality and would proactively attempt to make ourselves and our surroundings miserable, even with sufficient material wealth that shields us from major problems. The Underground Man’s parable might seem illogical, but the fact that we try to find unhappiness in our seemingly blissful lives is extremely relevant today. At times, we may feel ungrateful of our position despite being more fortunate than most living people in this planet and complain about the subtle annoyances in our lives.

We can see through Dostoevsky’s book that he is disillusioned by philosophy and in particular, utilitarianism, which utilises mathematical rigour to measure happiness based on the assumption that we would rationally make decisions to maximise our happiness or “utility” in an economist’s terms. Utilitarianism forms the basis of utility theory, which is used extensively in economics and many of the utopian political systems hypothesised by intellectuals popular in 19th century Russia as they are today.[4] This is not to say that there is absolutely no problem with society, but Dostoevsky argues that if melancholy and suffering still persists with bliss, which is unexplainable in utilitarian terms, then what makes it logical to use utilitarianism to construct a political system that aims to eliminate suffering?

Do we really understand ourselves enough to be able to make any noticeable advancements in society to increase happiness? And what would happen if we do get to shape the world according to a utopian’s desires?

Find out more in Part 2.


[1] Morson, G. S. (n.d.). Fyodor Dostoyevsky | Russian author. Retrieved from

[2] Russian Revolution of 1917 | definition, causes, summary, & facts. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[3] Dostoyevsky, F. (2009). Notes from underground. Thousand Oaks, CA: BN Publishing.

[4] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2009, March 27). The history of utilitarianism. Retrieved from


The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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