“Remember particularly that you cannot be a judge of anyone. For no one can judge a criminal until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime.”

In the third chapter of Book 6, Father Zosima establishes a major dilemma for many of the novel’s characters, particularly Ivan. Zosima argues that individuals are responsible for not only their own crimes but also the crimes of their neighbors, as the crimes of others can often be prevented by selflessness and treating others with kindness. This idea creates a large moral burden for those who believe the sentiment, as individuals such as Ivan now feel an obligation to shoulder the responsibility for not only their own actions, but also the actions of others. This obligation is pervasive because it is presented as a moral responsibility, which has the ability to infest one’s mind with incredible amounts of guilt when the obligation is not met properly.

“Love children especially, for they too are sinless like the angels; they live to soften and purify our hearts and, as it were, to guide us.”

In the same moment when Father Zosima establishes man’s responsibility for his neighbor’s actions, he also exempts children from this responsibility. Children, in the eyes of Zosima, are sinless and without moral obligation. There are several moments in the novel where children behave cruelly, yet no one shoulders the responsibility of this. The transition from being a child without moral responsibility to being an adult with the moral responsibility of the masses can be a difficult idea to cope with, as the reader observes in Ivan’s case. Ivan, a young man not that far from childhood, finds it difficult to come to terms with his newfound responsibility, eventually leading to his mental collapse as he bears the weight of his father’s murder. 

“And so I want to prove to your face this evening that you are the only real murderer in the whole affair, and I am not the real murderer, though I did kill him.”

Smerdyakov says this to Ivan during Ivan’s third visit to the hospital in Book 11. Smerdyakov has just confessed to Ivan that he killed Fyodor, yet he claims that the responsibility for the murder falls on Ivan’s shoulders, as Ivan’s beliefs and philosophical arguments inspired Smerdyakov to commit the murder. Despite Father Zosima’s insistence that individuals are responsible for the crimes of their neighbors, the reader understands that Smerdyakov’s blame of Ivan is outlandish and unfair. Ivan, however, has been struggling with the balance of individuality versus societal responsibility for the majority of the novel. Smerdyakov’s claim strikes Ivan’s moral compass acutely, sending him into a mental spiral that leads to a debilitating illness. This is the primary moment in which the reader understands the true danger of enforced moral responsibility.