Rowling's Ethics of Magic

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I was involved in a conversation several weeks ago about the fiction of Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling and the theological-ethical frameworks that those authors apply to their characters' use of magic. One viewpoint among the participants was that Tolkien and Lewis have clear criteria for when the use of magic is evil, and Lewis has a complete theological framework. Tolkien argues that magic is perfectly appropriate for beings created with it as part of their natural abilities. In their case, it's not actually supernatural, because it's part of their innate capacities. As long as they keep the use of such abilities within their proper limits and in the appropriate circumstances for the right motivations (as with any natural ability or function), there's nothing wrong with it. Lewis clearly disapproves of Lucy's use of magic to overhear what her friends are saying about her and her desire to change her looks with magic. (This was one of the most disappointing things about the third Narnia film, which completely misunderstood that scene and left out both in exchange for a different misuse of magic.)

I didn't agree with all the details of how this was presented, but the basic thesis struck me as correct. But then came the claims that J.K. Rowling's treatment of magic is very different. There are some differences in the magic of her world, but they are incidental to this issue. The claim that struck me as most difficult to support was that she treats magic as casual, ordinary, and mundane, and there's no sense of the serious import of magic with dire consequences if it's misused. In responding to that, I realized that it was probably worth writing up a more careful presentation of why her treatment of magic is nothing like that.

First of all, one of the early distinctions we learn in the Potter books is between curses and charms. Curses are never intrinsically good, and when she presents them as morally permissible it's only because a greater good is at stake. They aren't intrinsically good, just like violence, but some of them can be used in certain contexts, perhaps, to achieve a good purpose. The same restrictions would apply as with violence in the real world, and any arguments against the of use of curses would parallel those pacifists make against using violence. Snape takes Harry to task for using Sectumsempra on Harry, but he's willing to use a nasty curse (but notably not one that would kill) against George Weasley as part of his masquerade as a Death Eater. There's no question that she distinguishes between good and bad use of magic, and it's not hard to see much of what she's doing as an analogy for technology in the real world. The ethics of magic is a major part of her series.

Even on relatively small-scale misuses of magic (meaning not Death Eater level but just things Harry and his friends do that seem fun), there's a lot of moral reflection going on. Take love potions as an example. Rowling is pretty clear that love potions don't actually produce love, just an intense infatuation. She distinguishes that from genuine love. We see the consequences of love potions most clearly in the case of Voldemort's parents, but a love potion also has serious consequences for Harry and Ron in the sixth book. We also receive a number of serious warnings from Professor Slughorn about the Felix Felicis potion, which Harry does put to great use at the end of book 6, but it helps him mostly in ways he doesn't recognize at the time, and Slughorn's cautionary urgings demonstrate mature reflection on important moral principles, and we see tight regulations on its use (e.g. the restrictions on its use in Quidditch). We encounter severe warnings about splinching from apparition (called apparation in its earlier appearances in the series), and becoming an Animagus is so dangerous that it requires registration with the government. The warnings in the third book about the dangers of time travel require a metaphysically-impossible theory of time, but the moral considerations brought to be there show that Rowling certainly has a moral framework at work to evaluate the use of magic.

The true horror of dark magic is front and center from book 4 on. You have the unforgivable curses. She seems to be tolerant of the use of the Imperius curse for a greater good (she certainly has Harry thinking so), but she doesn't seem to take the other two unforgivable curses to be ever all right (except for Snape's use of the killing curse on the already-dying Dumbledore to continue his masquerade as a double agent and to prevent Malfoy from doing so and harming himself in the process). You can't even use the Cruciatus curse without deeply evil intentions. Harry tried and failed. Harry's killing blows almost always come from redirecting evil characters' curses back at them (something the Death Eaters consistently make fun of him for). The depth of evil required for making horcruxes is vividly portrayed both in what Voldemort comes to look like as he's been losing pieces of his soul and by what he appears like in the afterlife-like scene in King's Cross toward the end of the final book. He destroys himself by using magic in this way.

Then there's the moral evaluation of the Deathly Hallows. It's clear by the end of the book that Rowling wants us to see the invisibility cloak as the only Hallow of continuing value to Harry. The elder wand is most appropriately acquired and used by someone who never wanted it. The resurrection stone is most appropriately used so Harry could get moral support in his preparation for giving up his life, not holding on to it. He ends up leaving it out in the forest where it had fallen. There's a clear sense of the illegitimacy of trying to hold on to your loved ones who have died, and the idea of acquiring power just to have more power leads her to write of the elder wand's history with one owner after another, each losing their prize and their life from the continued pursuit and acquisition of the wand by the next possessor. Harry uses it to repair his broken wand and then buries it with Dumbledore.

Rowling's "deep magic" based on love, a magic Voldemort never understands, is a clear tribute to Lewis. A voluntary sacrifice on behalf of someone else provides magical protection. She has Harry protected from Voldemort's magic in this way in his very body, until Voldemort takes Harry's blood into himself in a perverse use of magic that comes to backfire on him (because he in effect made himself serve as something like a horcrux for Harry, preventing Harry from dying when he finally could deliver a killing curse to Harry, which in the end only destroyed the scar that served as a horcrux for Voldemort. But Harry's mother's sacrifice continued in an extended way in the protection of the home of Harry's mother's sister as long as he officially lived there, and Harry's own voluntary sacrifice on behalf of all those who opposed Voldemort, together with the fact that he was using a wand whose loyalty was to Harry, ended up preventing his curses from doing anything after he and Harry returned to the world of the living from the King's Cross scene.

The contrast between these kinds of magic is one of Rowling's major themes, and the idea that she has nothing of a theological-ethical framework for the use of magic just flies in the face of all the work she does to present exactly such a framework. It's true that she's nowhere near as theological as either Lewis or Tolkien, but you have to have a pretty superficial reading (if you read the books at all) to suggest that she's treating magic is purely mundane, with no serious consequences, no sense of when it might be misused. There's quite a lot of reflection in her series about the ethics of magic, and her reflections strike me as thoughtful and morally mature, with few exceptions.

4 Comments

There's certainly a legitimate case to be made that Rowling is overly casual about moral choices, with Harry and his friends routinely getting away with things that his enemies are condemned for, including the use of curses, lying, spying, and breaking the law. Harry even uses the cruciatous curse in front of McGonagal in the Deathly Hallows, when a simple stunning spell would have be more than sufficient. Your example of Snape and Sectum Sempra is also inaccurate, as that is indeed exactly the spell he wounds George with, though it was actually aimed at a Death Eater but missed. And of course Snape's killing of Dumbledore is highly morally dubious, despite the rationalizations given for it.

Nevertheless, you are absolutely right that to claim Rowling's series ignores or denies the distinction between good and evil is preposterous. Beyond all the reasons you mentioned, there is a clear tendency in the later books to address even the issues I just raised, as Rowling is sometimes brutal in showing the consequences of Harry's moral failings, especially in the death of Sirius Black. Indeed, a major theme of The Deathly Hallows is to criticize the idea of doing evil "for the greater good," a conclusion that has broader implications for the series than are made explicit.

Thanks for the post!

Rowling tells the story from the perspective of a child, and that child makes questionable choices that he doesn't always see the implications of. It's his own meddling that causes certain of his problems, and it's his refusal to come tell Dumbledore certain things that causes other problems. But you have to read for subtlety and think about it to see this, and the fact is that people do get away with things sometimes, so she doesn't want him having bad consequences for every bad choice. So I don't see as much problem with that as some people do.

I also have a moral theory that explains why certain normally wrong acts can be morally justified, without it being consequentialism. What she doesn't like is trying to give a justification for evil acts by appealing to the consequences, but not every instance of doing something normally evil is actually evil, and sometimes the consequences to play a role in explaining why. In grave circumstances, killing innocents is morally permissible, perhaps even morally required, even if we shouldn't just kill people because it leads to slightly better consequences if we do so.

I'd defend Snape's actions as morally necessary, not just permissible. I don't see anything problematic about his killing of Dumbledore. It was the right thing to do. I'd say the same of Harry's use of the imperius curse. (I don't remember a Deathly Hallows use of cruciatus. When was that? I didn't say Snape thought his sectum sempra curse was morally wrong to use, just that it was too dangerous for Harry to use. He did know the dangers of it, and he was (1) masquerading as a Death Eater and (2) in the heat of battle. It's unclear if it's the best curse to use in such circumstances, especially if it's a signature move and was intended against a Death Eater, but that's a practical concern about his getting discovered as a double agent. I have no problem with the use of such a curse to stop Death Eaters from possibly killing Harry. That George got hit accidentally doesn't make it wrong for him to have used it.

I would mostly agree with your first two paragraphs. As for the last, I have real issues with the argument (made explicitly in the books to justify Dumbledore's killing) that he would have died/been killed by someone else anyway, so it is ok that Snape does it. Besides the strong hints of justifying euthenasia, it essentially forces Snape to kill rather than save, something he declares himself uncomfortable with and which runs counter to everything he stands for since the death of Lily.

Harry uses the Cruciatous curse in Ravenclaw tower against one of the Carrows, after they spit in McGonagal's face. He then states explicitly that "Beletrix was right, you really do have to mean it." McGonagal at first objects, but when he says he couldn't bear to see her treated in that way, she lets it go as (misguidedly?) "noble."

As you already note, his use of the Imperious curse (in Gringotts) is also allowed to slide, and indeed even McGonagal uses it on one of the Carrows right after the scene just described, again when there seems no necessary reason for it (all she forces him to do is hand her their wands and lay down on the ground--surely she could have just stunned him and taken the wands herself).

Since Rowling does not shy away from strongly condemning both these curses in many other places, I find this whole scene very odd. At least in Gringotts one could argue that there would have been no other way to access the vault without the Imperious curse (the ends justify the means?), but here that was clearly not the case, so why include it? The only thing I can think is that it is Rowling's way of marking the transition from passive resistance to active war, as from here on the battle of Hogwarts really begins. If so, that would explain why the "good guys" do go on to kill several Death Eaters (perhaps a great many, we are not told). But where does that leave Adava Kadavra? It is still never used by the good guys, but on what grounds, if neither killing in general nor the other "unforgivable curses" are not, in fact, unforgivable in the context of war?

But you can oppose euthanasia when the only issue is that the person will die anyway and will experience pain in the meantime, while thinking that is a factor that can contribute to the moral evaluation when other, stronger factors are in play. In this case, who kills Dumbledore is important for several reasons.

First, it serves to confirm to Voldemort that Snape is really on his side, which helps put Snape in place to help Harry as headmaster of Hogwarts, which wouldn't happen if Voldemort trusted him less and put someone else into that job. There are crucial elements at stake, such as access to the Sword of Griffindor and the painting of Phineas Nigellus Black. It's not just allowing Dumbledore to die in a non-painful way.

Second, Snape's killing of Dumbledore is compatible with compassion for Dumbledore and prevention of Draco's doing something truly evil (since he wants to kill Dumbledore to prove himself to Voldemort).

Third, Snape's resistance to the killing actually goes a long way toward what makes me think it was morally permissible. Killing in extreme circumstances for moral reasons ought to be accompanied by extreme resistance because of the usual wrongness of killing. It confirms that he isn't still motivated by his old Death Eater habits and attitudes. It shows that he isn't just acting against Voldemort out of revenge about Lily, but he really cares for Dumbledore and has learned to hate killing.

I thought Rowling's presentation of this showed far more sensitivity to moral reasoning than usually comes up in euthanasia discussions.

As for the unforgiveable curses, I think she wants to demonstrate that morality isn't really about absolutes in the Kantian sense, meaning not what Christian apologists mean by the term (i.e. objective moral truths) but what philosophers have long meant by it (i.e. principles that apply in every circumstance no matter what). Rowling certainly holds to objective moral truths, but she thinks very few of them will always hold no matter the consequences. That's compatible with rejecting the principle that the ends always justify the means. See my discussion of the ethical theories of Geisler and Ross. I think she's got a view something in the ballpark of Geisler and Ross, and I think she presents the characters, especially Harry, struggling over when circumstances are appropriate to use methods that are normally very wrong, and they do get it wrong at times.

When she presents characters strongly rejecting these curses, what she's doing is expressing the usual attitude toward them from people who aren't thinking of whether they can ever be all right in extreme cases. But she does indicate that some aurors and ministry officials were all right with them. Barty Crouch Sr., for example, thought some circumstances warranted it when hunting Death Eaters down was the issue (but he is also shown to be willing to use it in a more suspect case, after having swapped his son and wife with Polyjuice, clearly being less motivated by justice and morality in that case). I think her presentation of Harry's use of the cruciatus curse is more to show that good intentions aren't easily compatible with its use, and that's probably one reason McGonagall doesn't make an issue of it. She realizes Harry intended to use it, but his intentions were good, and that doesn't actually amount to using it.

The imperius curse is wrong particularly because it prevents people from choosing their own actions. But it's perfectly all right to prevent people from choosing their own actions when those actions are harmful, especially if they're devastatingly bad, as in the case of the Death Eaters. So using it against the twins in Ravenclaw tower isn't a lot different from stunning them and taking their wands or putting handcuffs on them and leading them along to prison, as police do with criminals all the time. It's not a case where violating freedom is something we frown on. I don't see the moral problem. But you're right that it's weird she'd need to use that illegal method when legal methods were available. Harry's use, as you pointed out, has much more serious consequences at stake. This is about a horcrux, without which they can't defeat Voldemort. Violating innocent goblins' freedom is going to take pretty extreme circumstances to justify it, but I think this case has that.

The killing curse might have the same issues, but she doesn't explore it, and I think there's a reason. The killing curse, even in outright war, kills instantly upon contact. Snape missed with his sectum sempra curse and hit George. If they use it and hit the wrong person, they kill friendlies. If they have methods of subduing Death Eaters without killing them and without risking killing their own, it's better to use those. If killing in war is supposed to be avoided to minimize casualties on the other side (as just war principles require), then it's important to use spells with at least the possibility of not killing. Bullets can kill, but they can also wound significantly enough to prevent the enemy from shooting you without killing. The killing curse can't. The only times I can think of for when the killing curse is all right would be when you know you have to kill the person and nothing else will do. Harry doesn't even use it with Voldemort, because he's hoping for remorse and repentance, even though it's ridiculously unlikely. He'd rather Voldemort's own killing curse does him in, which is what happens. Snape's killing of Dumbledore is the only time she has a good character use the killing curse, and it may be because it's the only time she could come up with when it's morally permissible.

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