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The ‘Harry Potter World’ Morality as a Paradigm for the Muggle World That Is

by Eliana Ionoaia


The Harry Potter novels, with their flowing, but undemanding prose, do not seem to advocate morality, or so the critics claim. The absence of any overt religious messages might lead the reader, or critic, astray in believing there is no morality behind this world of fantasy. However, it should not be mistaken for a lack of moral center as the books do provide a consistent, yet adjustable, ethical code – thus remaining enjoyable while adding a dimension of moral seriousness. Although Harry Potter is constantly under threat from Lord Voldemort, he triumphs over evil despite his slight chances of success chiefly due to the guidance provided by Dumbledore and other teachers in the guise of directions on paying attention and efficiently identifying good and evil at any level. The foundation for the morality of the Harry Potter novels seems to be based on Thomas Hobbes’s concept of summum malum which must be avoided – thus, Harry Potter and his friends all strive in that direction. The summum bonum of eudaemonism or deontologism is not truly present here, although it may be argued that defeating the summum malum, symbolized by Voldemort will lead to the summum bonum.

The battle between good and evil in these novels is portrayed vividly and this ever–waging war is brimming with insights about how to conduct one’s life; thus no matter at what stage in life we are located, the lessons present in this series of children’s books can be essentially insightful and applicable to the magic–free Muggle world. Whereas Harry Potter’s world is overflowing with magic, in our world solving crises by magic is merely wishful thinking. Reading such fantasy books for children, the reader would expect to find everything solved magically – to his surprise this does not happen: challenging problems, menaces looming, dangerous creatures lurking in the dark, frightening spells are all present in this world, but are not countered simply by magic. Spells do not solve problems, and they can even make things worse – intelligence, along with reasoning, planning and courage, are all important ingredients. The resolve, steadiness, and friendship as well as the resourcefulness of the main characters are inspiring virtues – this is what we can learn from these books. The importance of these virtues in the lives of fictional characters may inspire one to think of their place in our own lives. Incantations and spells do not epitomize the meaning of life in the Harry Potter world, nor in our Muggle world. On the other hand, moral virtues may be the key to success in life in both worlds.

This paper focuses on the moral virtues of the Harry Potter books that make the characters well–rounded persons. The Stoic virtues of constancy, resolution, self–discipline, reason, and solidarity can also be considered guiding lights for the young readers of these books. Curiosity will also be discussed as sin and virtue, and as a triggering factor for adventure and knowledge.

These novels may be considered as a guiding light in our age of moral darkness. The last century has seen a crumbling of the observance of traditional moral codes, a collapse of religious faith and a growing belief in science leading to an understanding of morality as relative and futile. To a great extent, the 20th century bore the mark of mistrust in morality and ethics, attributed to Nietzsche’s works, moral and ethical relativism and postmodern thinking all contributing to a questioning of apparently universal moral standards, principles and values. The modern age has been concerned with disciplining the individual and making him obey rules and codes of ethics, whereas the Postmodernist period has been associated with “the celebration of the ‘demise of the ethical’, of the substitution of aesthetics for ethics” (Bauman, 2). Our times have seen a denigration or derision of ethics as a modern constraint abandoned and “destined for the dustbin of history” (Bauman, 2). According to Gilles Lipovetsky, humankind has reached a post–deontic age, “where our conduct has been freed from the last vestiges of oppressive ‘infinite duties’, ‘commandments’, and ‘absolute obligations’” (Bauman, 2).

The 20th century ended on a very different note: the last decade was crowned by a movement towards ethics and a rejection of Postmodernism, through the emergence of debates on global ethical issues, the appearance of foundations and research centres in the field of ethics, the spread of ethical codes and ethical boards, of bioethics, humanitarian actions, ethical concerns in business which have all lead to a revitalizing of values and responsibility. This last decade of the 20th century has proven that our times needed a return to the fundamentals which were rediscovered in the spiritual and religious sphere. According to Zygmunt Bauman, “it remains to be seen whether the time of Postmodernity will go down in history as the twilight, or the renaissance, of morality.” (Bauman, 3–4)

The Harry Potter novels inscribe themselves in this latter trend of the 20th century. And they provide a consistent, yet adjustable, ethical code whose role is to encourage young people to differentiate between right and wrong and act accordingly. The focus on a moral code in these books makes necessary a definition of concepts such as morality and virtue. According to Bernard Gert, morality is “an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and includes what are commonly known as moral rules, ideals, and virtues and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal” (Gert, 27). The moral system present in these novels governs the conduct of Harry and the Order of the Phoenix in relation to what is harmful to others, including certain virtues in an ethical theory of virtues and leading to a lessening of evil and harm in the wizarding world.

The novels develop an ethical theory of virtues, thus the next concept to be defined is that of virtue. For this I turned to a definition conceived by Lee H. Yearley:

A virtue is a disposition to act, desire, and feel that involves the exercise of judgment and leads to a recognizable human excellence or instance of human flourishing. Moreover, virtuous activity involves choosing virtue for itself and in light of some justifiable life plan. (Yearley, 13)

One may say that Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ronald Weasley flourish in the seven novels, from frightened first years to courageous persons who are not afraid to assume the role of grown–ups in thwarting Voldemort’s plans and finally defeating him in the Deathly Hallows. They choose the right path to act in light of a ‘justifiable life plan’ – as they do not want to live in a world controlled by Voldemort. Steven W. Patterson claims that being virtuous means following three criteria:

1. knowing what is morally good and what it requires of one;

2. choosing to do what is morally good because it is morally good, and

3. One’s morally good acts are done out of a firm disposition to act in such ways. (Baggett and Klein, 124)

Thus, Harry Potter and his friends know what is morally good and choose to act morally due to their own firm disposition to act in such ways: Hermione creates SPEW because slavery is morally wrong, while Dumbledore makes Harry see that even if Voldemort had not hurt him personally, he would still want him destroyed: “He thought of all the terrible deeds he knew Voldemort had done. A flame seemed to leap inside his chest, searing his throat” (HBP, 478).

Another issue worth discussing in relation to virtues is the fact that each of the four founders of the Hogwarts school valued different virtues: Gryffindor preferred “the brave of heart”, Hufflepuff those “unafraid of toil”, Ravenclaw “those of wit and learning” and Slytherin the “cunning folk.” (PS, 88) Thus, the foundation of this school of magic is based on certain virtues, but among these, the most salient one, for the main character is courage. According to Tom Morris,

courage is doing what’s right, not what’s easy. It’s doing what seems morally required, rather than what seems physically safe or socially expected. (...) A courageous person properly perceives danger when there is danger and then overcomes the natural urge for self–preservation. (Baggett and Klein, 12–13)

An illustrative instance of Harry’s courage occurs during the second task of the Triwizard Tournament, when he saves Ron and Fleur’s sister – he does what is right and morally required, not physically safe (time underwater is limited) or socially expected (he had to save his own hostage, and hurry to the surface) thus overcoming his natural urge for self–preservation (merpeople try to hinder him) – he also saves Ginny Weasley from the Basilisk, or the philosopher’s stone from Quirrell in the earlier novels.

Courage is a prominent virtue in whose absence other virtues could not be expanded. In Aristotelian philosophy as expounded in Nicomachean Ethics, Book III, courage stands between rashness and cowardice as a mean between the two vices which represent excess and deficiency correspondingly. Courage is not fearlessness; rather, it is confidence in confronting fear, thus emphasis is on choice. The choice of those courageous is to see courage as an end in itself. Harry Potter proves his courage repeatedly: by fending off Voldemort in books I, II, IV, V and VII and fighting Death Eaters and other dangerous creatures such as the basilisk, acromantulas, Dementors and dragons.

Friendship is also a pertinent concept in the Harry Potter novels – without which nothing would be accomplished. Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics, Book II divides friendship in three types of which the last is judged to be true friendship: the first is friendship founded on utility, on deriving benefits from relationships; the second type is based on pleasure, thus people are drawn to each other’s wit, etc.; and the third type is friendship founded on goodness, thus the friends admire each other for this quality. Harry, Ron and Hermione’s friendship is of this latter precious type, since “everything Harry is able to accomplish is rooted in the collaborative efforts of many” (Baggett and Klein, 16). In the first year, Harry, Ron and Hermione break through a series of obstacles to get to the philosopher’s stone after solving its puzzle, in second year they investigate the Chamber of Secrets and the possible heir of Slytherin, in third year, they save Sirius Black from the Dementor’s kiss, in the fourth Hermione and Ron help Harry prepare for the Triwizard Tournament tasks, in the fifth the trio is accompanied by yet other students in both the DA classes led by Harry and in the insurgence at the Ministry of Magic, in the sixth novel they solve the mystery of Malfoy’s disappearances and elucidate the secrecy in his plan, whereas in the last novel they leave Hogwarts behind and go into hiding as symbols of the resistance against Voldemort, while seeking Horcruxes in order to destroy him.

Dumbledore’s experiential and choice–making teaching methodology promotes courage, friendship and reason. He does not constantly punish wrongdoing – such as breaking school rules, since he understands the reasoning behind disregarding them: “Dumbledore entertains a deep conviction about the value of traditional liberal virtues but recognizes that some conflicts are irreconcilable” (Nexon and Neumann, 203). He tries to teach the students virtue and choosing right over wrong not by accepting others’ views and arguments but by thinking for oneself and making individual choices. The importance of choice is pointed out by Dumbledore in a conversation with Harry: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities” (CoS, 245). Ethical behavior through individual choices in front of adverse circumstances is what characterizes Harry. According to Tom Morris, ethics and law though not the same, do overlap and the difference between the two can be illustrated by ethical people feeling morally compelled to disobey unjust laws (Morris, 65). Dumbledore “does not cultivate the rules as much as the values that inform the rules. He cultivates in each student the spirit of the law, even if this means that the letter of the law sometimes must be broken” (Nexon and Neumann, 203). If rules or laws are unjust, they need not be obeyed by persons with strong concerns for ethics and morality, as they could try changing them instead. Perhaps there is a lesson here to be learned for our own world.

Curiosity is perceived as a triggering factor for adventure since it is the curiosity of Harry and his friends that encourages them to investigate various mysteries and promotes the plot line of the novels. According to J. van Herwaarden, in the Middle Ages, the attitude of Christians towards the concept of curiositas was determined by St. Augustine’s claims that it should be placed among the sins (Herwaarden, xxiv). In chapters 30 and 35 of Book X of his Confessions, Augustine terms curiosity lust of the eyes meant to “acquire experience through the flesh” (Augustine, 239). A desire for knowledge leads to the vice of curiosity which characterizes our seeking of what is both pleasant and unpleasant. According to Gilbert C. Meilaender, the attitude leading towards virtue is “reverent desire to understand creation rather than a longing to possess the experience of knowing” (Meilaender, 140).

Hans Blumenberg also mentions the distinction between saecularis sapientia and curiositas, illustrated by Hermione’s desire to know everything in books and Harry’s curiosity about the Half Blood Prince’s copy of the Potions textbook. Thus, it could be conjectured that curiosity is a sign of discontent with the status–quo and the pursuit of something more, Augustine associated with a distancing of the mind from God. Barbara Benedict posits that “the violation of what was conceived of as humanity’s rightly subordinate role is registered empirically: curiosity is a transgression visually received” (Benedict, 3).

A further distinction is made by Aquinas, between the virtue of studiositas and the vice of curiositas, as representations of our natural urge to find out, in need of guidance, like all human desires. (Meilaender, 141) This distinction provides an instance of curiosity’s moral taint as well as its possibility for good, since it is both the desire to know the forbidden – so frequently encountered in the Harry Potter series (the characters’ investigation of the Mirror of Erised, of Nicolas Flamel, the Chamber of Secrets, the prophecy at the Ministry of Magic) – and a promise for improvement. The duality of curiosity is well represented in these novels, since Harry, Hermione and Ron’s questions about the mysteries already mentioned are the elements which in the end thwart Voldemort’s plans; however this curiosity also puts them in grave danger. Harry’s curiosity and unuttered questions about the Mirror of Erised, if unanswered by Dumbledore, would have meant a failure to stop Voldemort. Being curious does not entail a yearning for worthless knowledge, although it may lead to futile explorations, however, curiosity only becomes a vice when there are no boundaries imposed on it. Thus, Dumbledore seems to perceive the importance of the questions inquisitively posed by students and gives enough knowledge in his answers to enable them to act when necessary.

The focus now turns to a Stoic life–attitude and constancy, resolution, self–discipline, reason, and solidarity as Stoic virtues, providing an ethical code for the readers of these novels. Stoic thinkers such as Zeno, Seneca, Epictetus valued virtues, considering life as governed by nature’s laws, rather than by chance. One of Stoicism’s characteristics is an appreciation of “individual life [as] good when () in harmony with nature () since it is such as nature’s laws have caused it to be” (Russell, 243), and an acceptance of what may come one’s way. In the Stoics’ view, conformity to the rational laws of nature entails virtue and morality, while evil stems from human vice rather than from nature, similarly to human vice from human passions – fear, pain, pleasure, desire – all ideally avoided if the wise wish to reach a state of apatheia to avoid evil and vice. The modern sense of apathy is not what is meant by the Stoics in their philosophy: a distinction must be made between anaesthesia – feeling nothing at all – and apatheia, not a state of passivity but rather a detachment from indifferent and evil things enabling the philosopher to judge and act rightly. Marcia L Colish expounds that virtues are consequences of reason and what is ethically relevant for the Stoic is what men can control – in other words their own choices and conduct (Colish, 44).

The detachment of the Stoics in the face of nature, combining fate and free will, leads to a resolution to act virtuously, to discipline oneself to accept what comes one’s way. This view is presented by Hagrid once Voldemort returns: “‘No good sittin’ worryin’ abou’ it,’ he said. ‘What’s comin’ will come, an’ we’ll meet it when it does’” (GoF, 623). Thus, once adverse circumstances occur, they will be met and dealt with. Edmund M. Kern states that

the Stoics are not counseling passivity; rather, they recommend a particular kind of engagement with the world, an active and rational constancy through the cultivation of virtue that renders them indifferent to external concerns. (Kern, 108)

This constancy in the face of adverse circumstances, in confronting things one cannot control leads to self–discipline and a resolution portrayed by Harry Potter in the face of evil. Harry embodies reason, self–discipline, resolution and constancy because he detaches himself from things external to him, things he cannot control (for instance, in the last book of the series, he walks proudly to his death in order to save others, since this is something he can control) and he sets himself against evil and does not falter in the face of danger to himself. Thus, according to Kern, he “maintains an active agency in the face of constraining circumstances, and he persistently chooses what is right over what is easy” (Kern, 113). The Stoic virtue of solidarity is recast by Dumbledore as cooperation – Harry finds himself in danger on numerous occasions, not by choice, but he does choose to put his life at risk for others as a result of a spirit of solidarity. He is ready to assume certain risks if his actions will provide a safer environment for others, thus he tries to lessen the harm others might suffer from situations he might be able to prevent.

The accusation of moral relativism brought to the Harry Potter series by its critics due to the ambivalent nature of good and evil characters is better cast as moral realism by Tom Morris who argues that good and evil persons in real life are never absolutely so: “No realistic depiction of good and evil in the world involves the caricature of deifying the good and absolutely vilifying and demonizing the bad” (Morris, 73). The fact is that, the more realistically good and evil are portrayed, the better they are perceived later by children in the real world, once they have internalized the concepts present in this series of novels.

Bruno Bettelheim posits that children need “a moral education which subtly, by implication only, conveys to [them] the advantages of moral behavior, not through abstract ethical concepts” (Bettelheim, 5) – although he discusses fairy tales, the same is true for these novels as the moral code of the books is not overt but may be extracted from the characters’ patterns of behavior. Morality is transmitted not at an abstract level, but by implication. This method of transmitting moral behavior and ethics might have been what Plato had in mind when suggesting that the citizens of his ideal republic began their education with myths. (Bettelheim, 35)

The distinction between good and evil is salient in the inner lives of children and as Vigen Guroian claims “children need guidance and moral road maps and they benefit immensely with the example of adults who speak truthfully and act from moral strength” (Guroian, 3), thus the model of the hero is relevant. For the modern child, the “images of heroes who have to go out into the world all by themselves and who [succeed] by following the right way with deep inner confidence” (Bettelheim, 11) represent models to be followed and held up. As Harry Potter always chooses the good, his story carries a normative message – epitomized by Dumbledore in his end of year speeches and conversations with Harry Potter which all reflect the truth and can be seen as moral road maps. Dumbledore’s example is worth following in Harry’s eyes, just as Harry’s model is worth following in the eyes of the readers. Thus, the virtues identified in the novels, and illustrated as worthy of praise are values transmitted to those Muggles of our own world reading the novels.

Bettelheim considers that fairy tales – the Harry Potter novels as well, I might add – promote morality not because of the final defeat of evil and victory of virtue and good, but because the child requires a role model in life and thus he/she identifies with the hero of the story. The hero of stories based on a good versus evil paradigm “is most attractive to the child, who identifies with the hero in all his struggles” (Bettelheim, 9) and these identifications are entirely the work of the child, with the result that “the inner and outer struggles of the hero imprint morality on him” (Bettelheim, 9). In identifying Harry Potter with a role model, I believe an important element was the setting of the story in a boarding school because life in such a place sets Harry apart – it isolates him – while offering him the possibility of growing up without adult interference. Children tend to see themselves apart from the adults in their lives, and observing the model of Harry Potter embodying qualities such as courage, friendship, solidarity, constancy, resolution, self–discipline, and reason, he becomes quintessentially an ideal to be followed. The triumph of good over evil is not as relevant in the Harry Potter novels as the decision making processes, the planning, the self–disciplining, the friendship and courage behind all the adventures narrated by J.K. Rowling.


Works Cited

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