“It Is Our Choices, Harry, That Show What We Truly Are, Far More Than Our Abilities”
Harry Potter and Values
By Riley Leonhardt
As a newborn, Harry Potter’s future was foretold by Sybil Trelawny, “The one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord approaches… [...] he will have power the Dark Lord knows not.” 1 In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore reveals Voldemort’s dark secret; he split his soul in seven pieces and hid them in inanimate objects. When Harry, daunted by the task of defeating Voldemort, seeks Dumbledore’s help he refers back to the prophecy: “'You have a power that Voldemort has never had. You can,’ … ’I know!’ said Harry impatiently, ‘I can love.’” 2 Dumbledore reiterated his belief that the greatest value of all, magically and emotionally, is love. Harry finds this simplistic answer frustrating, but demonstrates his belief in love as an important value: he consistently breaks the rules to save loved ones from Ginny Weasley to Sirius Black. Everyone from Dumbledore to dutiful Hermione breaks the rules to assist loved ones in the novels. While the ethical conduct of characters in the Harry Potter series may falter as the series progresses, ultimately Love remains the moral backbone for ethical conduct.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry asks Dumbledore why his touch caused Voldemort so much pain. Dumbledore’s response is that “If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark.” 3 This very concept of love as a powerful magical force of good, and Lily Potter’s act alone, sets the stage for Harry’s moral behavior throughout the series. Remarkably, Harry only learns of his mother’s powerful sacrifice nearly ten years after it occurs, yet he has abided by the moral code of it from the very beginning. Harry loves his friends and more importantly his newfound world of magic, enough to consider sacrificing himself to save them. Even more amazingly, Harry remains so whole-heartedly willing to do so after years of mistreatment at the hands of the Dursleys. Harry is raised by the Dursleys at a status worse than neglected child: an unwanted burden. Harry offers the Dursleys no monetary incentive and certainly no emotional benefit either. In fact, Harry states his one genetic tie to his mother, his Aunt Petunia, “doesn’t love me [...] She doesn’t give a damn.” 4 Harry feels no love at home, yet he shows full trust in the first form of love that comes to him: Ron’s friendship. Harry’s acceptance of love and quickness to reciprocate is likely the result of such a lack of it at home. Curiously, through the progression of the series we do see the Dursleys' guardianship of Harry as a form of love. Petunia Dursley takes her nephew despite the threat that it puts on her own family, the financial burden and the constant reminder that Harry serves as a member of a forbidden world she wishes to join. She loved her sister just enough to allow her sister's son to live in her home, no more, no less. Harry himself comes to recognize and repay this love by saving the one thing Petunia loves most, Dudley, from dementors.
Love serves as the basis of moral behavior for more than just Harry in the series. We see each of the Weasleys demonstrate the same kind of sacrificial love Harry does. Ron consistently follows Harry on every mission to help defeat Voldemort without any provocation. Raised to fear Voldemort, and despite hesitancy, Ron won’t even let Harry comprehend facing Voldemort alone. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley also demonstrate love almost immediately by fulfilling the role of emotional parental support to Harry. From Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets onward Harry never spends a summer without the Weasleys, even if doing so puts the family at great risk. Fred and George Weasley consistently get into fights in Harry’s name throughout the series. Even Bill Weasley protects Harry through refuge at the height of Voldemort’s power in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Ginny Weasley serves an interesting point to the sacrificial love: she is willing to die for Harry, but ultimately Harry’s love for her is a deciding factor in his replication of his mother’s act in Deathly Hallows.
The ethical concept of utilitarianism presents itself in the series. Utilitarianism follows the Principle of Utility which was defined by Jeremy Bentham in 1781 as the belief that “Of the course of action available, choose the one that produces the greatest aggregate well being.”5 Both good and bad characters utilize the concept. Albus Dumbledore, seen by Harry and many others as the moral compass of right and wrong, best summarizes utilitarian beliefs in the series in saying, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” 6 Harry certainly follows Dumbledore’s belief because he so often places himself directly against Voldemort despite the availability of others who wish to fight for him. We also see it in the formation of Dumbledore’s Army (D.A.) in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Harry and many other Hogwarts students refuse to accept harmful censorship and militant control in a time of crisis and make the choice to learn how to stand against Voldemort rather than to ignore hidden danger in order to feel safe. Ultimately the same students in D.A. fight against Voldemort at the Battle of Hogwarts in Deathly Hallows, despite the fact that their abilities do not match their opponents’. Remarkably, utilitarianism beliefs cause the formation of D.A. and serve as the same belief behind Dolores Umbridge’s agenda in Order of the Phoenix. Dolores Umbridge believes that following the Ministry of Magic’s plan to disregard the return of Voldemort benefits most people. The kind of mass panic and hysteria the return of a dark wizard would cause would be damaging to the established institutions which help ensure the greater welfare of the nation.
Deathly Hallows unveils Dumbledore’s consistent use of utilitarian principles for both extremes of the moral spectrum. His friendship with Gellert Grindelwald gives birth to a warped version of utilitarianism, in which suppressing Muggles protects them from wizards. Grindelwald even goes so far as to use a utilitarian phrase that Dumbledore coined, “For the Greater Good,” during his deadly campaign for a pureblood society later in life. Dumbledore never acts upon this distorted belief thanks to his love for his sister Ariana, whose torture at the hand of Muggles factored into in the formation of the belief, and his guilt over her death.
Dumbledore’s painful example of utilitarianism throughout the series comes to fruition in the final book. On the day of the Potters' murders, Dumbledore sets in motion a plan to save the world from Voldemort. Dumbledore leaves Harry with the Dursleys, despite his knowledge that Harry’s life there will be miserable, because Harry needs the connection to his mother’s blood. He allows Harry to believe that Sirius Black betrayed his parents with the knowledge of Peter Pettigrew’s guilt, shielding Harry from the one chance of being consistently reminded of his parents’ love for him. It even appears that Dumbledore allows Peter Pettigrew to return to Voldemort so he can buy time to further look into Voldemort’s past for the source of Voldemort’s invincibility. Time and time again Dumbledore withholds the truth from Harry about his relationship with Voldemort because ultimately he sets Harry up to defeat Voldemort by giving him the deadly quest to destroy Horcruxes since Harry must die to defeat Voldemort. Through his own involvement in and knowledge about Harry’s life, Dumbledore acts for the greater good; he sets one boy up for death so many others could live. Even in death Dumbledore continues his utilitarian plan by withholding the information from Snape that Harry would likely live through another killing curse at the hands of Voldemort, so Harry will believe his sacrifice causes everyone else to live. Although Dumbledore’s plan appears morally sound by utilitarian ethical standards, setting up a boy who had to die to ultimately defeat an evil so that others could live seems morally questionable. Harry’s survival, its likelihood only guessed by Dumbledore, happens because of a coincidence and no plan on his own part; it seems an added benefit, not a necessity, to save a boy he loves. This added benefit makes Dumbledore stand apart from all others in the series; his actions truly benefit the group and not because of any specific person or persons.
Harry once described himself as being “Dumbledore’s man through and through.” 7 Harry undoubtedly trusted Dumbledore with his life: “[He] believed him to be the embodiment of goodness and wisdom.” 8 Harry does frequently become angry and frustrated over Dumbledore’s withholding of information and lies throughout the series. By Deathly Hallows Harry’s confidence in Dumbledore is shaken: “Look what he asked from me….Risk your life, Harry! And again! And again! And don’t expect me to explain everything, just trust me blindly, trust that I know what I’m doing, trust me even though I don’t trust you! Never with the whole truth! Never!” 9 Dumbledore’s utilitarian plan requires Harry to remain unaware of certain aspects of the plan until the last minute. Dumbledore justifies leaving Harry in the dark on several occasions: “Harry must not know, not until the last moment […] otherwise how could he have the strength to do what must be done” 10 and “I cared more for your happiness than your knowing the truth […] more for your life than the lives that might be lost if the plan failed.” 11 Harry’s reaction to the full revelation of Dumbledore’s plan displays his willingness to sacrifice his own life: “How neat, how elegant, not to waste any more lives, but to give the dangerous task to the boy who had already been marked for slaughter.” 12 Harry fears Death, but his anger towards Dumbledore dissipates: “Dumbeldore’s betrayal was almost nothing. […] He had never questioned his own assumption that Dumbledore wanted him alive.” 13 Harry never considers not sacrificing himself; from the start of the series, Harry puts his life on the line again and again. Is Harry’s willingness to sacrifice himself also a part of Dumbledore’s plan?
Upon learning about Harry’s path towards death, Snape replies “I thought…all these years…that we were protecting him for her. For Lily.” 14 Dumbledore replies, “We have protected him because it has been essential to teach him, to raise him, to let him try his strength.” 15 Harry learns of his fate in Sybil Trelawney’s prophecy long before Dumbledore’s plan reveals itself, he just interprets it incorrectly: “…and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives.” 16 Harry’s immediate reaction parallels his reaction to his planned death, “…dredging up the words from what felt like a deep well of despair inside him; ‘so does that mean that…that one of us has got to kill the other one… in the end?’” 17 He incorrectly assumes it means he must kill Voldemort to live. Harry’s decision to sacrifice himself is best viewed from a Soft-Determinist perspective: “Free will consists of the ability to do as you choose. If you can do as you wish, if no person, force, or thing is forcing you to do something against your will, then your act is free.” 18 Throughout the books, Harry’s constant defiance of Voldemort isn’t Dumbledore testing his willingness to sacrifice. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry faces Voldemort in a graveyard moments after the death of Cedric Diggory, knowing death will likely follow. This proves that Harry’s willingness to sacrifice does not come from Dumbledore’s teachings, but from Harry’s nature. Harry remains alive not as “…a pig for slaughter”,19 but to die as “but another blow against Voldemort.” 20
As Dumbledore reveals an alignment with utilitarianism in the series, Voldemort’s path towards evil exposes a representation of Machiavellianism. Machiavellianism is a personality type that “concerns the willingness and ability to apply skills of deceit, manipulation, and exploitation of others so as to acquire, use, and maintain power.” 21 In Half-Blood Prince Voldemort displays all characteristics of a Machiavellian (Mach) even as a youth. Considered a charming, intelligent and handsome boy in his days at Hogwarts, Voldemort manipulates Professor Slughorn into revealing what a Horcrux is and how to make one. Voldemort eventually drops the charisma most Machs display and becomes “… a leader [who is] calculating and... operate[s] with a minimal degree of shame or guilt.” 22 Voldemort’s followers also display Machiavellian traits. Lucius Malfoy represents villainy in Harry’s eyes, while the Minister of Magic finds him a charming upstanding citizen. Bellatrix Lestrange was a high society beauty before going to Azkaban for torturing Frank and Alice Longbottom to insanity with the Cruciatus curse. Voldemort and his followers effectively perform the Unforgivable Curses because of their “desire to dominate in the way characteristic of these curses.” 23 Curiously, Harry performs two of the three Unforgivable Curses in Deathly Hallows.
In OotP, Harry attempts the Cruciatus curse on Bellatrix Lestrange but cannot perform it effectively because “You need to mean [it]…You need to really want to cause pain — to enjoy it — righteous anger won’t hurt me for long.” 24 Harry must “…become corrupt to master this or any of the Unforgiveable Curses.” 25 Harry first performs the Imperius curse on several people in a matter of minutes while breaking into Gringotts. Harry displays no regret in performing the curse but says “I don’t think I did it strongly enough, I don’t know.” 26 Ron and Hermione don’t admonish Harry, adding to the question of Harry’s potential corruption for performing this curse. The circumstance in which Harry performed the curse must be considered to find the answer. Harry was on a vital mission to destroy a Horcrux, and had to remain undetected. Harry cursed a known Death Eater and a Gringotts Goblin but caused them no harm, in fact Harry orders the Imperiused man to hide from harm. Harry only controlled their speech to avoid detection and subsequently ordered them to hide from harm, he cannot be considered corrupted. Later in Deathly Hallows, Harry attempts to perform the Cruciatus curse once more, this time successfully: “The Death Eater was lifted off his feet. He writhed though the air like a drowning man, thrashing and howling in pain…” 27 Harry’s actions have little justification this time. When asked why he performed the curse by Professor McGonagall, he responds, “He spat at you.” 28 Harry displays no hesitation or regret, in fact after performing the curse he says, “’I see what Bellatrix meant,’ […]the blood thundering through his brain, ‘you need to really mean it.’” 29 Corruption seems an inappropriate means to measure Harry’s performance of this curse: he continues the same mission, and still believes in love above all else. Lipscomb and Stewart offer another reason to perform an Unforgivable Curse “…a spirit [must be] eager to dominate, eager to reduce all creatures susceptible to its influence to the status of tools, of things.” 30 The desire to dominate better explains Harry’s action. Harry brushed with improper punishment under Umbridge in Order of the Phoenix and was angry over it, Alecto Carrow used the Cruciatus curse on students as punishment. Harry continuously stands for righteousness, as can be seen from saving the life of Peter Pettrigrew to his continuing intolerance for Ministry practices. Harry experienced continued failed attempts to bring forth righteous justice throughout the series. It is understandable then that Harry for once would take the matter of justice into his own hands and dole out punishment as he saw fit. Harry’s action thus isn’t justifiable but understandable.
In Order of the Phoenix Sirius Black says, “The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters.” 31 The Harry Potter series contains terrible evil; Voldemort‘s quest for domination kills many, but it also contains powerful love. As Sirius points out gray areas exist, even characters like Dumbledore behave in a morally questionable manner. Love proves more powerful though than any other action in the series through Harry’s trials and tribulations. It seems then that Dumbledore’s true meaning behind saying “It is our choices…” 32 is that the choice of behaving out of love will defeat any other obstacles that arise.
1. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 841.
3. Ibid., Sorcerer’s Stone, 299.
4. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 836.
5. Furrow, 45.
6. Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 333.
7. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 649.
8. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 360.
9. Ibid., 362.
10. Ibid., 685.
11. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 838.
12. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 693.
13. Ibid., 692.
14. Ibid., 686.
15. Ibid., 687.
16. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 841.
17. Ibid., 844.
18. Bassham, “Prophecy-Driven Life”, 216.
19. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 687.
20. Ibid., 693.
21. Mayer, “Presidential Personality”, par 4.
22. Ibid., par 5.
23. Lipscomb and Stewart, “Magic, Science, and the Ethics of Technology”, 84.
24. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 810.
25. Lipscomb and Stewart, “Magic, Science, and the Ethics of Technology”, 84.
26. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 533.
27. Ibid., 593.
30. Lipscomb and Stewart, “Magic, Science, and the Ethics of Technology”, 86.
31. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 302.
32. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets, 333.
Bassham, G. “The Prophecy-Driven Life: Fate and Freedom at Hogwarts.” Harry Potter and Philosophy. Ed. David Baggett and Shawn Klein. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2008.
Bruxvoort Lipscomb, B.J. and Stewart W.C. “Magic, Science, and the Ethics of Technology.” Harry Potter and Philosophy. Ed. David Baggett and Shawn Klein. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2008.
Furrow, Dwight. Ethics: Key Concepts in Philosophy. New York: Continuum, 2005.
Mayer, J.D. “Presidential Personality: Part 4 Charisma and Machiavellianism.” Psychology Today. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-personality-analyst/200810/presidential-personality-part-4-charisma-and-machiavellianism (Accessed April 2010).
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.
———. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007
———. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.
———. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1998.