Law, Morality and Necessity

Moral issues are rarely simple, despite our desire for them to be so. In most instances we are faced with a complex moral situation where there may not be a clear-cut choice between good and evil or right and wrong. This may appear to some to be moral ambiguity and relativism, but is more accurately described as moral complexity. In an essay titled Magic, Muggles, and Moral Imagination, philosophy professor David Bagget explains:

Moral complexities don't entail that everything ethical is colored gray and up for grabs. That a character like Harry may have flaws doesn't mean he's not a hero or virtuous. That a rule (such as a prohibition against lying) may admit of exceptions doesn't mean it ought not be followed. That moral dilemmas may require us to choose the lesser of two evils doesn't mean that there's no moral difference between them.[1]

An example of moral complexity shows up in the first Harry Potter book. In this scene Harry deliberately ignores the teacher's instruction for the children to not get on their flying brooms while she is away. Yet, despite ignoring the teacher's instructions, Harry is rewarded with a place on the Quidditch team. This seems strange to Hermione. As she stomps up the stairs behind Harry, she says, "So I suppose you think that's a reward for breaking rules?" But Hermione's attitude is based on a misunderstanding.

In this scene, Madame Hooch must take a student to the infirmary and tells the other students to stay on the ground and off their flying brooms while she is away or else risk expulsion. That's a typical and very reasonable behavior for a good teacher. She is trying to protect the students from harm by restricting their actions and ignoring that restriction should be punished, one would think. Draco Malfoy ignores the teacher's restrictions and takes advantage of her absence to cause grief for another student, Neville Longbottom. Neville is a shy, often weak, forgetful boy who has been sent a Remembrall by his Grandmother. In an earlier scene Draco tries to get the Remembrall from Neville. Now, with Neville off to the infirmary, Draco grabs the device and flies off with it. Harry's eventual response is to jump on his broom and go after Draco. In the end, Harry retrieves the Remembrall by diving towards the ground, catching the ball just before it hits the ground. Harry's rescue of the Remembrall is seen by Professor McGonagall and it is at that point that she takes Harry to the captain of the Quidditch team and has him put on the team.

Before trying to find some moral lesson in this scene, we should start by looking at it from a literary perspective. Many important scenes that follow take place on the Quidditch pitch and the author has to somehow get Harry onto the Quidditch team. However, Harry has never even seen a Quidditch match, much less played the game. First year students at Hogwarts are not allowed to even try out for the team. The flying lesson scene serves the important function of solving this sticky plot problem. First, it takes place before the Quidditch team tryouts, and provides a plausible explanation why Harry does not replace an existing player. Furthermore, if the teachers were around, Harry would not be able to zoom around on his broom discovering and demonstrating his instinctive, natural ability. Thus, one important purpose of this scene is to move the plot forward. As Harry remarks to Ron, "If [Draco] hadn't stolen Neville's Remembrall I wouldn't be on the team...." Moreover, the actions of Harry when the teacher is away are typical of how he will act throughout the story. Thus, in addition to placing Harry on the Quidditch team, the flying lesson scene establishes important character traits for both Harry and Draco. Harry's blood boils at the idea of the injustice done by Draco and he instinctively reacts as a hero. This is one of the first scenes where we see Harry courageously responding to injustice and evil. We also see that Draco is effectively a coward. This contrast between courage and cowardice plays out over the course of the books.

Looking at all the elements of the scene we see that Harry was not rewarded because he broke the rules, as Hermione thought. Harry was put on the team because he demonstrated a natural ability that would make him a good Quidditch player. That ability would have been discovered in any case and is in no way a reward for misbehaving. We also find out that McGonagall is tired of Gryffindor always losing to Slytherin and her action of ignoring the infraction is better understood as motivated by that alone. In any case, the reward is coincidental, not an intended or planned consequence of misbehaving.

Nevertheless, Harry was not punished for violating the teacher's orders and that seems to make breaking the rules a good thing. However, we should consider that many of the situations in the books like the one just described involve rules and regulations established for a specific situation, not universal or natural laws. These types of temporary rules cannot be put on the same level of importance as absolute moral principles. In other words, they are "traditions of men" not "carved in stone by the hand of God." We sometimes can come to believe that any infraction of rules is wrong simply because it goes against authority. The fallacy in thinking that way should be obvious.

The real reason Harry often goes unpunished is simply because those responsible for upholding the rules are the same ones who made the rules in the first place. As such, they have the authority to suspend or change the rules when they realize that enforcement would lead to additional harm and not justice. As Dumbledore remarks at the end of Chamber of Secrets:

"I seem to remember telling you both that I would have to expel you if you broke any more school rules," said Dumbledore.

Ron opened his mouth in horror.

"Which goes to show that the best of us must sometimes eat our words," Dumbledore went on, smiling.

As Dumbledore realizes, the rules had to be broken in order to achieve a just resolution. That does leave us with the question of when it is valid to change or suspend the rules. If disregard for law is arbitrarily ignored, then law loses its effectiveness.

Going back to the flying lesson scene, we need to look more closely at the situation that motivated Harry's choice. The scene could have been written such that Harry took advantage of the teacher's absence to do what he wanted. That would express a self-serving disregard and disdain for authority. But it is not Harry who demonstrates that disdain; Draco is the one who has no respect for the teacher's authority. Draco's action changed the situation from what it was when Madame Hooch walked away. No longer is it simply a group of students standing around waiting for the teacher to return. Harry's behavior is not motivated by a disdain for rules or any other self-serving desire, but by a desire to defend someone who is under attack. An injustice has been done, there is no one else there to stop it, and in that situation Harry's instinct takes over. Harry is responding as a hero, a defender of another who cannot defend himself. That's a choice of action that most of us would consider morally correct and is entirely within character for Harry. His action may have been impertinent and imprudent, typical of adolescents, but it is not immoral behavior. If we want to consider Harry's receipt of his own flying broom and placement on the Quidditch team as a reward for his actions, we should see it symbolically as a reward that results from fighting against injustice. Whenever we pursue justice for others, in other words, we gain an unexpected reward for ourselves.

Although trivial on the surface, the flying lesson scene is typical of the moral questions that we encounter in life. How do you respond to a schoolyard bully when the teacher is not available? We must evaluate two actions, each of which might cause harm, and choose the better of the two. We have to ask, as Hamlet did, "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles/And by opposing end them."

An analogy to a simpler, yet common situation might help to make this principle clear. Is it allowable for an ambulance to ignore the traffic regulations? A simple answer of "yes" does not really explain the situation, and we need to stop and think more deeply about the question. The correct answer is, "It depends on the situation." Unless an ambulance is going to or from the scene of an emergency, the ambulance driver has no more right to violate the traffic regulations than any other driver on the road. It is only when the ambulance is responding to an emergency that it may turn on a flashing light and loud siren, exceed the speed limit and ignore traffic control signals. It is the emergency situation that creates the need to suspend the normal traffic regulations.

It is naïve to think of this in purely utilitarian terms. While it is true that the normal regulations are ignored by the ambulance, the reason for setting aside the regulations is not simply for the sake of convenience. To understand this concept we have to think of the purpose and intent of the traffic regulations. We regulate traffic in order to preserve the peace and public safety. For that reason, a violation of the traffic regulations is a potential threat to other members of the community. However, in the case of an emergency, the life of someone is at stake. If the purpose of the law is to preserve life, then the law must allow a special case for emergency situations. Although the speeding ambulance may appear to be discarding the law, it is in fact upholding the intent and purpose of the law, namely, to preserve the well being of members of the community.

Of course, there is a significant difference between an ambulance speeding to the scene of an accident and handling a schoolyard bully. But in both cases we have to look at all aspects of a situation in order to evaluate the morality of an action. This is a subtle, but important, distinction between utilitarian morals, moral relativism, and moral complexity. Moral behavior cannot be reduced down to simply following the rules, but must take into account all aspects of the situation and weigh each action in light of some overriding moral principle.

Valid law always seeks to achieve the higher purpose of justice. As it is sometimes said, the intent of the law is the force of the law. If following the letter of the law is in conflict with the intent of the law, then actions must be chosen to reach that intent, even if the actions go against the letter of the law. To some this may appear to be saying that the end justifies the means. However, the correct understanding is that the means and the end must be unified in intent. A lawful means that produces an unjust end is no more valid than an unlawful means that reaches a just end. For this reason, well written laws allow for exigent circumstances, emergency, and necessity. If the law does not allow for these situations, then the law must be reevaluated when these conditions are present.

As discussed previously, a literary work can be used to reflect conditions in our real world society. Most of us live within societies run by both public and private bureaucracies where we are wrapped up in miles of red tape and buried under reams of regulations. At times the bureaucratic rule-making becomes so intrusive that the only way to get anything done is to ignore the rules, or at least find some way to get around them. The characters in Harry Potter face the same problem in the person of Delores Umbridge.

Umbridge is one of those bureaucrats that never met a difficult situation that she couldn't further mess up by writing a new regulation. Her intervention at Hogwarts as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher turns into a disaster for the students. At the time they most need instruction, she turns the class into a farce. Any complaints or hint of rebellion is dealt with harshly. After all, rules are rules and those who break the rules must be punished. As Umbridge gains more and more influence, usurping power by arbitrary regulation, the students are forced to find a solution outside the normal procedures, eventually establishing Dumbledore's Army.

We could look at the actions of the students in a superficial manner and accuse them of having a disdain for authority and a rebellious attitude toward rules, but the events of the story make that conclusion absurd. The conflict the students and eventually the whole of wizard society had to reconcile was the abuse of authority by bureaucrats. Under those conditions, the only appropriate and heroic thing to do is to blatantly ignore the rules. Rowling's sarcastic depiction of the heavy hand of bureaucracy and the student's response is an excellent depiction of the conditions we face in our world and what we often have to do in response. Under normal conditions we follow the rules so that we may live within a peaceful society. But there are times when that attitude simply won't work.

There is an even more direct expression of this concept in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. At the beginning of this episode Harry and his cousin are attacked by Dementors. Harry responds by producing his Patronus charm, succeeds in driving the Dementors away, and thus rescues himself and his cousin. This action violates two of the laws for the wizard community. Harry is an underage wizard and restricted in the use of magic outside of school. In addition, wizards are prohibited from performing magic in the presence of Muggles. Harry has violated both of these laws in one act.

Harry is subsequently summoned to appear before the judges of the Wizengamot. The sudden change of time for appearance gives us a clue that maybe this tribunal is not wholly on the up and up, but more likely a setup by Harry's opponents. We find out later in the story that this is exactly the case. Fortunately for Harry, Dumbledore arrives in time to act as counsel. Before being rudely cut off by Fudge, Dumbledore reminds the Wizengamot that, "Clause seven of the Decree sates that magic may be used before Muggles in exceptional circumstances, and as those exceptional circumstances include situations that threaten the life of the wizard or witch himself..." Dumbledore correctly points out that the law includes provisions for use of magic by underage wizards when there is an emergency or necessity. A majority of the judges admit the truth of this provision of the law and Harry is not punished for his infraction.

The same analysis applies to moral behavior. Both the action and the consequence must be judged on the basis of a moral principle. When faced with moral dilemma, we choose the course of action that appears to best serve the greater moral principle, even if in doing so we introduce the possibility of some lesser harm. This is distinct from moral relativism. Moral relativism denies moral absolutes, replacing them with subjective values, and thus the moral principle changes when the person's desires change or the situation changes. In contrast, absolute moral principles remain in effect in all situations, but the action taken in each situation is the action appropriate to the moral principle. It's a subtle, but important distinction and one that is easy to miss.

Suspending the rules to allow for emergencies is an important and valid principle of law, but is also potentially dangerous. A misuse of the appeal to necessity is the typical response of an immoral person. Having done something wrong, and not wanting to suffer the consequences, an immoral person will usually create some kind of an excuse in the form of "it was necessary." Distinguishing between a valid appeal to necessity and an invalid one can be difficult at times. Yet it is something we must learn to do.

One sure way to test if an action was truly necessary is to see if the action is purely self-serving. There is a very clear example of this misapplication in The Deathly Hallows. Near the end of the book, Voldemort kills Snape solely for the purpose of gaining additional power for himself. Snape was not at that time threatening Voldemort, and was in fact considered Voldemort's chief ally. Yet, it served Voldemort's lust for power and that became the excuse that Voldemort gave to Snape as he killed him.

"The Elder Wand belongs to the wizard who killed its last owner. You killed Albus Dumbledore. While you live, Severus, the Elder Wand cannot be truly mine."

"My Lord!" Snape protested, raising his wand.

"It cannot be any other way," said Voldemort.

Voldemort's actions from beginning to end are purely self-serving. For Voldemort, there is no law or rule other than to serve self-interest and he will readily violate any agreement or confidence if it serves his desire for more power. He accurately represents the nihilist who lives by the motto that the end justifies the means. By comparison, a valid use of the principle of necessity will seek the end of justice. This is a vitally important distinction and in Harry Potter the distinction is set out clearly throughout the books. Harry and his friends go unpunished for their infractions when to do so would clearly lead to injustice. Although there are times when the immature Harry steps over the line and does not get punished, he is usually left with a sense of remorse. Voldemort knows no remorse, and it is clearly the evil Voldemort whose actions exemplify immorality, not Harry. And that is exactly the way a good story should express moral principles.

These scenes, like many similar scenes in the books, present an excellent starting point for discussing the relationship of authority, law, morality, and necessity. The situations we encounter in life are often complex and a simplistic, legalistic understanding of morality will not adequately address the situation. If we try to think of moral behavior as a list of rules to follow, we hide this complexity and fail to grasp a true understanding of morality


[1] David Bagget, Magic, Muggles, and Moral Imagination, published in Harry Potter and Philosophy (Open Court publishing, 2004), p. 165.


Bookmark and Share