Nurture vs. Nature and Personal Choice


Following on and building upon the question of prejudice, Harry Potter examines the question of innate ability and personal choice. A long standing debate over our human condition centers on the question of nurture vs. nature. Are we good or evil because of something inherent? Do we become good or evil because of the influences on us during our life? Or, is good and evil a matter of personal choice?

Magical ability in the world of Harry Potter is an inborn ability. A person can improve that ability through study and practice, but cannot create it when it is not already there. This expresses one side of the debate. If nature does not give you an ability you cannot otherwise acquire it. An athletic ability falls into this category. Those of us born short and broad will never be able to dunk a basketball no matter how much we practice. It is simply not a physical capability that is in us. The same is true of the voice and hearing abilities of an opera singer, or the eyesight and reflexes of a pilot. If you don’t have it, you cannot get it by learning.

But, the question arises as to whether or not that same type of inborn nature applies to things other than physical abilities. Does it also apply to virtue? In one sense, the Harry Potter books imply that it does. The students are sorted into houses according to the various virtues of courage, loyalty, intelligence, and cunning. There is even the implication that since all Death Eaters came from Slytherin, that the instinct for good or evil is somehow innate. But, by the end of the story, we find that is not the case. As Harry reveals at the very end, “The Sorting Hat takes your choice into account.”

The sorting of students into houses at Hogwarts doesn’t imply that our lives are pre-ordained to follow a specific pattern, nor does it imply that one ability is superior to another. What the houses and sorting of students represents is the complementary nature of our abilities. Some will have a greater ability at acts that require courage, while others will have a greater interest in learning, etc. When we discover our native abilities and organize our lives accordingly, we will have a better chance at success. Furthermore, the combination of the talents of individuals creates a stronger whole. When each of us concentrates on what we are best suited to do, not only the individual but the whole society benefits.

The sorting of students into houses is parallel to the question of heritage. In many of the conversations among the students, they compare their house with those of their parents. It seems that certain qualities run in the family, as we say. All of the Weasley’s are Gryffndors. All of the Blacks, with the exception of Sirius, are Slytherin. On the surface at least, it seems that natural ability and therefore influence is based on heritage, not choice. But, as Dumbledore explains, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Thus, choice overrides nature, but that still leaves the question of nurture to consider. How much influence do others have on our behavior? If we compare Tom Riddle to Harry there are a good number of parallels. Both come from mixed-blood families, both were orphaned as a child, and both had to grow up ignorant of his innate abilities. Overall, however, Voldemort had the better chance. The adults at the orphanage treated him far better than the Dursleys treated Harry. But, regardless of the care he received Riddle turned early on to theft, deceit and cruelty towards other children. Despite that early step towards immoral behavior, Dumbledore invites him to Hogwarts and it appears Riddle was given all the care and concern that the other students receive from the teachers. Yet, Riddle slowly but surely turns toward evil.

There is a complementary example in the Weasley family. This family is probably the most loving and nurturing of all those we find in the books. Though poor, and of low social standing among pure-blood wizards, Mr. and Mrs. Weasley provide a comfortable and loving home to their seven children. Among their children we find a wide variety of attitudes and behavior. There is the pompous Percy, and the two lovable but irritatingly mischievous twins, George and Fred. Last of all is Ginny, whose innocent curiosity overcomes her upbringing. Her parents’ influence failed to protect her from the diary planted on her by Lucius Malfoy. The evil in the book overcomes her free will, and she ends up committing horrendous acts that she never would have done otherwise. She all-too easily falls into the trap set by Voldemort, despite her parents’ warning. As Arthur Weasley reminds Ginny: “Haven’t I taught you anything? What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain? Why didn’t you show the diary to me, or your mother?”

It seems that even the best nurturing by parents is not enough to always protect us from our own choices.

Another aspect to this debate is the influence of the diary and subsequent actions of Ginny. Like the imperious curse used by evil wizards to enslave another, it removes the person’s free will. The loss of free-will almost guarantees the person will act for the purposes of evil. Put another way, once an evil influence takes over, we can lose our ability to choose the good. We must, therefore, be cautious in what influences we allow in our lives. Our initial choice may be free, but once overpowered we can no longer choose freely and fall prey to domination by evil.

Ultimately good or evil is a matter of choice. We may be born with a nature that tends to evil, or we may be born with an instinct for good. We may also receive hard knocks that can become a pattern or excuse, or we can be raised by kind and loving adults. The books resolve this conflict by claiming that we are what we choose, not what we were born into or because of the influence of others no matter how strong those influences may be. As Rowling explained it in an interview:

“Harry is someone who is forced, for such a young person, to make his own choices. He has very limited access to truly caring adults and he is guided by his conscience. Now, Harry makes mistakes repeatedly. Harry did things like — he did steal the flying car. That was a very stupid thing to do, but it seemed like a great idea at the time. We’ve all been there. But, ultimately Harry is guided by his conscience.” [[#rowling|#]]

We are all given an innate sense of conscience that can be further developed or not by the influences in our lives. But, in the end we choose to listen to that inner voice, or we choose to reject it. That choice to rely on conscience is what sets apart the good from those who succumb to evil.


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