Harry Potter Spoilers and Ethical Quandaries in this Post

Harry Potter Spoilers and Ethical Quandaries in this Post November 14, 2011

I’d like to expand the discussion on taking on the burden of someone else’s sin that was taking place in one of the foolish virgins threads.  The example I’m using is the major spoiler from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, so if you haven’t read it, don’t already know, and don’t want to, I’m sorry to say you should skip the post.  (That’s what you get for not going to the midnight release).  Spoilers ahoy!

Ok, so everyone who’s still here knows exactly what I’m talking about: the moment where Snape kills Dumbledore.  I’m going to leave the practical concerns of wandlore out of this discussion since it’s mostly irrelevant (and was mostly ridiculous).  On the top of the Astronomy Tower, Snape kills Dumbledore, as he had promised, to save Draco.  In the book, it is not completely clear whether Snape is meant only to save Draco from Voldemort’s punishment if he fails or whether he is meant to keep Draco from becoming a murderer.

Throwing yourself between someone and physical harm is admirable.  Risking your soul to shield someone from moral harm?

Commenters seemed split on this could be an acceptable cause for action; whether Snape could justifiably do something bad to keep someone else from wounding their soul.  I was surprised by this reaction, because there’s a strong norm of self-sacrifice when all that’s being sacrificed is the physical.  Even if we don’t demand that parents be willing to take a bullet for their children, that tends to be what our ideal parent or lover would do.  In 1984, wishing that you could push your suffering off onto a loved one is the supreme act of betrayal–not just of the beloved, but also of the self.

But the moral calculus shifts when the cost is mutilating the soul, rather than the body.  It’s strange.  If we thought the moral sacrifice was much more serious, wouldn’t we praise it even more than a physical sacrifice?  The fact that most of you disagree makes me think we’re not putting these two kinds of sacrifice on the same spectrum.

Why is that?  I’ll be delighted if it turns out you’re all virtue ethicist, crypto-gnostics like me (ok, so I’m not all that crypto), but since many of you have taken issue with both those schools of thought, I’d like you to tell me what’s backstopping your moral intuition.  Why should we want to accept the physical harm done to others, but not take on the moral dangers to spare them?  Do you want to change your answer to the original question about whether we should praise people for accepting the physical harm meant for others? Is all damage fungible, and, if not, where should it be directed?

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  • “In the book, it is not completely clear whether Snape is meant only to save Draco from Voldemort’s punishment if he fails or whether he is meant to keep Draco from becoming a murder.”

    Actually, it is addressed in the book. There is even a point where Snape asks Dumbledore “and what about my soul?”.

    • Quid est veritas

      I just read Half-Blood Prince, but I found it unclear whether Snape had to kill Dumbledore because of his unbreakable vow, or whether it was something Dumbledore was asking him to do: For the first time, Dumbledore was pleading…Snape gazed for a moment at Dumbledore, and there was revulsion and hatred etched in the harsh lines of his face.
      ‘Severus … please …”
      So, if it was because of the unbreakable vow, maybe he knew that Draco would never be able to kill and he had to do the job for him to protect him from Voldemort?
      But, since that’s not answering the question… (note: for the sake of clarity, and because I’m most comfortable with it, I’m going to use Roman Catholic terminology and moral reasoning here. For a mortal sin, the criteria are: gravity of the sin, knowledge of the gravity of the sin, and full consent to the commission of the sin. If any one of these is missing to some degree, the gravity of the sin is lessened.)
      The reason a person cannot risk his soul for someone is because we can’t assume that what we do (in this case kill someone for someone else) necessarily saves the person from moral culpability for his intended action. Also it is a grave sin of presumption to assume that we can know the soul of another well enough to judge how to redeem him. So we would commit two sins for the price of maybe doing some good for somebody.
      If Draco intended to kill Dumbledore but was prevented only by circumstances, he still committed a mortal sin. Snape then also committed a mortal sin without “saving” Draco from anything. If Draco didn’t intend to kill Dumbledore when the moment came, (and from the book, that does rather seem the case) but he was pushed into it by circumstance and threats, he would not have given full consent of the will to the sin and so would not have committed a mortal sin. Therefore, Snape committed a mortal sin without actually saving Draco from anything.

      • Quid est veritas

        Good Lord, do I sound pompous!
        I’m not sure how to moderate my answer, but if I’ve put you off: deepest apologies.

  • Ok, I’m back from lunch and have given this a bit of thought.

    I don’t think there is anything one can do to save someone’s soul from mortal harm simply because that would imply a redemptive power to our actions that we just do not have. Only Christ is in the position to save souls. To say that I could prevent someone from committing a mortally sinful act by instead doing that act for them isn’t plausible anywhere outside of wizarding fiction and Hollywood. I have no impact, regardless of my actions, on the salvation on another’s soul. I am not Christ.

    So there really isn’t a question of which sacrifice is considered more heroic… because the other isn’t spiritually plausible.

  • Gilbert

    Umm, I don’t know exactly what you’re talking about, I just think suspense is overrated so I routinely ignore spoiler warnings. So I gather Dumbledore doesn’t turn evil or mindcontrolled or something, it’s just that Draco is supposed to kill him and Snape does so instead, right? (The Crescat’s comment makes me think Dumbledore asks to be killed, but that would be irrelevant.) I’ll base my reply on that understanding, so to the extent I’m wrong about Harry Potter I might sound wrong about morals.

    I think the difference is not in what gets damaged but in who inflicts the damage. I have examples to demonstrate this in both directions.

    Morally, I may take a bullet meant for someone else, but I may not shoot anyone (including myself) even if that was some maniacs condition for not shooting two other guys. So even with physical damage it is not just about optimizing the results.

    It’s the same with damage to the moral sense in itself , though I need a fairly far-fetched thought experiment to show it:
    Suppose some mad scientist engineer implanted both your and my brain with mad devices. Each device, if activated, will at once weaken the bearers moral instinct. It will also stay around as a permanent supervisor. If the bearer contemplates something their previously stronger instinct would have prevented them from doing, they will get an audible warning projected into their language processing system. Ignoring that warning will result in physical pain. So there will be no difference in actions, it’s just the moral instinct itself that would be damaged. The mad engineer has a remote control to activate the device and is now aiming it. In this case it would be permissible (but not obligatory) for either of us to take the others activation ray, just as it would be with a bullet.

  • Matt Gerken

    Your categories are all wrong, and are creating a dilemma where there is none. This is because your dualism is false. There’s no separate thing called a soul that you a choosing to damage in this situation, as opposed to a body. ‘Harm to your soul’ is just a bad dualist way of saying that something is immoral. And sacrifice of body (without ‘sacrifice of soul,’ or anything like it) is what Christ did for us.

  • HBanan

    In regards to HP, the major reason Dumbledore wants Snape to kill him is that he is 1) already dying and 2) he wants Snape to continue as a mole in Voldemort’s camp. Snape takes the Unbreakable Vow that he will kill Dumbledore if Draco fails to do so in order to yes, protect Draco, but also to prove his loyalty to the Death Eaters. He is doing this primarily to protect not Draco’s soul, but his life; Voldemort has given this assignment to Draco on threat of death if he does not succeed. Narcissa is terrified her son will die. The preservation of Draco’s soul from the splitting effects seem to be of less concern to the teachers/parents (NICE JOB GUYS!) and the main concentration is life/death/war strategy.

    In regards to Christianity, it is imperative to remember that we believe Christ is the redeemer (not us) and that Christ did take on our sin, die for them, and rise again to save us. He did this not by going about committing sins for us, but by being the scapegoat; I guess you could call this “sin-eating” if you like. A sinner can find forgiveness. We do not need to commit sins FOR each other, but to remind each other of the possibility of grace and salvation in Christ, and be not like the blind leading the blind, who then both stumble into the pit. As Christ said “You are the light of the world. But if this light go out, how great will the darkness be. You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt lose its flavor, it is good for nothing.” It would be pure cockiness to think we could really sacrifice one person’s morality on behalf of another; considering how much even so-called “good people” sin, it’s just a delusion.

  • I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me that there is a major difference between allowing yourself to be harmed or killed to preserve someone else’s life, and doing something evil to keep someone else from doing evil.

    In the first case it seems like generally you would be preserving the person from something outside of themselves. Someone or something else was about to hurt or kill them and you got in the way of that to save them.

    But in the case of doing evil to keep someone else from doing evil, there’s a major difference. The person in the first case is not choosing to be harmed, but the person in the second case is. Granted, Draco feels compelled to do Voldemort’s bidding. (It’s been a while since I read the book, so forgive me if I mess up details.) However, the fact of the matter is that Draco could choose to do the right thing. He could choose not to agree to murder Dumbledore and that is the only morally acceptable choice. Snape too could really only have chosen not to make the unbreakable vow and not to murder Dumbledore. It doesn’t matter that he had Dumbledore’s consent to murder him. You can’t consent to be murdered and it’s never even remotely okay to murder someone, even if they are dying anyway.

    In any case, to me the difference is that it’s not immoral to be harmed while trying to help or save someone, but it’s always immoral to do something that is evil and I would say that murdering someone always counts as seriously immoral, no matter what your intentions were. And I think it is, by it’s nature, more reprehensible than any good you could be trying to achieve by murdering someone.

    But at the heart of the matter I think the difference is that we always have a choice one way or the other, and, while we should try to keep other people from doing evil, we can’t expect doing evil ourselves will keep others from doing evil if that’s what they’re going to choose to do. Moreover, doing evil has the potential to provide a negative example that could do even more harm by inspiring others to do evil. I can’t really express my thoughts all that clearly, but that’s how I see the matter.

  • This moral dilemma is a sticking point for me; it makes me not like Harry Potter as much as I otherwise would. It is based on ends-justify-the-means reasoning, doing evil that good may come. Kill Dumbledore (evil) to produce good effects (save Draco, preserve spying, end suffering). One of the reasons EJTM is not allowed is because the evil effect is definite but the good effects are only probable (this is another reason why double effect is licit, the effects are simultaneous, probability is removed). Very often the good effects do not occur. And then you just have the evil effect. Whoops. But since JKR wrote it, that didn’t happen.

    So why not throw your soul under the bus and do evil to protect others? Definite bad, only probable good. That’s my brief opinion anyway. Depends on the case for the specifics, but taking matters into ones own hands makes the evil happen, not doing it leaves the evil still only probable.

  • keddaw

    Draco is unsure about whether he can kill Dumbledore when the time comes and Dumbledore was sure that Draco hadn’t gone completely to the Dark Side, if I can mix my fiction, whereas Snape had already been a Death Eater and killed people previously.
    When Dumbledore talks about saving Draco I got the feeling it was as much about his mind (killing someone has a profound psychological effect) and his life (if he refused Voldemort or one of the Death Eaters would surely have killed Draco, rather than his soul, which seem to be quite an amorphous concept within the HP universe (pictures still having the essence of people for example).

    In a more realistic setting we (almost) all want others to do evil to prevent possible greater evil, that’s why police have marksmen and countries have armies. That’s why the moral hand-wringing I see in this thread from, I guess, Christians annoys me e.g. “So why not throw your soul under the bus and do evil to protect others?”, “it’s never even remotely okay to murder someone, even if they are dying anyway” (euthanasia?), “I would say that murdering someone always counts as seriously immoral, no matter what your intentions were”, “To say that I could prevent someone from committing a mortally sinful act by instead doing that act for them isn’t plausible anywhere” (that’s not true, the person who killed my friend would be the only human I’d personally murder and someone could take that burden from me by doing the killing before I had the chance).

  • My Potter-lore isn’t the greatest, as I’m not a particular fan. However, I’ll see if I can unpack my feelings about this.

    There are three perspectives in play [given that I understand Harry is present but magically incapacitated].
    1] Dumbledore. He’s a mad old man, doing wheels-within-wheels plotting to save Britain from a wizarding war, and incidentally defeat Voldemort. Ends do not justify means, but saving others does justify risking yourself and/or volunteers. Dumbledore volunteers for this one. What is more, I’m not sure he could have got out of the situation without killing Draco, and choosing your own death over another’s is generally a good thing.
    Additionally, Dumbledore is doomed anyway due to the curse on him from the Marvolo ring – so he is more justified in throwing himself into mortal danger than if he were otherwise healthy.
    2] Draco. Not a volunteer – he’s been sent on a kamikaze mission (a half-trained boy against one of the great wizards of the last century; what’s the plan? how will he succeed? how will he get out if he does somehow succeed? I’m sure there is a plot-driven reason for him to nearly succeed, to build tension, but how likely was that when he went in?). Now, any plan Dumbledore has for Draco beyond “Kill” can only be based on assuming Voldemort will be defeated and trying to plan for the aftermath, but the boy is a conscript. Trying to find an alternative to killing him is a valuable pursuit.
    3] Snape, obviously. Now, Snape is the difficult one. Dumbledore is entirely justified in risking his own life, and in not wanting to kill Draco. I think Draco is on difficult ground, but I’m prepared to give a teenager the benefit of the doubt for not opposing something evil, which seems to be winning and all his friends and family favour.
    Snape, however – he’s a highly placed spy, in the service of someone who kills without compunction. He is very vulnerable; he’s one of the more important pieces on Dumbledore’s chessboard, and not to be risked lightly. I can see a justification for Snape killing Dumbledore in order to secure his position in Voldemort’s organisation and be better placed to see the right side triumph. The only thing that still bothers me about it is that Dumbledore seems to coerce Snape into doing it. If Snape accepts voluntarily, killing Dumbledore is like an act of euthanasia that also has a higher purpose. If Dumbledore forces Snape into it though, it’s just a convoluted murder plot. That’s my 2p-worth, anywho.

  • Charles

    Hmm. Well I will simply throw in a couple of thoughts:

    First I think we are all Virtue Ethicists when it comes down to it.
    Second the ends do not justify the means. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Theist, gnostic, atheist, whatever, everyone agrees with this.

    To get around this we have to imagine a situation in which Snape can damage his ‘soul’ to save Draco without doing a wrong. The only way I see for this is if Dumbledore is dying anyway (and you believe that euthanasia is acceptable) – the problem is if you accept euthanasia as morally licit then Snape hasnt damaged his ‘soul’ – Draco would have since presumably he would not have known what he was doing is morally OK. This raises the interesting point that it is presumed he would have been damaged simply by THINKING he did a grave evil. – Which is why the early post about RC ethics was so helpful: You have to do an evil, you have to know its evil, and you have to want to do the evil.
    You can “know” its evil, and want to do it – without doing it (Dumbledore was dead anyway). You can do it, and know its wrong, but now “want” it (Voldemort makes him do it, we can debate levels of coercion later) – We can construct scenarios for all combinations and all would have various levels of wrongness/’damage’ associated. I can agree with this general framework without being an overt theist (RC folks would claim I do so because of Natural Law I suspect!)

  • Maiki

    I don’t think Dumbledore is in the side of “good” at this point in the books. He has fallen into his trap of “For the Greater Good” and has allowed himself to make decisions that are evil.

    He is asking Snape to do something evil — kill him and take a vain oath — so that Snape can remain a spy, and so Dumbledore has a more “honorable” death. I think saving Draco might have been only tangential. In any case, Draco made the positive choice to *not* do evil. Snape might have been *dubiously* saving him from retribution, but he could have done that more effectively by taking down the Carrows and going into hiding with Draco. Dumbledore would have died regardless, and there was no need for him to be euthanized.

    The morality of the action is thus: Dumbledore asks Snape to do something evil for him to remain a Spy. That is a bad moral calculus. Dumbledore is careless about the state of Snape’s soul (or his own) in exchange for the success of his incredibly convoluted plot to save the world.

    • Maiki

      The world did get saved, at the end. I wonder if Dumbledore’s reliance on secrecy, deceit, and mistrust made it easier or harder — so many things could have gone terribly wrong because of the mistrust between Snape and Harry.

  • HBanan

    Maiki, I totally agree.

    In the end, Rowling shows Dumbledore to be a fairly unethical, though brilliant and well-intentioned man, who uses others and thinks his plans will always work out. He is a fairly good war strategist. Good war strategy is not always virtuous.

    Draco wasn’t going to kill Dumbledore; as Dumbledore says, true murderers don’t hesitate to have a conversation with their victims.

  • Apparently I am totally enamored of your blog. I am spending the evening going through all your posts and I can’t keep my mouth shut.

    I am one of those who think physical sacrifice is heroic, but taking on moral/spiritual damage to try to save another from “having” to commit the same sin is indefensible. It comes down to (1) we can’t truly know that the person would do the thing we fear, and (2) if they would do it for their own reasons, it is very likely that their sense of its wrongness is much less than ours, rendering the culpability of their soul somewhat less, and making their path to repentance much clearer than ours would be. I like how Thomas More puts it in A Man For All Seasons:

    Duke of Norfolk: “Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship?”

    More: “And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”

    I figure the fear that we must save another from committing evil by committing evil ourselves is just one of the devil’s nasty tricks.