To Honor a Hallow: an essay

What follows is the final paper from my first ethics course a little over 2 years ago, and also the first paper I wrote on Harry Potter. The assignment was to examine an moral dilemma and argue for the most ethical course of action. I had a lot of fun writing this, and while I’d probably change some things in retrospect, I’m still rather proud of it. Enjoy, and as always, please let me know your thoughts.

Perhaps one of the greatest and broadest moral dilemmas is the question of power over others: how it should be used, by whom, in what circumstances, for what ends, and with what methods; this is the question of international politics as well as of parenthood, and many things in between. In the novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling, the main character, Harry, confronts this issue head on when he chooses whether or not to seek the Elder Wand. This decision has far-reaching implications and consequences, and while it is very difficult for Harry to decide to leave the wand behind, I maintain that it is the right decision.

While Harry is on a mission to bring down Voldemort, the ultimate evil in the story, he encounters information about three objects called the Deathly Hallows, which, when united, are said to make the possessor “master of Death.”[1] Two of the objects, an Invisibility Cloak and a Resurrection Stone, Harry believes that he already has, but the third, an immensely powerful wand called the Elder Wand, is hidden away.[2] Harry and Voldemort realize the location of the Wand almost simultaneously, and Harry knows that if he does not act immediately to retrieve it, he will not only have forfeited his chance to become master of Death, but he will have essentially given the world’s most powerful wand to the world’s most dangerous wizard.[3] However, Harry is aware that he has the potential to abuse such immense power, having just emerged from an unhealthy obsession with the Hallows, and also that such a venture would distract him from his current mission to find Horcruxes, which cannot afford to be abandoned.[4] It comes down to a question of whether Harry should potentially sacrifice his own character and focus in order to gain something highly coveted, and also in order to save others from the abuse they would suffer were that power to fall into the wrong hands.

First and foremost, the question needs to be raised about whether it is even Harry’s moral concern what happens to the Elder Wand. After all, it is a strange line of reasoning that causes Harry, a seventeen year old boy who has not yet finished his magical training and with a massive price on his head, to be held answerable for what Voldemort, the most powerful dark wizard of all time, chooses to do with himself and whatever weapons he possesses, or at least more answerable than the general public.[5] However, Harry’s distinctive position and history suggest that he does have a unique responsibility in this matter: he has been marked by a prophecy as the “Chosen One” to defeat Voldemort, and while he has not publicly acknowledged this, he has accepted the role privately, and the general public has guessed the truth.[6] Joel Feinberg argues that by accepting roles, a person increases their culpability for disasters in connection to that role, even if they personally have no hand in the destruction, so the fact that Harry has shouldered the burden of being “Chosen,” even if it is only in private, puts him in the position of being, perhaps not responsible for Voldemort, but intimately concerned with him morally.[7] Harry cannot be held blameworthy for Voldemort’s actions, however, because he fails to fulfill even the first condition set out by David Jones to decide blameworthiness: he performs no wrong act.[8] The combination of these two theories for moral responsibility show that, while Harry cannot be blamed for the specific misdeeds of Voldemort, he can be blamed for failing to act in relation to the aforementioned deeds, and thus, what happens to the Elder Wand is Harry’s concern.

The most compelling case in favor of retrieving the wand is the utilitarian one. If one simply looks at the facts that Harry has about the situation, it appears that the most good and the least harm would be done by Harry having the wand: Voldemort is a madman, Harry is not, and the Elder Wand is powerful, therefore it would be better for Harry to have the wand because mass destruction and death are less likely to occur than if Voldemort had it. True, it is possible that Harry would be tempted to misuse the wand, but even if he did, it surely would not be as bad as what Voldemort might do, and the remote possibility of abuse is not worth giving up the more probable good that Harry could accomplish with such a powerful tool. This is not to mention that Harry would also be able to become master of Death, which he has considered as a possible way of countering Voldemort’s immortality.[9] From this utilitarian view, power should be placed in the hands of those least likely to abuse it and who can use it to remove evil, and therefore Harry should recover the Elder Wand.

This position is not as solid as it appears, however, for several reasons. Firstly, a distinction needs to be made between what would be right from Harry’s point of view as opposed to the point of view of an all-knowing observer, for Harry does not have complete information at this point, and the best choice that he has the faculty to make may not be what is best in the situation. Harry does not yet know the rules of wand ownership, but if he did, he would be able to deduce that Voldemort is not the wand’s master, and thus its legendary powers would not manifest themselves in the Dark Lord’s hands. The only thing that would be lost in allowing Voldemort to find the wand would be that Harry, the wand’s true owner, could not own it.[10]

Also, Harry has been given a misleading definition of what it is to be the master of Death; it has been presented to him by Mr. Lovegood as a way of becoming indestructible, with the ability to manipulate one’s own mortality as one sees fit, and while this is not necessarily incorrect (the reader never sees the Hallows united, so it is uncertain what would happen if they were), it is an incomplete picture, as it is made clear later by Dumbledore that “the true master does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying.”[11] If Harry were to become the master of Death, he would have the ability to wield the awesome power of the Deathly Hallows, but only to the extent that they aid him in accepting his own death, for to use them for any other purpose would indicate that he is not really the master. These two clarifications may not render the utilitarian argument completely worthless, but by revealing that the greatest downside of not acting and one of the greatest benefits of taking action are void, the argument loses much of its strength.

Even if we only consider what Harry knows at the time, the utilitarian position is still weak. The Elder Wand has been known to attract trouble because its immense appeal guarantees that people will fight and kill to own it.[12] In a sense, Harry is already such a hunted wizard that one additional reason for the general public to kill him may not seem to make much of a difference, but this particular reason has the potential to be far more dangerous for him. The search for the Elder Wand has been distracting Voldemort for months, and the only reason why Harry is still alive is because Voldemort has primarily left the capture of Harry up to his often incompetent minions.[13] Were Harry to retrieve the wand, Voldemort would pursue him without distractions more relentlessly than ever before, and this is in addition to the many people, who would otherwise have been neutral or even in support of Harry, who would be willing to kill for such power, especially in the middle of a war. Even worse (although this is straying from the consideration of what Harry knows), were Voldemort to succeed in hunting down Harry and taking the wand, not only would he have struck a probably fatal blow to his opposition, but he would then truly be the Elder Wand’s owner. Needless to say, this is something that Harry and the wizarding world at large cannot afford. Also, it is questionable how much the Elder Wand would really help Harry. It is made very clear to Harry that Voldemort cannot be killed unless all his Horcruxes are destroyed, so Harry’s thought that being the master of Death might be the counter to Voldemort’s immortality via Horcruxes is mere whimsy, and Harry knows it.[14] At best, it might help detain the Dark Lord temporarily, but not even an unbeatable wand could kill him. Using the wand to destroy Horcruxes would also be futile since they can only be destroyed by a very limited number of substances, and the Elder Wand is not one of these.[15]

It is interesting to note that the utilitarian mandate, “for the greater good” is also the slogan of Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard before Voldemort’s time.[16] When Harry first hears the phrase, he is completely disgusted, and the fact that this idea was given to Grindelwald by Dumbledore furthers Harry’s doubt and frustration with his former mentor.[17] However, his frustration lies in that “the greater good” is the justification for acts of unspeakable evil, potentially including the slaughter of Dumbledore’s own sister, Ariana.[18] When the phrase is used to justify his own self-sacrifice, however, Harry is all for it: “sometimes you’ve got to think about more than your own safety! Sometimes you’ve got to think about the greater good!”[19] Harry is only supportive of utilitarian actions in so far as they go hand in hand with personal character, but utility for its own sake is resolutely looked down upon by him; he prefers the common good over the “greatest” good. While this says little about how utilitarian ethics should apply in this case, it says much about Harry’s conscience in connection with those choices: to pursue power only for its utility would be going against Harry’s conscience, and would therefore violate his integrity. This is a crucial point because Byron Williston points out that “a sufficient condition for blameworthiness is that the agent believes that his action is wrong, but performs it anyway,” regardless of whether or not the action is, in fact, wrong.[20] This means that how Harry sees the situation is a significant factor in how one ought to consider it morally.

From Harry’s perspective the struggle of his decision is primarily a crisis of faith. Nearly everything that Harry’s current mission is based on comes from Dumbledore: information about Horcruxes and Voldemort’s weaknesses, the meaning of the prophecy, and, most importantly, Harry’s own role in the struggle.[21] Through the lens of his past, it is clear that Harry will involve himself in fighting Voldemort regardless of Dumbledore, but it was his mentor who told him he could only win through love. This is the problem. Harry’s belief in the inherent goodness of Dumbledore is at this point shaken to the core, in part because of Dumbledore’s relationship to the Deathly Hallows: he knew of them but never told Harry, whom he promised to tell everything.[22] Dumbledore is revealed as a schemer with his own agenda who has sent a teenage boy on a near suicidal path, causing Harry to conclude, “I don’t know who he loved … but it was never me. This isn’t love, this mess he’s left me in.”[23] Harry’s own personal conviction about the power of love in his life, and by extension, his integrity surrounding what to do about the Deathly Hallows, hinges on whether or not his faith in Dumbledore can be restored. While it is conceivable that one could possess the Elder Wand in love, this would not be Harry’s motivation at this point: he would want it for strategy, for power, and perhaps even to express his anger at the now deceased Dumbledore, but not for love.

Seeing Harry’s decision as a faith crisis throws a very religious light on the issue, and indeed, there are many Christian parallels. In fact, one could see Dumbledore almost as filling the post of God in these stories: “Dumbledore is dead, after the flesh, but he is still the primary purposer [sic] of the story. The actions of human beings take on meaning and importance only in relation to his plans, and whether they support or wish to thwart them.”[24] It is not that Dumbledore is God in an allegorical sense, but rather that Harry’s relationship with Dumbledore in many ways mirrors that of a disciple with their lord, or a believer with their god. Thus, Harry’s struggle for faith in Dumbledore moves beyond a personal frustration and into the realm of profound symbolism, where “God’s” previous faithfulness and proven wisdom (which Dumbledore clearly has established, his past misdeeds notwithstanding) far overshadow petty individual complaints and doubts, and where it would be a great wrong to lose faith when the weather turns foul. Dumbledore’s will should be, at the very least, a significant factor in Harry’s decision. And Harry is not at all in doubt about Dumbledore’s will: “Dumbledore didn’t want me to have [the Elder Wand]. He didn’t want me to take it. He wanted me to get the Horcruxes,” because to find and destroy Voldemort’s Horcruxes is the only way to bring about the Dark Lord’s downfall.[25] However, this is not the only Christian parallel to be made.

Travis Prinzi and Adam Ross have made comparisons between the Deathly Hallows and Christ’s temptations and the Garden of Eden, respectively, and these are astute observations, for the two Biblical stories make similar points: power for its own sake, despite how rational seizing it may appear, is always wrong because ultimate power belongs to God, and should be distributed by God.[26] “Harry, like Christ, is given three temptations to pursue a ‘crossless’ victory,” which, according to the Christian tradition, has only one appropriate response: refusal.[27] This Christian standpoint brings up a potential flaw in the utilitarian argument: morality is not a simple scale of “bad effects” versus “good effects.” Rather, “the badness consists in pursuing [good things] by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much.”[28] Dumbledore makes the same point later when he tells Harry, “I was scared that, if presented outright with the facts about those tempting objects, you might seize the Hallows as I did, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons.”[29] Now, it is unclear what role God plays in Harry Potter’s universe, so it is equally unclear how relevant theories on God’s delegation of power would be, but the morality behind it remains: human selfishness, fallen nature, and lack of wisdom makes seizing power on one’s own volition a very dangerous thing to do, both for oneself and for the world.

One might object that if one does not seize power, nothing will ever be accomplished and evil will never be eradicated, but this is not so. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who made great advances in the elimination of evil, commented that “something in the very nature of the universe assists goodness in its perennial struggle with evil…  evil carries the seed of its own destruction. In the long run right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”[30] The responsible use of power is indeed necessary to fight the world’s ills, but those who seek power in order to stamp out badness have a faulty conception of what badness is. This walks hand-in-hand with Jesus’ teachings that the meek will inherit the earth; that the most effective way to operate is to strip oneself of power and to serve, rather than to dominate.[31] This principle does ultimately play itself out in Harry’s story, as Rotfang Conspiracy observes that “the Elder Wand in Voldemort’s hands becomes … an instrument of evil’s self-defeating nature… It is with the Elder Wand that one by one [Voldemort]’s self-imposed destructive connections to Harry Potter become severed, allowing [Voldemort] to self-fulfil [sic] his own fears about the prophecy.”[32]

Perhaps one of the most telling signs that Harry should not seek out the Elder Wand is a thought that he has long before this opportunity arises: “Harry wished his scar would burn and show him Voldemort’s thoughts, because for the first time ever, he and Voldemort were united in wanting the very same thing [the Elder Wand].”[33] While Harry and Voldemort are similar in many respects, one pivotal difference between them has always been their choices, but what if they choose the same? While it is unlikely that Harry would instantaneously become the next Dark Lord, it is unquestionable that he is capable of great, even “unforgivable” evil.[34] Sacrificing the one distinct difference that Harry has from the man he is fighting, in choosing what Voldemort chooses, would be for Harry a foolish attempt to beat the Devil with his own tools, without love, and in bad faith. It is not the power itself that would be wrong, or even Harry using it that would be, but rather that Harry’s heart and mind are not in the appropriate place at the moment for such power to be used in the way it ought. That Harry can face such a temptation and back away from it, as he ultimately does, is precisely what makes Harry the hero that he is.


[1] J.K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (New York: Scholastic Inc., 2007), 410.

[2] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 431.

[3] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 479.

[4] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 479.

[5] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 208.

[6] J.K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (New York: Scholastic Inc., 2003), 841-842, J.K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (New York: Scholastic Inc., 2005), 512, 39.

[7] Joel Feinberg, Harm to Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 154.

[8] David Jones, Moral Responsibility in the Holocaust: A Study in the Ethics of Character (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999) 17.

[9] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 429.

[10] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 743-744.

[11] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 410, 720-721.

[12] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 412.

[13] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 470-478.

[14] Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 508.

[15] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 103-104.

[16] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 360.

[17] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 360-361.

[18] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 359.

[19] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 568.

[20] Williston, Byron. “Blaming Agents in Moral Dilemmas.” Ethical Theory & Moral Practice 9, no. 5 (December 2006): 566.

[21] Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 492-512.

[22] Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 834.

[23] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 362.

[24] Orson Scott Card, “What Civilization Does Harry Potter Create?” [www page]. Beliefnet [Cited

February 27, 2008] Available from http://blog.beliefnet.com/blogalogue/2007/07/what-civilization-does-harry-p.html.

[25] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 500

[26] Adam Ross, “Guest Essay: Hallows or Horcruxes? Power in Harry Potter” [www page] HogwartsProfessor.com: Thoughts for the Serious Reader of Harry Potter [Cited April 7, 2008] Available from http://hogwartsprofessor.com/?p=368, Travis Prinzi, “Deathly Hallows: The Three Temptations of Christ?” [www page] The Hog’s Head: A Pub for Potter. [Cited February 27, 2008] Available from http://swordofgryffindor.com/2007/07/23/deathly-hallows-the-three-temptations-of-christ/.

[27] Prinzi, “Deathly Hallows: The Three Temptations of Christ?”

[28] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1952), 44.

[29] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 720.

[30] Martin Luther King Jr. Strength to Love (Cleveland: Fortress Press, 1981), 83.

[31] See Matthew 5:5.

[32] Rotfang Conspiracy. “Still Got Your Wand in a Knot?” [www page] The Leaky Cauldron:

Scribbulus. [Cited February 27, 2007 ] Available from http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/features/essays/issue21/Wandknot.

[33] Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 434.

[34] See Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 593.

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~ by ntertanedangel on May 25, 2010.

2 Responses to “To Honor a Hallow: an essay”

  1. Is it really possible to hold these together?

    “he prefers the common good over the “greatest” good. While this says little about how utilitarian ethics should apply in this case, it says much about Harry’s conscience in connection with those choices: to pursue power only for its utility would be going against Harry’s conscience, and would therefore violate his integrity.”

    Suppose Harry is faced with some dilemma that pits his inner principles against the common good. Say he must deny his mother’s love forever or sacrifice what is good for Hogwarts. What will be the right thing for him to choose? At least, it will not be obvious that the common good and his principles always work together. My guess is that it will be his internal principles that are supposed to win the day. If this is right, he is not a consequentialist of any kind — not a utilitarian, and not a “common good” calculator.

    I suggest that his is the problem about the wand (despite the temptation of consequentialism).

    • “Say he must deny his mother’s love forever or sacrifice what is good for Hogwarts.”

      I am having trouble trying to come up with a scenario in which this would be the case. But you are right that the common good and his principles need not always work together. I believe my point was that he should follow his principles, not necessarily the common good. It just so happens that he wants to maintain the common good on principle. If there ever came a point where his principles contradicted the common good, then yes, I think he should follow his principles and maintain his integrity.

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