Rational Rebellion: Morality and the Rule of Law in Harry Potter

I’m at LeakyCon in Burbank, CA right now, and yesterday I presented a talk about law, morality, and rebellion in Harry Potter. It went better than I expected, and though I wish I had been better prepared (and had practiced it enough to not have to read it), it was fine, and I received positive feedback. Since most of you weren’t able to be there, I thought I’d post my talk and slides (with “(slide)” written into the script if you want to follow along). The slides are mostly pictures and quotes to complement the talk, but I did work on them, so I wanted to put that out there.

Without further ado:

Welcome to Rational Rebellion: Morality and the Rule of Law in Harry Potter.

(slide) I’m Rachel Kibler, I discovered Harry Potter in 2003 and have loved Harry Potter basically since 2003. I do have two dogs named Wash and Zoe though, so I’m an equal-opportunity nerd. And as you can see, my cakes are epic.

(slide) We’re going to talk today about how the characters in Harry Potter develop their morality and rebel against authority. Harry, Ron, Hermione, Draco, the prior generations of Snape, Sirius, and Dumbledore, and the next generation in Albus and Scorpius, all develop their sense of morality partly as a reaction to authority and difficult circumstance.

I’ll talk mostly about Harry and his generation, but I will touch on the others, including the behaviors we see in Cursed Child. Before I really say anything about Cursed Child, I’ll say so, so if you want to leave the room at that point, you can.

(slide) To make sure we’re all on the same page, I want to give my definition of rebellion, that it is “the act of resisting an established authority or influence”. Basically, people without much power act against people or institutions with more power. We see rebellion in many ways throughout canon. Sometimes it’s small acts of rebellion, such as figuring out how to get a book out of the restricted section of the library, and sometimes it’s large acts of rebellion, like starting Dumbledore’s Army. The greater the power differential, and the more that is at stake, the more likely it is that people will rebel.

I have a legal background, and I find the governmental and legal structures fascinating, so please bear with me while I discuss these a little bit.

(slide) The Ministry of Magic is meant to protect witches and wizards and keep their existence a secret from muggles. However, most of what the Ministry ends up doing is protecting itself from difficulty and change. Fudge and Scrimgeour try to use Harry as a mascot, to bolster the Ministry’s reputation, and their own. Fudge refused to listen to Dumbledore about the return of Voldemort and spent an entire year trying to protect his dominion and stability and deny the truth. Scrimgeour does try to protect Harry in the end, as he’s dying, but before his last moments, Scrimgeour did his best to protect the Ministry rather than protect Harry. Scrimgeour’s rebellion, the only time he does something against what he’s told to do, happens when he’s about to die.

(slide) One thing we have come to expect from modern Western governments is a series of checks and balances on government. In the wizarding world, however, there are no formal restraints on power. The Ministry has intertwined branches of government, with the Minister for Magic acting as head of the Wizengamot, after kicking out Dumbledore, and writing laws as he sees fit. In democracies, it is a problem for the same person to have executive power, judicial power, and legislative power all at the same time. Generally, the people who write the laws should not be the ones who decide whether they are lawful.

At the beginning of Order of the Phoenix, Fudge says to Dumbledore, “Laws can be changed,” and Dumbledore responds, “Of course they can, and you certainly seem to be making many changes.” Other bureaucrats write laws without legal oversight as well: Dolores Umbridge drafts werewolf legislation, maybe centaur legislation too, and Arthur Weasley drafts his Muggle Protection Act.

It is hard to determine a person’s morality when they have power, because they often seek to preserve that power to the detriment of others. Fudge is no exception, consolidating his power and putting structures into place that others rebel against in order to make real change.

There is no press oversight of the Ministry either. The Daily Prophet is leaned upon by the Ministry to keep Voldemort’s return under wraps. It doesn’t try to go against the Ministry’s wishes, instead printing what the Ministry says. Rita Skeeter says the Daily Prophet exists to sell itself, and though it does sometimes say things against the Ministry, it generally just prints what it’s told to.

There don’t seem to be many lawyers involved in trials. In the trials we see in the Pensieve, the hearing Harry goes to, and the commission hearing of Mrs. Cattermole, the Ministry bureaucrat is the prosecution and the judge and a member of the jury. The accused has no representation. This goes against the rights most countries give their citizens, and it shows how monolithic the Ministry is in the wizarding world.

In law, there’s a difference between civil law and criminal law. Civil law deals with actions between people, and criminal law deals with wrongs against the state. The same thing can be dealt with by both types of law, such as assault, but in civil law, the person who was assaulted brings a lawsuit, while in criminal law, the government files the case. Civil law also covers things like contracts and property. A civil lawsuit generally results in money changing hands to fix what went wrong, or someone being required to stop a specific behavior, where a criminal case can include money but also jail time or probation.

(slide – keep eye on slide and use “reparo” to fix it) Contracts are found in the wizarding world, but they are a little different from how we think of them. A contract requires an offer and acceptance. Once someone makes an offer and the offer is accepted, the contract is binding and both people have to perform. One contract we see is the Goblet of Fire. Students submit their names (an offer), and if they are chosen (an acceptance), they are obliged to continue. We don’t know what the penalty is for not continuing, but Bartemius Crouch makes it clear that Harry has no choice in the matter.

Generally, for muggles, penalties do not happen automatically if someone breaks the contract. In Harry Potter, though, we see contracts that we call self-executing contracts, where penalties take place automatically upon certain conditions. The parchment with the names of Dumbledore’s Army is a self-executing contract. By signing the contract, the students agree to keep their mouths shut. As we saw with Marietta Edgecombe, when she broke that promise, she broke out in pimples spelling “sneak” on her forehead. Marietta rebelled against the rebellion, showing that her loyalties were with the Ministry rather than with her fellow students.

The most critical of the self-executing contracts in the Unbreakable Vow. We see Snape and Narcissa Malfoy make the Unbreakable Vow that Snape will protect Draco, and that if Draco can’t perform, Snape will finish the task of killing Dumbledore. Ron tells us that the penalty for breaking an Unbreakable Vow is death. It is by far the most drastic of the self-executing contracts. It is a contract that gives no other options, that allows for no rebellion.

(slide) Tort law (not torte law, which would be delicious) deals with harms between people. We don’t get any mention of tort law in canon, and I believe this may be because most harms can be fixed with magic. The harms that would be ripe for a lawsuit include Umbridge making Harry carve up his own hand – that’s a battery if ever I saw one – and Harry and Dumbledore could have a reasonable libel lawsuit against the Daily Prophet. It could be that society is stable enough without tort lawsuits, but tort law is also a way for individuals to raise their claims against the state, so Sirius, had he lived, could have sued because of his unlawful imprisonment. I’m not entirely sure why tort law is missing from canon, but the best explanation I can think of is that most of the “everyday” harms can be fixed with magic, and people don’t need to resort to extraordinary measures to improve things.

(slide) The other aspect of civil law that we find in Harry Potter is property law, particularly in the form of estates. Harry’s parents leave him all their gold. With their house blown up, they couldn’t have left anything else, but we know that inheritance at least works in this instance. Sirius leaves Harry Grimmauld Place, Kreacher, and all his possessions, getting around the tradition that could have sent his stuff to Bellatrix Lestrange. Dumbledore’s will is inspected by the Ministry, which is not uncommon, though inspecting the actual objects being passed is uncommon. Scrimgeour said this was to make sure Dumbledore wasn’t passing on dark objects, which Hermione argued with. Dumbledore did manage to pass on the objects in his will, except for Gryffindor’s sword. I think he wasn’t actually expecting to be able to pass on the sword, but was just cluing the trio into the fact that it was a critical part of their hunt for horcruxes. Dumbledore would have known better than to think he had the right to pass on the sword. His will was strategically drafted to pass on information in addition to objects.

The odd aspect of the law about what happens when people die is in guardianship, that Dumbledore decides where Harry should go after his parents are killed, rather than the Ministry. Perhaps Dumbledore had the authority of the Ministry behind him, perhaps he cleared it with them afterwards, but in muggle society, the court considers the best interests of the child, and though Dumbledore did consider Harry’s best interests, he did not do it in a methodical or legal process.

(slide) That covers civil law. Criminal law is much more extensively covered in canon, not that that should make us feel better about things. We know that there are three Unforgiveable Curses, the Imperius Curse, the Cruciatus Curse, and Avada Kedavra. Performing any one of these on a person sends you to Azkaban for life. Theoretically. In practice, from what we see, it doesn’t really happen. Possibly because they’re not traceable, but that’s an issue for another time. The Cruciatus Curse and Avada Kedavra are unforgiveable for obvious reasons, but the Imperius Curse strikes me as particularly bad because it removes a person’s ability to choose between right and wrong. In law, we say that the person loses their agency, which is something we value very highly.

Punishment is not distributed very fairly. We see two or three levels of punishment in canon. One is a fine, such as Arthur Weasley having to pay a fine for bewitching the Ford Anglia to fly. A possible level of punishment is expulsion and breaking the person’s wand, like what happened to Hagrid when he was wrongfully accused of opening the Chamber of Secrets. This may or may not be a Ministry-sanctioned level of punishment – the breaking of his wand probably was, but maybe not the expulsion, judging by Dumbledore correcting Fudge in Order of the Phoenix about what the Ministry could and could not do without a hearing. At any rate, the third level of punishment is being sent to Azkaban. There is no light level of security there – dementors are everywhere. Hagrid said that coming out of there was like getting his life back. He was sent there as a precautionary measure too, not even after a trial.

The final thing about the wizarding legal system is that there is no appeals process. In muggle courts, if you think the judge or jury got it wrong, you can take it to the next level and have a fresh set of eyes on the issue. In the wizarding world, the Wizengamot is the final step, there is nothing past it, so if they get it wrong, you’re left without a way to fix it.

The Ministry is just one source of authority in the wizarding world. For children, Hogwarts represents another authority.

(slide) Hogwarts is a surrogate home, especially for Harry and Tom Riddle. It offers structure, formality, and order, which is what we find in many family homes. The different facets of humanity are shown in the different houses. We see ambition and loyalty and intelligence and bravery, and though Slytherin turns out more dark wizards than other houses, it also turns out the good, such as Snape. Hogwarts does turn out the good, and it also turns out the bad. Hogwarts offers formality and order and structure, but the influences in different wizards’ and witches’ lives are not as formally defined. Tom Riddle, the Lestranges, Lucius Malfoy, all went through Hogwarts, influenced by various people (Slughorn among them). Though there is adult influence, there is also a lot of influence between students. We see in Half-Blood Prince that Tom Riddle created the forerunners of the Death Eaters while he was at school. Harry, responding to his own past, creates a circle of people loyal to him through Dumbledore’s Army.

Hogwarts operates in tension with the Ministry. Whether this is unique to Dumbledore’s reign at the school, or whether it has always been so is unclear, but at least during this relevant period, there is a lot of tension with the Ministry over who has authority at Hogwarts. In Order of the Phoenix, we see what Hogwarts is like under complete Ministry control, but the more common world we see is where Hogwarts is separate from and rather disdainful of Ministry interference.

Teachers are left to their own devices to punish or reward students. The points given or taken are pretty arbitrary. In Philosopher’s Stone, Snape takes away two points from Harry in his first Potions lesson, in other books Hermione is given five or ten points for correct answers, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to these small amounts of points, and sometimes even for large amounts of points, like Snape taking 70 points from Harry for being late and dressed in muggle clothes in Half-Blood Prince. The only time we see oversight of punishments or rewards is in Order of the Phoenix, with Umbridge as High Inquisitor. Though students have rules they must follow, the punishment for breaking those rules varies pretty widely, to the point of seeming arbitrary. Is it any wonder that the trio seem to exhibit little regard for the rules, when they’re just as likely to lose (or gain) fifty points as they are five points?

(slide) With all of these laws and structures in place, rebellion turns out to be the rational way forward. Rebellion takes courage and a lot of determination. There are a number of different reasons for rebelling that we see in canon. One is standing up for what is right, another is doing what others aren’t doing or aren’t seen to be doing, and the biggest is a reaction to corruption or evil. Each of these have a number of examples.

One instance of standing up for what is right is Firenze going against Bane by rescuing Harry in Philosopher’s Stone, when he says he will set himself against the heavens if he has to. Hermione creates S.P.E.W. and stands up for house elf rights. The Ministry has a department for the regulation and control of magical creatures, but Hermione thought house-elves were not being treated with dignity. Harry saves the muggle-borns from the Commission in Deathly Hallows. He saw the government acting outside its reasonable authority, and he went against the structures we discussed earlier.

Rebellion also happens when the characters need to do what others aren’t doing. This is Hermione brewing the Polyjuice Potion when the adults didn’t seem to be investigating. It’s using the Time Turner to save Buckbeak and Sirius when no one else can. It’s taking the horcrux books out of Dumbledore’s office because they need the information to continue with their quest. This kind of rebellion seems to require more thoughtful rebellion, which is possibly why Hermione is the lead in these examples.

The third kind of rebellion is a reaction to corruption or evil. This is the most exciting of the kinds of rebellion that we see in canon. It includes Dumbledore’s Army, which is naturally a reaction to Umbridge’s reign of terror at Hogwarts. Dobby, in coming to warn Harry Potter about the Chamber of Secrets, breaks the spirit but not the letter of his enslavement. He has to punish himself, but he is able to warn Harry. And of course, dropping out of school to hunt for horcruxes is a rebellious reaction to Voldemort gaining power.

(slide) Moral development happens throughout this rebellion. Sometimes it causes the rebellion and sometimes growth happens because of the rebellion. When morality causes the rebellion, it is because the characters realize that truth-telling, submission to authority, and following the rules are not always the right things to do. Sometimes it’s okay to lie, sometimes it’s okay to break rules. Examples of this are going after the Philosopher’s Stone because he needed to prevent Voldemort from returning, and starting Dumbledore’s Army after enduring the torture from Umbridge and ridicule from the Ministry. And sometimes the moral development happens because of the rebellion, like choosing to fight Voldemort in the graveyard. It was an act of rebellion that turned into a strong moral stance.

(slide) One thing about Harry’s morality is that it’s not bold or audacious. It is based in loyalty and reason. Harry rejects the ambition of Slytherin (for the most part) and embodies the characteristics of the other three houses. He relies strongly on friendship. One quote that I particularly like on this point is, “Friendship strengthens the soul’s integrity: friends become better people by acting for the other’s good and building virtue. In short, loving makes us more fully human.” Harry always opts to be fully human. In his grief for Sirius, he does say that he wants out, that he wants the pain to stop, but he seems to understand, even then, that his grief is because of love, and that love drove out Voldemort’s hate and cruelty. Harry continues to rely strongly on his friends, showing loyalty to them and (mostly) listening to their advice. His morality is based in reason, which we see as he considers his actions and is able to convince others of the rightness of them.

I said his morality is not bold or audacious. This is mostly true. When he does act boldly, without much reason, he gets it wrong. We see this in Order of the Phoenix, when he panics and thinks Sirius is being held in the Department of Mysteries by Voldemort. Harry’s bold actions lead to Sirius’s death. When Harry becomes so obsessed with the Deathly Hallows that he stops thinking about the task Dumbledore left him, Dobby dies.

(slide) Plato talked about philosopher rulers. He said that the people who should be ruling are the people who don’t want to rule, that philosophers should be rulers instead of the ambitious people who want to be rulers. The traits, according to Plato, of the philosopher rulers are courage, wisdom, justice, and self-control. We see these elements in Harry throughout the series. He displays courage in small and large ways, he learns wisdom over the course of the story, he stops the killing whenever he can, showing justice, and his self-control is eventually a product of Dobby’s death. This culminates in Harry walking to his own death. Dumbledore’s quote is particularly poignant in this setting: “It is our choices that show what we truly are much more than our abilities.” Tobias Wolff said, “We define ourselves and our deepest values by the choices we make day by day, hour by hour, over a lifetime.” Harry generally makes the right choices. In Deathly Hallows, Lupin says on Potterwatch that Harry’s heart is in the right place and his decisions are almost always good. What Harry realizes throughout his moral development is that life is ultimately less important than virtue. That being good is so much more important than protecting your life.


Harry’s morality is in stark contrast to Voldemort’s. Where Harry accepts that he will die, Voldemort tries to escape this fate and his own mortality. In Philosopher’s Stone, he says, “See what I have become?” He was a mere shadow of what he was before. Voldemort acts with purpose but not with courage and not with loyalty. His actions, therefore, lead to devastation rather than victory in the end.

(slide) Other characters show their own morality. Ron, for instance, is a little slow on the uptake, but he comes around and acts out of loyalty to Harry and Hermione. Although we see instances where Ron acts selfishly, his loyalty saves Harry and Hermione many times. That friendship, that loyalty, is also the cause of his anguish, as we see in how Slytherin’s locket tortures him. He felt like his best friends may have betrayed him, and that was the source of deepest fears. Loyalty is the base of his morality, and it is how he sees the world. He sees people as his people or not his people.

Hermione, on the other hand, is a leader. Her morality is rooted in reason and determination. When she is convinced of the rightness or righteousness of an action, nothing will stop her. Her acts of rebellion, as I mentioned before, include the Polyjuice Potion, S.P.E.W., and Dumbledore’s Army. Her development throughout the series involves her loosening up, realizing that rules can be broken and sometimes must be broken to do what is right. She acts as a voice of reason and stands up against injustice.

(slide) Snape is an interesting look at moral development. Lily was his grounding throughout his childhood and time at Hogwarts. Although he was pulled towards Voldemort by Lucius Malfoy and others, his heart remained tied to Lily. It took Voldemort threatening Lily to finalize his loyalties and make him turn to Dumbledore. He then acts out of courage and love and acts as a double agent. He protects Harry as best he can for Lily, and he does the mercy killing of Dumbledore. A quote I really like about this situation is: “Love requires self-sacrifice, bind’s one’s happiness to the good of another, makes one vulnerable to loss and grief, and strengthens one’s commitment to the good.” Snape loves Lily to the very end, committing himself to the cause she worked for and the people she loved.

(slide) Like Snape, Draco is pulled towards darkness, possibly again by Lucius, but unlike Snape, he doesn’t have a Lily in his life. He tries to be a dark wizard, but someone’s influence kept him from going over the edge, perhaps Dumbledore’s, or perhaps having Harry as an example. I think the most likely positive influence in his life is his mother. She wasn’t necessarily good, but she seemed to be a gentler force, going to great lengths to protect him. Granted, Draco does try to use an Unforgiveable Curse on Harry in Half-Blood Prince and tries to kill him in Deathly Hallows, but he’s unable to kill Dumbledore, and he does act out of loyalty, albeit to his family rather than friends who influence him for good.

Even Merope Gaunt is a redeemed character. She eventually finds the good. Although she begins by enchanting Tom Riddle, Sr., she stops enchanting him out of deep love for him. She took the risk that he would leave her, but she couldn’t bear to keep taking his agency from him. The lesson we learn from Merope is that sometimes, striving for good ends in heartbreak. Being good sometimes means self-sacrifice and losing a piece of your heart.

Sirius is someone whose rashness was encouraged by James and tempered by Lupin. His morality reflects this, grounded strongly in loyalty and a sense of what is good in the world. He rebelled against his family name, choosing instead to follow Dumbledore. His Sorting into Gryffindor was probably a reflection of this rebellion, because, like Phineas Nigellus said, Slytherins can be brave, but they always know when to save themselves. Without that strong sense of self-preservation that Phineas Nigellus talked about, Gryffindor was the obvious choice for a Black. Sirius understood that there are things worth dying for, as he told the Weasleys, and that dying for a good cause can mean more than living for a corrupt one.

Dumbledore also developed his morality from a young age, and even continued to learn and refine his worldview in his last years. He was deeply affected by his father’s imprisonment and his sister’s mental issues. He was loyal to his family and realized that his selfishness and love of power were his weaknesses. It took his sister’s death to shake him out of going down a wrong path, and then bodily harm through the cursed hallow to remind him of what is important. He was wise, but he still learned, and his strength was that he acknowledged his weaknesses and learned from them.

Dumbledore’s great secret is that love conquers. This is something that Harry has to realize over and over again, that love drives out hate and is victorious. Sometimes love conquers just because it’s there, not because it does anything, like Lily’s love for Harry protecting him from Voldemort for all those years.

(slide) I want to turn to Cursed Child for a little bit. It begins with Albus Severus Potter rebelling against the family name and the legacies of his namesakes. Albus doesn’t necessarily grow the same way Harry does in his own story, but Scorpius does. Scorpius is the one with the true heart. Scorpius is left on his own for some of the play, and he learns a lot about striving for good. When talking about the world where the Augury and Voldemort were still ruling, he says, “I hated it there. Cedric was a different person entirely—dark, dangerous. My dad—doing anything they wanted him to. And me? I discovered another Scorpius, you know? Entitled, angry, mean—people were frightened of me. It feels like we were all tested and we all—failed.” And then, in Godric’s Hollow, Scorpius says to Albus, “And I wish I could tell my dad—well, I’m not sure what. I think I’d like to tell him that I’m occasionally capable of more bravery than he might think I am.” Scorpius recognizes that there is evil in the world, and he rejects it. Even though he’s in Slytherin, he strives for good.

(slide) Dumbledore speaks truths in Cursed Child just like in the series. JK Rowling said that when she has something truthful or important to say, she has Dumbledore or Hermione say it. In the play, Dumbledore talks through his portrait. When Harry talks about wanting to protect Albus, he responds, “We cannot protect the young from harm. Pain must and will come. You’re supposed to teach them how to meet life.” (slide) He also says, “There is never a perfect answer in this messy, emotional world. Perfection is beyond the reach of humankind, beyond the reach of magic. In every shining moment of happiness is that drop of poison: the knowledge that pain will come again. Be honest to those you love, show your pain. To suffer is as human as to breathe.”

We see that Harry is still learning after twenty-two years. When talking to Draco towards the end of the play, he says, “Love blinds. We have both tried to give our sons, not what they needed, but what we needed. We’ve been so busy trying to rewrite our own pasts, we’ve blighted their present.”

Harry Potter shows us a lot about what it means to act morally. The characters find their own strength and courage. It’s when they act out of courage, loyalty, reason, justice, self-knowledge, and self-control that they display their humanity best. When they reject any one of those, they get things wrong, but by standing up for what is right and by rebelling when it’s necessary, they find their true selves.

/end of talk

The points that came up during the session were that the monolithic nature of the Ministry is not necessarily unknown in British government generally (that they don’t have the separation of powers the same way we do), that there may be an appeals process that we just don’t know about, and that many people are driven nuts by the arbitrary award and removal of house points. One point that came up afterwards is that Dumbledore’s Army is an example of morality creating rebellion and rebellion creating morality, depending on the person. I thought it was a fabulous insight that some people joined the DA for some other reason, to get back at Umbridge or to be cool, and it ended up creating morality there.

So that’s my talk. I’d love to hear it if you have comments or questions.

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