Potter's Philosophy

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Potter's Philosophy

by Ari Armstrong, November 30, 2005

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series of novels is enormously influential. Indeed, it may be the single greatest intellectual influence over an entire generation. Amazon lists the date of the first American edition of the first book -- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (originally the Philosopher's Stone) -- as September, 1998. Since then, BBC quotes Rowling's agent Christopher Little, "We are delighted to announce that worldwide sales for the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling have now exceeded 300 million copies," a third of which went to U.S. readers. After just two weekends, the fourth Potter film has taken in over $200 million in the U.S.

By way of comparison, Robert Mayhew writes in his postscript for Ayn Rand Answers, "[T]he popularity of her novels and the influence of her philosophy of Objectivism continue to grow. Annual sales of her books have recently reached the half million mark; in total, over 22 million copies of her books have been sold." So Rand, one of the most influential writers of the 20th Century, has been outsold by Rowling by a factor of about 15. And Rowling has yet to complete her series.

While Rowling's novels aren't as self-consciously philosophical as, say, Atlas Shrugged, they are centrally concerned with moral character. They revolve around the moral choices of their characters. For example, while Harry could have been a success among the often-devious Slytherins, he chose to live among his friends and the generally-virtuous Gryffindors.

If Rand is a "romantic realist," meaning that she is concerned with the moral choices of grand characters in a contemporary setting, then Rowling is a writer of romantic fantasy. Rowling's fantastic world is similar enough to the real world that we can easily relate to the characters.

It is the moral dimension of Rowling's stories that have helped make them so enormously appealing to young readers. In our world tainted by irresponsibility, postmodernism, subjectivism, and even nihilism, people young and old alike are reacting by seeking out values, moral character, and standards.

Many have turned to religion. Patrick Hynes writes that church-goers tend to be more independent and responsible. Leonard Peikoff too shares antipathy toward the subjectivism and materialism so prevalent among today's left, but Peikoff warns against the false alternative of mysticism. In Peikoff's words, "misintegration" is hardly the proper solution to "disintegration." Yet no doubt many turn to religion as a proxy for morality and standards. The Objectivism of Rand and Peikoff offers a secular, this-worldly foundation for values and knowledge.

Millions of young readers turn to the moral clarity of Harry Potter.

There is some element of mysticism in Rowling's work. For instance, Dumbledore hints to Harry of life after death. And love, such as shown by Harry's mother when she gives her own life as she saves her son from Voldemort, certainly has been and can be interpreted along mystical lines. Yet it need not be so. For instance, in a recent talk, Rand-influenced Craig Biddle said he would readily risk his life in order to save his daughter. In the broadest sense, Rowling's love is an expression of value. Even if, in her seventh book, Rowling goes further down the path of mysticism, that won't change the fact that her view of values and morality is generally compatible with Rand's secular philosophy. Of course, Biddle and the Objectivists emphasize the personal value of productivity and the interpersonal value of trade. For Objectivists, love must be earned (although parents automatically and rightly love their children); but that is not so different from love as Rowling portrays it.

So Potter is appealing largely because of its moral vision. It would make sense, then, to explore Rowling's ideas. One attempt to do this is last year's book, Harry Potter and Philosophy, to which local philosopher Diana Hsieh contributes. The rest of this essay will be devoted to reviewing and responding to the various essays of that book.

The editors (David Baggett and Shawn Klein) ask, "What philosophically literate reader doesn't hear an echo of Nietzsche in Voldemort's words that there is no good or evil, only power and those too weak to use it? Or imagine that, if Aristotle ran Hogwarts, he'd act a lot like Dumbledore? Or see the parallel between Harry's invisibility cloak and Plato's Ring of Gyges?" (3) (All numbers in parentheses represent page numbers of the book.)

However, it is the essay by Benjamin J. Bruxvoort Lipscomb and W. Christopher Stewart that puts a finger more squarely on a big reason for the success of Rowling's books: "They speak insistently to the issues with which writers on ethics have traditionally been concerned: good and evil; friendship and loss; choice and character. These are books that, uncharacteristically in contemporary fiction, instruct their readers about how to live" (82).

(I have written about the fourth, fifth, and sixth Potter books elsewhere.)

The Courageous Harry Potter: Tom Morris

Morris offers a "recipe" for courageous action, summarized by five steps (14):
1. Prepare for the challenge
2. Surround yourself with support
3. Engage in positive self-talk
4. Focus on what's at stake
5. Take appropriate action

This is pretty good, as far as it goes. Unfortunately, Morris fumbles his case in the final two pages. According to Morris, at one point Harry "steps out beyond the available evidence... and acts in courageous faith" (21). Morris explicitly invokes Kierkegaard's "leap of faith." But that comparison is totally wrong.

It is true that, in emergencies, we must act without complete information. We can't predict the future. But acting on incomplete information is not anything like Kierkegaard's "leap of faith." When Potter acts in an emergency, he bases his decisions on available information and all the available information, with a view toward reaching or protecting some value. This often requires some amount of guesswork. The "leap of faith" means acting outside of or contrary to the available information, such as sticking a knife into a family member because faith in a supernatural entity demands it. (Kierkegaard discusses Abraham and Isaac.)

Dursley Duplicity: Diana Hsieh

Hsieh's essay about self-deception is, I think, the best in the book. Not only does Hsieh offer some good and original thinking about the problems of self-deception, she does so in a way that richly builds from examples in Rowling's books.

Some philosophers and psychologists have argued that self-deception can be a good thing, Hsieh reviews (23-4). "Positive illusions," it is argued, help people deal with anxiety and maintain a good self-image. But, taking as her main examples the self-destructive behavior of the Dursleys, Hsieh explores three main reasons (summarized on page 26) why self-deception is a bad policy:

1. Self-deception cannot insulate a person from disturbing reminders of the truth.

2. Self-deception often will spread beyond the original denial to related issues.

3. Self-deception easily becomes a habitual method of avoiding painful truths.

After discussing those points in some detail, Hsieh briefly reviews the psychological literature that supposedly supports the notion of "positive illusions." Such literature generally conflates accurate, positive self-assessments with inaccurate ones. It doesn't adequately specify what's being assessed. And it conflates instances of self-deception with instances of "asymmetries in information" that give rise to honest but inaccurate evaluations. Hsieh, citing an article by Randall Colvin and Jack Block (36), notes that some studies show "that realistic self-assessment is coupled with high self-esteem in some people (as in Harry, Hermione, and Dumbledore)."

While Morris chalks up Harry's courage to a "leap of faith," Hsieh relates it to Harry's commitment to the truth. Her concluding moral is that "a commitment to the truth, wherever it may lead us, is indispensable to a happy and moral life" (37).

Friendship: Harald Thorsrud

The essay about friendship does a fine job applying Aristotle's discussion of friendship to the characters of Harry Potter. Interestingly, Thorsrud joins Hsieh in criticizing self-deception, adding that virtuous friends discourage the practice.

I was slightly unsatisfied, though, with Thorsrud's explanation of the basis of virtuous friendships. He vaguely explains the sort of good "that increases as it is divided," and he offers that a virtuous friend wants the good of a friend "for his sake" (44, emphasis removed). Thankfully, Thorsrud offers some specific reasons why virtuous friendships are good, but he doesn't tie everything together. Virtuous friends encourage honest and accurate self-evaluations, they encourage the development of moral character, and they offer general support.

Thorsrud discusses the point that we see a virtuous friend as "another self" (45). There's more richness to this than Thorsrud discusses. We need to find virtue in other people, to experience in concrete terms external examples of moral, value-seeking people. Thorsrud seems to be looking for some middle-ground between "selfless giving" (44) and self-beneficial friendships. But, once we realize how profoundly important other virtuous people are to our own lives, this apparent tension disappears.

Feminism and Equal Opportunity: Mimi R. Gladstein

Gladstein celebrates the character of Hermione Granger in a delightful essay. Hermione is intelligent, studious, and competent. And she routinely saves the day. Gladstein writes that Hermione "excels in school but also in moral character, displaying the strength of mind and virtue that [Mary] Wollstonecraft saw as essential" (55).

Gladstein also praises Professor Minerva McGonagall, and she discusses other female characters good and bad. "In the world Rowling has created, sex is, as it should be, irrelevant to the question of one's moral fiber," Gladstein writes (59).

Heaven, Hell, and Harry Potter: Jerry L. Walls

Walls's essay is the worst of the book. Unlike other essays, which relate interesting ideas to the text of the Potter books, Walls starts with Dumbledore's belief in life after death and then mostly departs from the text, except for a few out-of-context mentions. Rather than analyze the Potter texts, Walls uses Potter as a pretext to launch a religious sermon.

The other major problem with Walls's essay is that its arguments are flawed. Walls case is a collection of attacks on straw men, false dichotomies, and logical fallacies.

Walls's main thesis is that "traditional" morality makes sense only if following it leads to eternal life. I basically agree with that thesis: aspects of morality as defined by Christianity make no sense if God doesn't exist and if there is no life after death. But Walls goes astray when he argues that there is no good alternative to Christian morality.

Walls sets up the standard false dichotomy of self-sacrifice versus the barbaric version of selfishness. Walls argues that self-sacrifice "has great positive significance in traditional morality" and in Rowling's books (69). By contrast, "[t]o act selfishly is to promote one's own interest at the unfair advantage of others or even to be willing to do horrible things, like Voldemort, to serve one's own purposes" (75). Walls thus completely ignores Rand's insight that rational self-interest consists neither of sacrificing one's self to others nor of sacrificing others to one's self, but by living by producing and interacting voluntarily with others to mutual benefit.

But Walls traps himself. He argues that obeying God is actually "in our own best self-interest" (75), which he contrasts with base selfishness, because obeying God leads to eternal life and perfect happiness in the next world. Walls thus tries to have his self-interest and eat it, too.

Yet, while Walls allows for a moral "best self-interest" only in the context of Christianity, he disallows a non-mystical morality of self-interest by mere rhetorical device. He writes:

Let us put the point in terms of a thought experiment. Suppose there is no life after death and one is given the choice of either 1) living a life of sacrifice to help others or 2) a life of wealth and pleasure, even if one has to cut a few moral corners. (71)

Here Walls simply excludes the possibility of a moral, non-sacrificial life. For Walls, you can be a Christian or you can be a subjectivist. He will not even allow into the debate an objective, this-worldy morality such as Rand describes.

(Walls links "objective morality" to God -- 67 -- even though the notion that God establishes morality essentially replaces human moral subjectivism with supernatural moral subjectivism. Rand, on the other hand, who called her philosophy Objectivism, argued that a truly objective morality requires a rejection of both mysticism and subjectivism.)

For Walls, risking one's life to save one's spouse or child or to fight for one's country is pure self-sacrifice, defensible only if one experiences the reward in the next world (76, 70). Yet Biddle, an Objectivist, argued that such actions make sense when other people (and our own freedom) are enormously valuable to us. Thus, Rand offers a good this-worldly explanation of how our "best self-interest" can include, in emergencies, risking one's life to save someone of value.

Walls conveniently offers as examples friends "sacrificing" for their friends. But friends are enormously valuable in this world, and giving up some lesser value for a friend is no sacrifice. Walls's case sounds semi-plausible only because he ignores the implication that his moral code requires that one sacrifice for others, with little or no regard to how one values that person. Walls's morality implies that, if necessary, we must sacrifice our own child or spouse for the child or spouse of a complete stranger. Walls's morality implies that relatively wealthy Western families should sell their assets and sacrifice their wealth to the starving masses. When Ron puts his safety at risk to save his beloved sister, and when Harry's mother surrenders her own life as she saves her only son, those examples of alleged "sacrifice" have little to do with the essence of the Christian morality, and they can easily be understood in secular terms.

Notably, while Walls discusses at length his view that traditional (i.e., Christian) morality is possible only if one accepts the existence of God, Walls doesn't discuss any reasons for believing in God. (I am excluding as a "reason" Walls's implication that only Christianity makes sense of Christian morality.) Thus, Walls's essay is a grand exercise in rationalism, in the worst sense of that term.

Incidentally, Walls is obviously incorrect in suggesting that a morality of self-sacrifice is possible only to religion. For example, the Russian Communists sacrificed millions of lives to their cause. Communism explicitly called on people to sacrifice to others according to their needs.

I've pointed out the main errors in Walls's essay. But I think it's worth reviewing some of his other comments, in order to drive home the point that his arguments are fundamentally flawed.

Walls writes, "[T]he fact that we want what we do not have is very telling. It reveals the sad fact that almost no one is truly and fully happy." He adds that "a common conception of happiness is getting what we want" (65). A few pages later he repeats his claim that "few people seem to be truly and deeply happy" (68). Walls's claim about the lack of human happiness conveniently aligns with the Christian claim that true happiness is possible only by accepting God and Jesus. But his argument is faulty on two counts. First, in positing a "naturalist" view of happiness that involves only hedonistic pleasures, Walls is simply ignoring the deeper meaning of happiness for this-worldly philosophers such as Rand. Second, there's no reason to expect that one's fundamental happiness is impinged by wanting things we don't have, though we have to want things in a healthy way, of course.

Following is one of Wall's particularly silly sections:

For the natural resources necessary for life are ultimately limited, a truth that becomes ever more apparent as the population on this little planet continues to grow. There is only so much matter to make up people and the resources they live on. If everybody lived forever, or even [several centuries]... then resources would eventually run out. (68)

Has Walls ever looked at a map or glanced up at the starry sky? Let us take as a proportion the amount of matter that makes up "people and the resources they live on," compared with the total amount of matter available within planet Earth. The number is infinitesimal. And Earth is but a miniscule proportion of the matter available in the solar system. Walls's error is similar to the one I discuss in relation to the movie Serenity. George Reisman comments, "From a strictly physical-chemical point of view, natural resources are one and the same with the supply of matter and energy that exists in the world and, indeed, in the universe..." Walls could have spared us the neo-Malthusian nonsense.

Here's another of Walls's doozies:

[T]hink about other smaller sacrifices that are made for the sake of living a moral life, like the choice not to have sex outside of marriage... [I]f there is no life after death, is there any compelling reason to accept traditional morality, to live by honor..."

Here Walls utterly ignores the fact that sexual discretion (which can admit responsible premarital sex) is imperative to one's own values (as I argue elsewhere). And Walls ignores the fact that living by honor is also necessary according to a this-worldly, objective morality.

Here's a final example of Walls's poor argumentation. Over three pages (71-3), Walls cites J.L. Mackie, Sartre, and Kant to make his case that the only alternative to a God-centered morality is subjectivism. Walls describes the Kantian notion of moral duty and utterly ignores even the possibility of a this-worldly, objective morality based on an individual's values. The fact that Mackie, Sartre, and Kant agree with Walls that the main alternatives are supernaturalism and subjectivism doesn't make the dichotomy any less false.

As I suggested earlier, Rowling is no Objectivist, and her works contain a streak of mysticism. But Walls's essay does little to illuminate the nature of Rowling's mysticism; instead it serves Walls's ulterior motive, and poorly at that.

The Ethics of Technology: Benjamin J. Bruxvoort Lipscomb and W. Christopher Stewart

Lipscomb and Stewart point out that, historically, magic is not that far removed from science. Snape's potions class is not too dissimilar from a regular chemistry class. Alchemy is, of course, completely ridiculous, except that it is now possible to synthesize gold and diamonds. Professor Sprout taught her students how to do all kinds of magical things with plants -- and we synthesize an acid found also in willow bark that reduces pain and inflammation. As Lipscomb and Stewart note (80), dishes in the magical world "clean themselves, clinking gently in the background" -- which rather reminds me of my Whirlpool.

The point is that, while Rowling created a world of fantasy, it is close enough to our world that we can relate directly with the characters and their labors. Rowling's stories "speak to circumstances in which we find ourselves" (82). Thus, the rules that govern magic parallel our rules that govern technology.

Three curses are "unforgivable," Lipscomb and Stewart remind us (83): killing, torturing, and forcibly controlling. Such behaviors are against our criminal codes, and all are attempts to fundamentally "dominate" others (86); i.e., violate their rights.

The magical world also regulates magic against and among Muggles (87-8), restricts magical acts among minors (88-9), and in effect licenses magicians (89). Lipscomb and Stewart argue that such regulations are necessary to protect the "common good" (89) -- and so it is no surprise that one of the authors takes an interest in pragmatism (234).

It would have been interesting had the authors described some of the day-to-day misuses of modern technology, including computer viruses, spam, and pirating.

Lipscomb and Stewart make three important errors.

First, they impose their "communal" standards (91) on the work, when it can more fruitfully be interpreted along an individual-rights perspective.

Second, they ignore the possibility that at least some of the magical regulations are plot devices. Rowling is committed to a world in which wizards live among Muggles, and yet we, as Muggles, see no evidence of wizards. So the regulations against revealing magic to Muggles are, at least to some extent, used to maintain the allure of the fictitious world, more than to impart some moral lesson.

Third, the authors ignore the fact that the heroes regularly ignore, defy, and criticize some of the magical regulations. While it's true that one of the good guys, Arthur Weasley, is a bureaucrat of regulation (who, by the way, breaks the rules when it suits him), it is also true that most of Rowling's fifth book revolves around the general incompetence, cruelty, and counterproductiveness of the Ministry of Magic. The same bureaucracy that enforces the magical regulations resorts to the use of dementors, which Lipscomb and Stewart identify with the Dark Arts (83). Harry regularly breaks various regulations, and only sometimes is he censured for it by his friends. Hagrid performs magic illegally. And, as Gladstein reminds us (54), some magical regulations help to enforce slavery and oppression.

So the treatment of magical regulations in Harry Potter certainly is more sophisticated and nuanced than what Lipscomb and Stewart discuss. Rowling's world recognizes both good and bad sorts of magic. It also recognizes good and bad sorts of magical (and, by implication, technological) regulations.

The Mirror of Erised: Shawn E. Klein

Klein spends a few pages discussing theories of truth and Descartes's skepticism, which doesn't seem that relevant to the Mirror of Erised. But, as Klein points out, the Mirror is quite similar to Robert Nozick's Experience Machine, which "provides us with realistic, lifelike, and absolutely convincing experiences" (97). Similarly, the Mirror shows us the "deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts," in Dumbledore's words (93).

And Klein ably provides the answers for why we should not enter an Experience Machine or dwell on the Mirror (with the possible exceptions of short-term use for entertainment or education). Klein writes that "it is not just that we want to do things; we need to do certain things in order to live and flourish" (100). Just so. In addition, the Machine and the Mirror prevent us from "actually developing our moral character or engaging in any activities" (102). And nothing is more important to living a successful life than developing moral character.

Note: This review, which so far covers seven of sixteen chapters, will be continued below within a week or two... March 12, 2006, update: due to time limitations, at present I have no plans to review the rest of the book.

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