Harry Potter’s Moral Complexity

I did a rotten job on Monday of explaining why I think the Harry Potter universe isn’t terribly morally complex, and I felt like I owed it to y’all to go back and try to parse out the issues with a little more clarity. Wise Bass, for example, writes:

Voldemort, for example, is a monster, but an understandable monster with very human motives — he’s driven by his fear of death and worthlessness. He gets away with a lot because there’s a significant vein of racism in the wizarding society as portrayed, which gets touched upon in earlier books before getting really shown in the final book.

And Jacob chimes in:

There are multiple hierarchies of morality and evil in the books.


You have the supervillainy Voldemort (who as Wise Bass points out has his motivations)

A step down you have people motivated by fear but torn by doubts (like Malfoy Jr. and Peter).

Then you have the bureaucrats, who personify the banality of evil. People like Delores Umbridge who have fit into every organization they’ve been in and in a dry and boring fashion commit terrible acts.

Then you have people like Snape who even though you find out are on the side of good are quite nasty personally.

Finally you have everyday wizarding people who are basically descent people but who put up with causal racism against non-human species and seemed fine to accept the Thicknesse regime.

Again, I’m not saying they’re perfect books but saying they have a “rather simple understandings of good [and] evil” is just wrong.

All of which is true. The books are sophisticated about the levels of commission of evil (and I actually think one of their geniuses is in opening up bureaucracy for young readers, and making it both a source of great good and evil). What they are not sophisticated about is the question of whether Voldemort is right. Voldemort is always wrong. There is no case to be made that his point of view, or wizard dominance, or a wizard crusade to not have to hide from Muggles, could possibly correct. Collaborators who are coerced, like Theophilus Lovegood, or by the end Narcissa Malfoy, are pathetic, rather than sympathetic. And you know, for some issues, that’s totally fine. I’m glad there’s a societal consensus about the wrongness of racism, or the hideous evil of the Nazis. The Harry Potter books are about the work of being courageous in sticking to a correct decision when that decision brings about difficult and dispiriting consequences, not about the moral work of arriving at a correct decision in the first place when there are two genuinely competitive options available. Most of us will never be in the first position, so I do think it’s relatively easy to do the imaginative work of sympathizing with Harry and considering how the people who support Voldemort should be judged and treated. But we’ll all be in the second position at some point in our lives, whether choosing between political parties, dealing with an unethical situation in our personal lives or at work. So I tend to think presenting two truly competing options and having readers, particularly young readers, puzzle out a side requires more and more relevant work. But the Harry Potter books are not unsophisticated, and I certainly don’t see them that way.