Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Harry Potter Ethics

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the latest in the series of films based on the phenomenally popular J.K. Rowling novels about a student wizard and his friends, is in some ways the best so far. Unfortunately, it is also the most ethically insensitive, no small flaw when so many in a movie’s audience are children and teens.

The plot of “The Goblet of Fire” involves a magical competition called the Wizard’s Cup. It pits select student representatives from two other magic boarding schools against the duly anointed competitors from Hogwarts, Harry’s academy. For reasons explained by the end of the film, Harry is mysteriously chosen to compete as well, even though, at 14, he is too young to be eligible. The exciting tournament unfolds with each of the now four contestants being required to face a dangerous challenge, such as stealing golden eggs from large, flying, fire-breathing and presumably carnivorous dragons.

Rest assured that the Scoreboard is willing to cut Hogwarts, Rowling and the film some serious slack on its ethics. For example, the movie shows Harry and the other competitors blithely accepting warnings and under-the-table clues about the supposedly secret challenges to come, in contravention of the stated rules. Ordinarily a film showing otherwise admirable students cheating on school-related tasks would be objectionable, but the cheating here is presented more as traditional gamesmanship. Moreover, it’s hard to get indignant at a student who gets advance notice that he has to figure out how to survive under water for an hour or battle a deadly dragon, and the movie shows Harry receiving these tips without asking for them.

Obviously no responsible school intentionally puts its young charges in danger of their lives, and in the previous installments, neither did Hogwarts, so it is more than a little strange that it does so this time without any good explanation. Later, when a young contestant really does die, the Hogwarts administrators and the tournament organizers inexplicably carry on as if this was the most unimaginably tragic thing that has ever happened, making one wonder if those dragons we saw earlier chasing, snapping at, and attempting to fricassee Harry and the others were actually just trained and disguised pussy cats. If the tournament organizers intentionally expose teenagers to genuine mortal peril in a process designed to eliminate all but one contestant, how can they be either surprised or emotionally shattered when a fatality occurs? They have to either be irresponsible, sadists, or idiots; there is no fourth choice. But OK: the idea of the plot is that it’s a very dangerous tournament, and the students are warned not to enter unless they are prepared to use their magical skills against life-threatening challenges. If the audience didn’t think Harry was in real danger, the movie would have all the suspense of “Herbie the Love Bug.” We will declare a logic violation (not the first in the series, by any means) rather than an ethical one. And peace, Rowling fans: the Scoreboard knows that the book goes to some lengths to explain that the competitors are in no real danger. But the movie’s ethics must be judged on what’s up on the screen, not on the cutting room floor.

In the second challenge, Harry and the others have one hour to somehow retrieve “something precious to them” from the bottom of a deep mermaid-infested lake (nasty mermaids, too). Those precious items turn out to be three Hogwarts students and the 10 year-old sister of the one female contestant. They are unconscious and chained to the lake bottom, floating still and lifeless like Mafia victims at the bottom of the Hudson River.

Are the sunken kids in real peril? Everything in the movie implies that they are, such as the tears of gratitude shown Harry by the young woman competitor after he risks his life to successfully rescue her younger sister. Nor is it ever suggested that the sister and the students, who were each chosen because of close relationship to one or more of the four young wizards, actually consented to being submerged at the bottom of the lake where, it seems, they would stay if their designated rescuers failed the challenge. (Indeed, there is no way underage students could give legally sufficient consent to such a thing when asked by an adult in authority; there is inherent coercion in such circumstances.) So Hogwarts, a school charged with teaching, nurturing and caring for children, takes a group of non-consenting, non-competing teenage students and pre-teen girl and 1) renders them unconscious 2) locks them at the bottom of a lake and 3) puts their survival into the hands of other children.

The usual “Harry Potter” excuse—“But it’s magic! —doesn’t wash here. The school is callously using people as props and prizes even if they’re not in real danger, and again, absolutely nothing in the movie suggests that they are not. One of the most basic ethical principles is that human beings must not be used as a means to an end except in the most compelling of circumstances such as, arguably, wartime. Here the objective is a mere tournament, a spectator sport, and yet Hogwarts personnel behaves much like the evil Green Goblin in the first Spiderman movie, dangling the hero’s girlfriend from a precipice to see if he can save her. The lives of four children are treated like objects in a scavenger hunt.

It’s an ugly concept, and yes, a damaging one. No school that did anything like this, even a magic school, could possible be trusted with the safety of young people. Its conduct displays wretched judgement, disregard of life, lack of respect for individuals, and a betrayal of basic values. And the teachers and head of Hogwarts, the beneficent and wise old Professor Dumbledore, are supposed to be the source of ethical values in the “Harry Potter” moviesÂ…what values do they stand for now?

Popular culture sensations like the “Harry Potter” books and films don’t have an absolute obligation to teach children ethical values; that’s up to parents, teachers, and the other adults and institutions in the children’s lives. But they do have an obligation not to teach unethical values. Undoubtedly the handling of the sunken children episode in the screen version of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is another instance of the sloppy writing and thoughtless plotting that is epidemic in Hollywood these days, and not some diabolical attempt to corrupt America’s young. When a movie is going to be seen by millions of children, that’s no excuse. No less than wizards, the makers of movies like “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” have tremendous power to promote good or evil. Building an ethical culture requires that everyone be responsible and think about the messages their conduct conveys.

On this test, Hogwarts rates an F, not to mention a visit from Child Protection Services.

Comment on this article


Business & Commercial
Sports & Entertainment
Government & Politics
Science & Technology
Professions & Institutions

The Ethics Scoreboard, ProEthics, Ltd., 2707 Westminster Place, Alexandria, VA 22305
Telephone: 703-548-5229    E-mail: ProEthics President

© 2007 Jack Marshall & ProEthics, Ltd     Disclaimers, Permissions & Legal Stuff    Content & Corrections Policy