No, this is not fanfiction.
First, an update: posting has been a bit light due to the clusterscrew of finals and coming home and such. Not sure how this is going to work over the summer, but I’ll try to have a decent output regardless of where I end up.
I’ve been thinking about Harry Potter (big shock), and particularly Dumbledore in Deathly Hallows. This has mostly come from a recent final that I’ve taken, in a line of thought that I want to continue beyond the scope of the exam. Partially because of the musing on Ethics and Nietzsche and Kant. Mostly because of the Star Trek.
Spoilers ahead for a 34-year-old movie and a 9-year-old book.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a fascinating entry into the HP universe. Partially because it’s the last book– you can now go through the entire series and find the foreshadowing and the build-up and the hidden clues as to what would happen and such. There’s also a sense of scope to it, this is the first book where you feel like the world really is ending despite the fact that Voldemort’s motives are not to take over the world (as seen in HBP) and you never get the sense that he’s attacking anywhere other than in the UK. But on my exam, I had to define Grindelwald’s motto “for the Greater Good”, and while it was neither my complete answer nor an entirely serious one, my first response was “a more intimidating version of ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.'” (As I’m typing this, Wrath of Khan‘s credits track is playing, it’s rather surreal.) Later in the exam, I was asked to look at a passage from DH in which Harry had just learned that he was supposed to die, and he was processing the full scope of Dumbledore’s plan. I won’t quote the full thing (it’s an entire paragraph), but my hardcover US edition has it start at the bottom of 692 and continues onto 693 if you want to keep track.
When taken at face value, the two statements seem very similar. While intimidating, the concept of “the Greater Good” does have the rhetoric of being what is best for the whole. The problematic thing about it is who is to decide such things? There are essays upon essays of the concept of “good”, so what could any one human know about a “Greater Good?” Nietzsche thought it the task of an Übermensch, or meta-human, to decree morality, and also that morality comes from within the self. But this falls apart if there is more than one Übermensch, because who’s to say that they will agree? On the other hand, in Deontological ethics, the idea of duty as a willing agent performing good acts because they are inherently good was what Kant described as morality. However, many today would call that far too simplistic; just because you are doing a good act doesn’t mean you’re not doing it for selfish reasons, and sometimes a traditionally unethical act can sometimes be justified (harming someone else in self-defense). Kant’s theory doesn’t discriminate between the act and the outcome.
So, within the story, who decides “the Greater Good”?
Well, for the most part, it’s Dumbledore. Even after everything that happened, Dumbledore is the one that is the deciding factor. It’s Dumbledore’s plan– a flawed plan, if you remember, but his plan. Dumbledore can be a bit of an Übermensch, it’s true, and he seems to be regarded as such by the narrative. His name still carries so much weight that McGonagall and all the rest of them are willing to do anything and everything they can to stall Voldemort until Harry finishes the plan. “Of course there had been a bigger plan; Harry had simply been to foolish to see it, he realized that now” (DH, 692). This is not “the needs of the many”, this is Dumbledore deciding that a 17-year-old boy needs to die to save the world. He decides what is right and wrong (to a certain extent), and throughout the series you see that people who oppose Dumbledore are summarily viewed as enemies or opponents by the narrative. The Ministry throughout OotP is written as corrupt and bloated once it turns against Dumbledore (and Harry, but mostly Dumbledore). As soon as the Ministry believes that Voldemort is back and says that Dumbledore was right, they’re the good guys again.
And people wonder why I think Dumbledore should have been in Slytherin.
So why even bring up Spock in the first place? I don’t think Rowling was intending on the full implications of what came out on the page, I really think she was trying for “the needs of the many” by the end. But in Wrath of Khan, that axiom was used to justify an act of self-sacrifice. Spock didn’t order Saavik into that chamber, he did it himself. The first thing he asked was “Ship… out of danger..?” because what he did didn’t matter if Khan was going to just blow them all to hell in the next few moments. The reference may be a bit premature, but Spock’s death gave the rest of the crew a fighting chance. In many ways, “the needs of the many” is a third option between Nietzsche and Kant. Spock had to make a judgement call, deciding that this was the correct act against the judgement of others (like an Übermensch), but willingly performed the act because it was the selfless thing to do (like Kant). It’s interesting to note that Freud’s superego controls the sense of right and wrong, essentially dealing with personal ethics. That Spock would be the one to make this decision should come as no surprise. What is key, though, is that unlike the Übermensch, Spock isn’t imposing his morality onto others– at least, not with any serious intent. Dumbledore kind-of does that. And to compare, after years of delicate planning and plotting, what did Dumbledore’s death accomplish? Not the end of the Elder Wand’s power, Draco made sure of that. Snape becoming Voldemort’s most trusted adviser? He was on the fast track to that anyways. The only thing it really did was allow Dumbledore to die on his own terms. Because the master planner that he is, he had to schedule his own death. Dumbledore died as part of a gambit that ultimately failed in its intent. Spock died because if he didn’t, they all would have. There’s your difference.
Now, I don’t hate Dumbledore. I think he’s a fascinating and complex character. And there are certainly problems with Spock’s philosophy as well (Search for Spock and The Voyage Home touch on that.) I also don’t think Rowling intended for this kind of analysis to be done and this amount of thought to be put into her story, though she certainly put enough thought into writing it. The same could be said for any popular author of the last 400-or-so years (lookin’ at you, Will). That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about them, though. As I’ve said before, children’s media can and will be held to the same standards as everything else, but that includes other kinds of “popular” media. We can learn a lot about ourselves from seeing how we want to be, how we portray ourselves. How we want to be good, as opposed to just why. We can learn more when there are more voices. What will yours say?