Sunday, October 05, 2014
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – Who’s In the Wrong? Ron or Hermione?
Are you a cat person or a rat person? As forced polling choices go, that one would have a particularly predictable majority answer. But like a lot of forced polling, my answer to the pollster would be, ‘Can I have another choice, please, because anything but rat isn’t good enough?’ and my real opinion would be that I’m more a people person. There’s a related row in the comments to the Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Tor re-read. It’s really ‘Are you Ron or a Hermione person?’ and, spoilers, I’ve had some thoughts about the moral responsibilities here…
If you’ve not read the book – well, this will make less sense, but you can still read it as a summary of some of my ethical reasoning. In short (spoilers), we have three kids in a wizard boarding school: Harry, Ron and Hermione. Their friendship is tested in this book of the series when Hermione buys a huge, aggressive cat that has it in for Ron’s small, cowering rat. It later turns out that all is not as it seems, and that the rat is not only more scared of something else than the cat, but not a rat at all. But in the meantime, Hermione keeps being what I will charitably describe as careless, and eventually the inevitable appears to happen: blood and cat hairs are found where the rat should be. Afterwards, Ron and Hermione don’t talk to each other except to snipe.
Here’s what I said on the Tor re-read comments thread…
I don’t doubt that Ron should try to be nicer to Hermione, because he’s her friend. It’s hard to do, but he should still make the effort. But blaming him alone for not doing so is blaming him for not being massively morally superior to Hermione, whose behaviour is despicable. It holds them to ridiculously different standards. And every time I re-read these chapters, I pay more attention to the details and find myself getting more furious with Hermione.
Let’s go through the levels of moral culpability here.
Cat Vs Rat
A cat attacks a rat? As everyone says, that’s just what cats do. That is a fact that everyone knows. ‘Everyone’ certainly includes Hermione, because it’s at least as true in the Muggle as the wizarding word, and even if she’d somehow never even seen a cat-vs-mouse cartoon and was preternaturally unobservant in her Muggle childhood, Ron has pointed this out to her many times. So were things as they seemed, there would be no moral culpability on either animal.
It turns out later that things are not what they seem. So we can re-examine two moral actors here. The cat is probably (though, awkwardly, never stated as such in the text) half-kneazle, a magical creature that senses dodginess in some ill-defined way, and is going after a disguised human it knows to be no good. We certainly know that “Scabbers” is morally wrong in hindsight. Without knowing for sure about Crookshanks and about what level of intelligence part-kneazles have, we can’t say whether this is just an animal acting on a slightly more sophisticated instinct (and therefore has no moral bearing) or something closer to a person acting as a vigilante (which is a whole other moral debate).
So that leaves the two human owners. We know that Ron and Hermione are friends and are supposed to care for and respect each other (and, hopefully to a lesser extent, care for and respect their pets). We also know that they both believe their pets to be, respectively, rat and cat – they are not at this point aware of the true facts. And we know that both, as well as being emotional teenagers, are also pretty intelligent and unusually capable of logical reasoning for their age (it’s tempting to put more responsibility on Hermione here, but remember Ron and chess).
Consequences Vs Intent
There is one partial justification for Hermione in moral theory, but it happens to be a moral theory I think is a load of rubbish. If you happen to believe that you can only ever judge by consequences, then any level of behaviour and intent isn’t just forgivable but ethically good as long as it works out all right in the end, however unlikely that may have seemed in advance. You can be selfish, vindictive, cruel, hateful, utterly reckless or solipsistic, but if the outcome by some miracle turns out to the good, that makes you and your intent morally right. That to me is pure sophistry or, in plainer language, utter cobblers. It’s reasonable to say to a person who is selfish, vindictive, reckless or any of the rest that they were in the wrong but, no harm done, you won’t be as harsh as you would had something terrible actually happened (whether they wanted it to happen or just didn’t care). But that doesn’t make their actions and intentions moral.
In this case, even if you go to the extremes of saying that because Crookshanks didn’t actually eat Scabbers and so there were no bad consequences at the point Scabbers disappeared, that still means that for consequentialists Hermione is not ‘good’ but only partially in the wrong. She has still already been wrong for repeatedly ignoring her friend’s wishes, showing him a complete lack of respect, and invading his privacy and letting her pet tear his clothes (which his family can ill-afford to replace and which the very well-off Hermione doesn’t offer to) and bloody him. Those are already factual consequences. Being wrong about what appears to be the final act doesn’t change any of them. Even to a consequentialist, Hermione is still morally culpable for all of that.
But for me, morals depend on intent and actions and not merely accidental results, so Hermione is far more in the wrong.
Acting Like Only You Matter In the Whole World
Ron and Hermione both believe their pets to be ordinary animals. They both know what cats and rats do both in general and in their particular case – Crookshanks has repeatedly attacked Scabbers. Ron has many times told Hermione to keep her cat away from him and his rat because of this. Hermione not only ignores this, but actively brings her cat into Ron’s bedroom, making it impossible for him to have any safe place. Hermione is utterly despicable here. She repeatedly ignores Ron’s expressed feelings and wishes and invades his privacy to underline that, making it clear she has no respect or empathy for him, makes no offer of restitution when her cat wrecks a poverty-stricken student’s clothes (in the aim of killing the poverty-stricken student’s pet, which she can afford to replace and he can’t). Then she thinks it’s all about her and her solipsistic wishes when he dares to complain. I wouldn’t have waited until my pet was apparently killed to wonder ‘Is this person who never listens to me and constantly puts her slight whims above actually hurting me really my friend?’
It is completely foreseeable for Hermione that her cat will attack Ron’s rat. It’s foreseeable because she knows about cats and rats, because Ron’s told her, and because she’s seen it happen herself several times. And yet she still keeps bringing her cat to Ron, not making any effort to control it, and then blaming Ron. I don’t think victim-blaming is the most morally despicable thing she does, but it’s one of them, and her snobbish ‘I am superior to you so I am always right’ attitude only gets worse after what the evidence suggests is her cat completely foreseeably killing his rat.
When Ron is blamed afterwards by some readers for not going out on a limb to make it up with her, I’m with Rancho Unicorno and Gadget above on this. Hermione’s been to blame for ages. It looks like the obvious thing that her cat’s been trying to do for ages while she stands by and helps it has happened, and she refuses even to admit the possibility for weeks.
So does she show that, having been utterly horrible and reckless to him over his pet and his wishes for months, she’s still Ron’s friend and does actually have some respect for him? No. Obviously. She tells him she’s superior to him and that only her views count. Again. Obviously. She keeps making decisions for Ron and Harry without even having the decency to tell them. She knows they’re not going to tie her up or stun her to stop her, so she’s simply a coward with no respect for her ‘friends’ by going behind their backs and not even trying to hear their point of view. All through these chapters, she acts in every way as though only she and her opinions and feelings matter, and that Ron and Harry are dirt. I suppose some people might say ‘But girls have more feelings than boys!’ as if sexist twaddle is an excuse.
If you believe in consequences being the only (shaky) basis of ethics, then you have to absolutely condemn Hermione at this point, because she’s wrong about the broom being dangerous and so she’s upsetting Harry and depriving him of his property for no reason at all. Because I think intent and actions are the moral elements instead, I’d give Hermione slightly more leeway here, as she’s doing what she does partly out of concern for her friend based on a very logical, reasonable worry. It’s just a shame that she says she must be right and his opinions aren’t worth a twig whether the evidence is on her side or against her, which means it’s not actually about logic but about her need to say she’s the superior one.
In the next chapter, of course, it’s Ron who makes the crucial move in offering to help her, and Hermione who implicitly accepts that her cat killed his rat, which she must have believed all along and simply refused to admit, so her determination to show no remorse or even concern was even her knowing she was wrong. He immediately implicitly forgives her by saying it’s OK. So there’s proof about who’s the moral one – he doesn’t even wait for a full admission of guilt, much less a public one, but how can you forgive someone while they’re still twisting the knife?
Real-life Examples (or Personal Bias)
Here’s a real-world example about Hermione’s behaviour before Scabbers’ apparent death (one which I’ve only thought of now while actively searching for a real-life analogy, though I can’t say it might not have subconsciously biased me). I am heavily allergic to dogs. If I visit a friend who has a dog, I will wear clothes that I don’t mind stripping and putting in the wash straight afterwards, I will dose myself with extra antihistamines, and I will ask them if they could try to keep the dog off me if possible. I do not blame their dog if it jumps on me, though I will get up and try to move away. If my friend, knowing all this, suddenly broke into my flat, brought their dog into my bedroom, and let it shed hair and saliva all over me and my bed, them blamed me if I protested, I would question if they were really my friend. If I then came out in a really severe allergic reaction, I would blame them. If medical tests later revealed that the allergic reaction was caused by, say, food or an insect bite, I might feel a bit awkward and blame my friend less, but I would still think they had no respect for my wishes, health or privacy and had put me in what they could foresee as danger, even if by luck they didn’t actually hurt me physically – just emotionally.
Now here’s another real-world example which I’ve often considered and scorned in quite a lot of people (to give more of my moral bias) for Ron’s and Hermione’s respective feelings in the aftermath. Claiming ‘Ron is the mean one because Hermione is upset’ is based on no morals, just that whoever proclaims themselves most hurt wins, whatever the causes of their feelings. Ron feels upset because he’s lost the pet he’s had for many years (which he can’t afford to replace) and because his (financially comfortable) so-called friend repeatedly ignored his expressed feelings and wishes and invaded his privacy to underline that, making it clear she has no respect or empathy for him; but Hermione just feels upset because her friend is as a result confronting her with the truth about her own behaviour, making her feel guilty and bad. One of these things is not like the other.
I will be getting married three weeks from today. There are people who have strained every sinew to stop me getting married while loudly arguing that I and my fiancé are intrinsically wrong, evil and fundamentally not as good as them. While I have done nothing to interfere with their rights, I have responded on the evidence that they are homophobic bigots. Many such people then shriek that it is awful to call someone a bigot, and that because they have been made to feel bad they are the real victim here. They are not. This does not make their feelings of hurt and shame any less real, but neither does it wipe away the truth that they are being made to feel bad because they’ve been bad – which means they deserve to feel bad, and deserve no sympathy for being hypocrites when they say ‘But what about my feelings?’ after spending so long completely ignoring those of their victims.
Neither, in this case, does Hermione.