LUMOS! Learning Moral Sentiments with Harry Potter

Caroline Breashears for AdamSmithWorks


June 2, 2021
In J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the education offered at Hogwarts is notoriously problematic.1 Professor Snape bullies Harry in Potions classes. Professor Umbridge tortures students and refuses to instruct them in how to practice Defense Against the Dark Arts. Even Rubeus Hagrid, the beloved gamekeeper who teaches Care of Magical Creatures, naively encourages Harry to “follow the spiders” in order to solve the mystery of the Chamber of Secrets. As a result, he and Ron are nearly devoured by giant arachnids.2
Yet despite (or because of) these experiences, Harry Potter grows into a compelling hero. What is it that Harry learns, and how might readers learn along with him?3
One answer is offered by The Theory of Moral Sentiments, written by the moral philosopher Adam Smith and based on lectures to his own students. While there is no evidence that Rowling read this book, she shared with her fellow Edinburgher an interest in what enables us to live what she calls Very Good Lives.4 And as scholars such as Shannon Chamberlain have shown, Smith not only lectured on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres but drew upon literary models in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he touts their efficacy in conveying moral lessons.
Reading Smith and Rowling together is like using the lumos charm: it illuminates the lessons Harry learns about imagination, sympathy, and judgment. Rowling makes those concepts vivid through a range of literary devices and the possibilities opened by magic. She also explores the consequences of failing to apply those concepts or, conversely, of abusing the power one gains through imagination and empathy. Mastering these lessons enables Harry to face the hexes and Horcruxes of life.



Alohomora!: Unlocking the Door to Empathy
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith emphasizes the value of “sympathy,” or what we now call “empathy.” As Samuel Fleischacker explains in Being Me Being You: Adam Smith and Empathy, modern philosophers assign “empathy” a variety of definitions, including an awareness of the feelings of others, caring about others, or “catching” the feelings of others.5
Smith’s “sympathy” is what philosophers now call “projective empathy”: one uses the imagination to project oneself into another’s situation.6 Smith foregrounds this process in the opening chapter of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where he argues that we are naturally interested in the fortunes of others. If we see someone suffering on the rack, “By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him.” We obtain an idea of that individual’s feelings, though in a weaker degree.7
Our response, Smith argues, depends less on what we as spectators see the actor feeling than “the situation which excites it” (TMS I.i.1.10). And it is important that the spectator understands the situation “with all its minutest incidents” (TMS I.1.4.6). In so doing, the spectator imagines what “should be the sentiments of the sufferer” (TMS I.i.1.4).
Rowling has a similar view of imagination and empathy. In Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination, she observes,
Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation; in its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared. (VGL 39)
Rowling adds, “Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places” (VGL 54). In other words, the imagination, like the Alohomora charm, unlocks a mental door that separates us from others.
In the Harry Potter books, Rowling invites readers to empathize with her hero. Young wizard Harry lives with his Dursley relatives, who find him embarrassing because they prefer the ordinary. Instead of celebrating Harry’s twelfth birthday with a cake, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon urge him to hide in his room during a dinner party; instead of giving Harry presents, cousin Dudley mocks him for receiving no cards from his friends (CS 1-11). The situation of a boy verbally abused, imprisoned, and even malnourished inspires our sympathy.
That sympathy grows as we see this boy exhibit empathy toward others, whether a caged boa constrictor or a fellow student.8 When Harry boards the train to Hogwarts for the first time, he readily sympathizes with Ron Weasley, whose family can neither buy him a magical owl nor give him money for the train’s lunch cart. Harry reflects, “he’d never had any money in his life until a month ago, and he told Ron so, all about having to wear Dudley’s old clothes and never getting proper birthday presents” (SS 100).
Such sympathy leads to understanding and pleasure. When the lunch cart comes through the train, Harry buys some of everything and invites Ron to join him: “It was a nice feeling, sitting there with Ron, eating their way through all Harry’s pasties, cakes, and candies” (SS 102). As Smith argues, “nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast” (Smith, TMS I.i.2.1).
Conversely, we are displeased when we are unable to sympathize with the sentiments of others. On the Hogwarts train, Draco Malfoy mocks Ron’s poverty and family, advising Harry, “You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort[;] I can help you there” (SS 108). But Harry rejects Draco’s proffered hand: “I think I can tell who the wrong sort are for myself, thanks” (SS 109).



Accio! Summoning the Impartial Spectator
Harry rebuffs Draco because he cannot share Draco’s sentiments. He implicitly evokes what Smith calls the “impartial spectator,” an imagined objective observer.
In Smith’s impartial spectator process, one attempts to understand a particular situation (Harry hears Malfoy ridicule Ron’s family and poverty) and then what one’s own sentiments would be (Harry sympathizes with Ron’s difficulties). One compares them to the actor’s feelings (Malfoy’s pride) and then passes judgment (Malfoy is cruel). As Smith explains, “We blush for the impudence and rudeness of another, though he himself appears to have no sense of the impropriety of his own behaviour” (TMS I.i.1.10,).9
While Harry instinctively invokes the impartial spectator to assess others, Rowling also shows him learning to apply it consistently to himself. Her most striking depiction of this process is in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when Harry discovers that Hermione and Ron have been made House prefects. Outwardly Harry expresses happiness for Ron. Inwardly, he is disappointed, trying to determine how he should feel.
Rowling depicts that process as a debate between Harry and “a small and truthful voice in his head.” This scene dramatizes the impartial spectator process outlined by Smith. He notes that when judging one’s own conduct, one divides oneself into two persons:
The first is the spectator, whose sentiments with regard to my own conduct I endeavor to enter into, by placing myself in his situation, and considering how it would appear to me, when seen from that particular point of view. The second is the agent, the person whom I properly call myself, and of whose conduct, under the character of a spectator, I was endeavouring to form some opinion. The first is the judge; the second is the person judged of. (Smith, TMS III.i.6)
Harry first wonders whether he believes he is better than Ron. The small voice (the impartial spectator) says “no,” observing that Harry excels only at Quidditch: “But I’m not better at anything else.”
Harry then objects that he has done extraordinary things outside of class, such as defeating Voldemort. The impartial spectator again replies:
But maybe, said the small voice fairly, maybe Dumbledore doesn’t choose prefects because they’ve got themselves into a load of dangerous situations. . . . Maybe he chooses them for other reasons. . . . Ron must have something you don’t. . . .(OP 167)
Here the small voice forces Harry “fairly” to consider that others have strengths that he lacks and reasons he may not understand. It is an uncomfortable moment, and it takes time for Harry to put this problem and his response into perspective. Observing Harry’s inner debate, readers may learn along with him.



Protego!: Shielding against Society’s Misjudgments
Along with using the impartial spectator process, readers learn with Harry to endure the unfair judgments of others who do not understand one’s situation fully.
When Harry saves a fellow student from a serpent by speaking Parseltongue, he faces suspicion rather than gratitude (CS 194, 198). When entered into the TriWizard Challenge without his knowledge, Harry faces hostility from his best friend.10 And when Harry declares that Voldemort has returned, he is libeled in the Daily Prophet and dismissed as a “madman” by a housemate. The Professor of Defense against Dark Arts, Dolores Umbridge, even makes Harry write lines on his skin, scarring his hand: “I must not tell lies.”11
Harry must find peace when others misunderstand or misrepresent him. Here again, Smith explains how the impartial spectator offers a superior means for judgment:
But though man has, in this manner, been rendered the immediate judge of mankind, he has been rendered so only in the first instance; and an appeal lies from his sentence to a much higher tribunal, to the tribunal of their own consciences, to that of the supposed impartial and well-informed spectator, to that man within the breast, the great judge and arbiter of their conduct.
The jurisdiction of the first tribunal is the desire for praise: we want to be loved. But the jurisdiction of the higher tribunal is the desire for praiseworthiness: the desire to be genuinely lovely (TMS III.2.31-32). Throughout the series, Harry cultivates praise-worthiness. He never stops telling the truth, even when physically branded a liar.
Over time, Harry also learns how to invoke the higher tribunal of the impartial spectator. By his sixth year at Hogwarts, Harry can reflect calmly on objections to his choices as captain of the Gryffindor Quidditch team:
he was not particularly bothered. . . . If Gryffindor won, Harry knew that the whole House would forget that they had criticized him and swear that they had always known it was a great team. If they lost. . . well, Harry thought wryly, he had still endured worse mutterings. (HBP 236-37)
Harry’s appeal to the impartial spectator is the moral equivalent of the charm Protego!: it shields him from the effects of criticism so that he can focus on what matters.



Pensieve Reflections 
As Harry’s challenges demonstrate, it is hard to master the impartial spectator process: hard to be objective, to understand someone else’s situation, to persist in being praise-worthy when blamed. Rowling reinforces the importance of this process by making it visible using a magical device: a stone basin called the pensieve into which a wizard may place (and retrieve) memories, which materialize as a silvery substance, “neither liquid nor gas.” The spectator, placing his face into that substance, views those memories (HBP, 167).
The memories are in the third-person, not the first-person, Rowling explains in an interview. They are not a diary entry of one’s perception but “reality.” Rowling adds, “So what you remember is accurate in the Pensieve.”12 Rowling’s pensieve therefore offers the spectator an impartial and detailed view of a situation, whether one’s own or someone else’s. Such perspectives can change one’s life, especially when one embraces the possibilities inherent in the aptly named basin, becoming “pensive” in the sense of being “full of thought; meditative, reflective.”13
Rowling includes a number of such scenes, such as when Dumbledore views his own memories, which he faces impartially; and when Horace Slughorn tries to distort his own memories because he is ashamed to face them impartially, since he helped Riddle learn about horcruxes.14 The most transformative moments occur when Harry views the memories of the professor who has harassed him for years: Severus Snape. In Order of the Phoenix, Harry sees Snape as a student at Hogwarts, where he is bullied by Harry’s own father, James, and godfather, Sirius. They use curses to knock Snape off his feet, instigate pink bubbles to foam from his mouth, and hang him upside down. When asked what Snape has done to him, James replies, “Well . . . it’s more the fact that he exists, if you know what I mean” (647).
Sickened, Harry consults his father’s friend Remus Lupin, who says, “I wouldn’t like you to judge your father on what you saw there, Harry. He was only fifteen”—to which Harry responds, “I’m fifteen!” He does judge what he has seen from this more impartial position, acknowledging that he thought his father “was a bit of an idiot,” adding, “I just never thought I’d feel sorry for Snape” (OP 669, 670). In assessing his own judgment of Snape and James Potter, Harry also uses the impartial spectator to understand his previous biases based on partial information. Snape is not just the professor who bullies him in Potions class.
At the end of the series, in Deathly Hallows, Harry’s last look at Snape’s memories in a pensieve further changes his perception of Snape as a bullied child who became a vicious murderer. Instead he sees the full situation of Snape serving Albus Dumbledore as a double agent against Voldemort out of love for Lily Potter. Harry later tells his child Albus Severus, “you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew.”15



The Power of Empathy
The scenes with the pensieve highlight another problem that Rowling examines: empathy is “a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate or control just as much as to understand or sympathize” (VGL 54). If Harry views Snape’s memories with sympathy, he also recognizes in the pensieve how Riddle (who becomes Voldemort) manipulates others. Riddle understood Slughorn’s vanity enough to flatter him into displaying his expertise about Horcruxes (HBP 413).
Throughout the series, Rowling traces how Riddle grew more adept at such manipulation as he shaped himself into Voldemort. Even without his own body, Voldemort was able to use the power of empathy to control Professor Quirrell. The latter tells Harry that he met Voldemort “when I traveled around the world. A foolish young man I was then, full of ridiculous ideas about good and evil. Lord Voldemort showed me how wrong I was” (SS 291). Understanding Quirrell’s vulnerability, Voldemort promises him power and then casts him aside. As Rowling explains in an interview, Voldemort “loved only power, and himself. He valued people whom he could use to advance his own objectives.”16
Rowling therefore explores in narrative form a facet of the imagination that Smith implicitly addresses in the opening of The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “How selfish soever man be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it” (TMS I.i.1.1). As Charles Griswold observes, Smith “wishes to oppose the view that we empathize with others only when we think it to our advantage to do so—that is, when we treat others as means to our self-interest, narrowly understood.”17
Rowling’s Harry Potter series dramatizes the evil of those who use empathy to gain power (Voldemort), while showing the triumph of those who use it for good (Harry). As Dumbledore explains, “Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped” (DH 709-10).



Empathy and Justice: Socking it to the Death Eaters
More subtly, Rowling explores the consequences of refusing to empathize with others. In Very Good Lives, she notes,
And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know. (VGL 56)
As a consequence, Rowling argues, “those who choose not to empathize enable real monsters” (VGL 59).
Rowling’s point is most evident in the characters’ debates about house-elves, who are the slaves of powerful wizards. Only if given an article of clothing—such as when Harry tricks Lucius Malfoy into giving Dobby a sock—can a house-elf be free. Otherwise, house-elves remain the property of wizards, often exhibiting great devotion to their masters and resisting offers of freedom or payment. Many otherwise kind wizards, such as Ron, accept this system, insisting, “They like being enslaved” (GF 224). He and others treat the slavery of house-elves as a custom that cannot be changed.
Yet custom, Adam Smith warns, is most dangerous when it departs from natural propriety, destroying good morals (TMS V.2.14). Such actions include slavery, which Smith strongly opposed.18 As Jack Russell Weinstein observes, “Smith did not think that sympathy would lead to masters sympathizing with their slaves, but he seemed to have faith that it could motivate abolitionists to push for change.” Rowling likewise shows Hermione sympathizing with house-elves, repeatedly drawing attention to their abuse and indoctrination, and even founding the Society for Promotion of Elfish Welfare (SPEW).19
Rowling also depicts the fatal consequences of failing to empathize with house-elves. In Order of the Phoenix, Sirius Black’s house-elf, Kreacher, betrays him and Harry to Voldemort’s followers. As Dumbledore explains, “Kreacher is what he has been made by wizards” (832). The problem was not cruelty but lack of “interest or notice. Indifference and neglect do much more damage than outright dislike” (OP 834). Sirius’s lack of empathy for his house-elf led to his own death by a “real monster”: Bellatrix Lestrange.
While Harry loathes Kreacher for this betrayal, he comes to empathize with Kreacher in the final book, The Deathly Hallows. He realizes that the Black family members who were kind to Kreacher gained his loyalty to them and their prejudices. Harry begins to speak gently to Kreacher, invites his assistance, and even gives him Regulus’s locket. In turn, Kreacher assists Harry, treats him and his friends kindly, and begins to fulfill his household duties (DH 81-82, 92). And in the battle at Hogwarts, it is Kreacher who leads the house-elves in the final charge against the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters (DH 734).



Conclusions
The triumphant ending of the Harry Potter series arises from the characters’ seven-year journey toward cultivating the impartial spectator, judgment, and sympathy. Over time, the boy who hated Kreacher became the man who befriended house-elves, turning them into allies. And over time, “the boy who lived” became the man who loved, willing to die to save others (DH 738).
As Sarah Skwire observes, “Smith never said sympathy is easy. He said it is important, that it takes practice, and that we have to keep working on it—maybe most importantly when it’s hardest to do.” Rowling’s series vividly imagines that process and its rewards: very good lives.






  1. See, for instance, Gregory Bassham, “A Hogwarts Education: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” chapter 15 in The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles, ed. Gregroy Bassham (John Wiley & Sons, 2010, electronic edition); Jessica Tiffin, “Learning, Understanding, Experience: Harry Potter and Pedagogy,” chapter 1 in Ravenclaw Reader: The St. Andrews University Harry Potter Conference: Seeking the Artistry and Meaning of J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts Saga, ed. John Patrick Pazdoziora and Micah Snell (Unlocking Press, 2013, electronic edition).
  2. Technically “acromantula.” See J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Scholastic, 1998), 264. Further citations are included parenthetically in the text as CS.
  3. Other scholars have tackled this question, offering a range of philosophical perspectives. Edmund M. Kern, for instance, sees Rowling as adopting a Stoic moral system. See The Wisdom of Harry Potter: What Our Favorite Hero Teaches Us about Moral Choices (Prometheus Books, 2003), 14. The philosophical lens of David Baggett and Shawn E. Klein’s edited collection is evident in its title, Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts, volume 9 in Popular Culture and Philosophy Series, ed. George A. Reisch (Open Court, 2004). In Values of Harry Potter: Lessons for Muggles, Ari Armstrong compares and contrasts Rowling’s series with the values of Aristotle and Ayn Rand (expanded edition; Ember Publishing, 2011).
  4. To be fair, it is unlikely that a writer living in Edinburgh would be unaware of Adam Smith, whose ten-foot statue tops a massive plinth on the Royal Mile. For Smith’s focus on living good lives, see especially Ryan Patrick Hanley, Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life (Princeton University Press, 2019). For Rowling’s attention to this issue, see Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination (Little, Brown 2015), originally delivered as a speech to Harvard graduates on 5 June 2008: The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination,” The Harvard Gazette, new.harvard.edu. Subsequent references are included parenthetically in the text as VGL.
  5. See also https://www.adamsmithworks.org/speakings
  6. For details about this process and differences from other forms of empathy, see Samuel Fleischacker, Being Me Being You: Adam Smith and Empathy (University of Chicago, 2019), 8, 11-13.
  7. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1790 (Liberty Fund, 1982), I.i.1.2, page 9. Further references are cited parenthetically in the text with the title abbreviation TMS.
  8. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Scholastic, 1998), 27. Further references are cited parenthetically in the text with the title abbreviation SS.
  9. Prejudices like Malfoy’s drive much of the plot: the Death Eaters view themselves as superior to anyone who lacks pure wizard blood. This problem comes to the forefront in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when the Sorting Hat details the history of factionalism at Hogwarts, where the founders preferred certain kinds of students for their respective Houses. The Hat cautions students against external enemies and encourages them to unite rather than heightening divisions among their respective houses. Smith was aware of this potential problem in society, warning against “the turbulence and disorder of faction” (TMS VI.ii.2.15, page 232). As Fleischacker observes, the impartial spectator serves as a corrective, helping spectators overcome biases by objectively filtering empathy (208-10). Harry and many students do just that, uniting across three houses in forming Dumbledore’s Army.
  10. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Scholastic, 2000), 286-87. Further references are included parenthetically in the text as GF.
  11. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Scholastic, 2003), 73-74, 217-19, 266. Further references are cited parenthetically in the text as OP.
  12.  The pensieve could also enable self-judgment. One of Rowling’s interviewers noted, “It didn’t make sense to me to be able to examine your own thoughts from a third-person perspective. It almost feels like you’d be cheating because you’d always be able to look at things from someone else’s point of view.” But Rowling confirms, “that’s the magic of the Pensieve, that’s what brings it alive.” It is not a diary but something that “recreates a moment for you, so you could go into your own memory and relive things that you didn’t notice at the time.” See Emerson Spartz and Melissa Anelli, “The MuggleNet and Leaky Cauldron Interview Joanne Kathleen Rowling: Part 3.” BY MUGGLENET · PUBLISHED JULY 16, 2005. UPDATED 3 MAR. 2020. https://www.mugglenet.com/2005/07/emerson-spartz-melissa-anelli-mugglenet-leaky-cauldron-interview-joanne-kathleen-rowling-part-three/
  13. “Pensive,” entry 2 in the Oxford English Dictionary Online, www.oed.com
  14. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 2005 (Pottermore Publishing, electronic edition), pages 219, 309. Further references are cited parenthetically in the text as HBP.
  15. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Scholastic, 2007), 758. Further references are cited parenthetically in the text as DH.
  16. J. K Rowling, Post-Deathly Hallows Web Chat Hosted on Bloomsbury.com, published by Mugglenet, 2 May 2014, updated 2 Dec. 2019 at https://www.mugglenet.com/2014/05/web-chat-with-j-k-rowling/
  17. Charles Griswold, Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1999), 78.
  18. Smith is particularly eloquent about the brutality of slave masters in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, V.2.9, page 206.
  19. For a Smithean response to the argument that slaves prefer enslavement, see Griswold, 200.