Sunday, August 5, 2007

Another Look at an Ethical Issue in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows



Consider this one big fat spoiler alert.

A few readers have asked The Sci Fi Catholic to reconsider its position regarding a certain ethical issue in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I've never known Snuffles the Dragon to alter his opinion once he's stated it, so I decided I would send this question through the whole family and see how they address it. Here is what I found--

Finding Snuffles was not difficult. As usual, he was sitting in his room eating Oreos and watching anime when I approached him with the possibility of modifying his statement. Spitting bits of chocolate cookie, here's what he said:

Snuffles the Dragon: What part of assisted suicide don't you understand? If you're not still freaking out about me writing spoilers on your precious little blog, let's look at exactly what the book says, why don't we? Here's the offending passage:
"If you don't mind dying," said Snape roughly, "why not let Draco do it?"

"That boy's soul is not yet so damaged," said Dumbledore. "I would not have it ripped apart on my account."

"And my soul, Dumbledore? Mine?"

"You alone know whether it will harm your soul to help an old man avoid pain and humiliation," said Dumbledore. "i ask this one great favor of you, Severus, because death is coming for me as surely as the Chudley Cannons will finish bottom of this year's league. I confess I should prefer a quick, painless exit to the protracted and messy affair it will be if, for instance, Greyback is involved--I hear Voldemort has recruited him? Or dear Bellatrix, who likes to play with her food before she eats it." [p. 683]
So there you go. I consider the issue simple; Dumbledore doesn't want a messy death and so he hires someone to off him.

I next approached Frederick the Unicorn to acquire his opinion. I found him in his usual spot on the living room love seat, reading.

Frederick the Unicorn: This is a Catholic blog, isn't it? Well, if we look at everything going on in this novel, we find the situation is complex. Dumbledore is, first of all, dying from a flesh-destroying curse. Second, a teenager has been hired to kill him; should the boy fail in the task, his family will be destroyed. Third, Dumbledore sees the possibility of falling into the hands of murderers who would torture before killing him. Fourth, he wishes the Elder Wand to pass to one of his own people. In the face of all this, he feels it is the best thing to employ one of his own followers in his death. Let's see what your Catechism says.

Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honour and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God. [pars. 2280-2281]
The next paragraph is particularly relevant:
If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.
This is quite clear; voluntary destruction of life or the hiring of another for that destruction is intrinsically immoral according to Catholicism. Two Catholic teachings are important here: first, the Catholic Church teaches that the human will is free, and second, she teaches that ends do not justify means. Dumbledore is trying to protect Malfoy and Malfoy's family. Very well, but his means for doing so is assisted suicide and therefore unjustifiable. Furthermore, Draco Malfoy's will is free; he could choose not to kill Dumbledore. If you recall, Dumbledore in the previous novel even offered to protect him and his family if they would accept such protection. The immorality of the situation is mitigated but not eliminated by its complications.

Lucky the Goldfish, who's generally shy, declined to comment. I couldn't reach Rocky the Space Mouse as he is currently in the secret government base on Mars, surviving by stealing freeze-dried grain from the storage silo. Naturally, his mail is sporadic and I doubt if he's even had a chance to read the book. However, Phenny the Phoenix was more than happy to make a statement.

Phenny the Phoenix: First, let me make clear to your readers that I am a pagan, and I don't mean one of those limp-wristed neo-pagans either. I'm the real deal. To the temple of Ra at Heliopolis, I in every life carried the remains of my spice-laden nest and the ashes of my previous incarnation, alighting on the altar and receiving the worship of the priests. When Shamash, Lord of the Sun, gave his holy winds to the hero Gilgamesh, I was there; it was I who in my wings held the winds as Gilgamesh took them. When Apollo handed the reigns of his chariot to his beloved son, I was there; it was I who burned the very land and would have destroyed all had not Zeus cast at last his merciful bolt. When Icarus flew too high, I was there; it was I who kissed him before he fell--and died. When Akhenaten deposed all gods but the Solar Disc, I was there; it was I who defiled his crypt and fed Amarna to the sands.

If you read that fine little volume, C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table, you will learn that Lewis admitted he found no basis in Christian scripture for the Christian prohibition on suicide. He nonetheless accepted this moral teaching on the basis of tradition.

Judaism would allow for suicide in certain instances. See, for example, 4 Maccabees 12.19 and 17.1, which scholar Thomas H. Tobin links to Josephus's Jewish War:

However, neither did Eleazer once think of flying away, nor would he permit anyone else to do so; but when he saw their wall burned down by the fire, and could devise no other way of escaping, or room for their further courage, and setting before their eyes what the Romans would do to them, their children, and their wives, if they got them into their power, he consulted about having them all killed. Now as he judged this to be the best thing they could do in their present circumstances, he gathered the most courageous of his companions together, and encouraged them to take that course by a speech which he made to them.... [7.320-322, trans. by William Whiston and updated by Paul L. Maier]
"What the Romans would do to them" sounds a bit like Dumbledore's fears of Greyback and Le Strange, doesn't it? But as you are a Christian, the question is, is this a Christian way of viewing things? Your Christ, too, knew what the Romans would do to him, but he doesn't seem to have asked his disciples to run a sword through him ahead of time. Suicide to escape "messy" death is not a Christian way.

Nor, in my humble view, is it the way of the best pagans. I will turn to a philosopher I respect, namely Plato, who drew on the Pythagoreans when he attributed his Phaedo to Socrates:

...But I do think, Cebes, that it is true that the gods are our guardians, and that we men are a part of their property. Do you not think so?

I do, said Cebes.

Well then, said he, if one of your possessions were to kill itself, though you had not signified that you wished it to die, should you not be angry with it? Should you not punish it, if punishment were possible?

Certainly, he replied.

Then in this way perhaps it is not unreasonable to hold that no man has a right to take his own life, but that he must wait until God sends some necessity upon him, as has now been sent upon me. [62.b-c, trans. by Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann in Ancient Philosophy]
Just so. If a person has no right to suicide, he has no right to lay out the circumstances of his own death, and has no right to instruct another person to murder him. By this reckoning, Dumbledore's actions are impermissible even with the complications surrounding them.

So there you have it from this household.
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