Dumbledorian Ethics

How Albus Dumbledore Combines Utilitarianism and Compassion

By Sarah Putnam Park

Even though J.K. Rowling's epic Harry Potter series has come to a conclusion, readers' minds are still reeling, trying to categorize the character of Albus Dumbledore. When we are first introduced to Albus early in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, he seems to be the stereotypical wizened old wizard with his pointed hat, crooked nose, long beard and flowing robes. As we get to know him throughout the earlier books, Dumbledore comes across as kind, gentle, wise, and ever-twinkling. He quickly becomes Harry Potter's mentor, confidant, and defender. But Harry's confidence in Dumbledore begins to falter in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, when, after the return to power of Lord Voldemort, Harry senses that Dumbledore is not only avoiding him but withholding vital information regarding Harry's role in the downfall of Voldemort. By the time we read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry is devastated at the loss of Dumbledore, disgusted at Dumbledore's apparent lack of trust in him, and confused about Dumbledore's association with the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald.

Many readers feel that the Dumbledore exposed to Harry, via the Pensieve and in Rita Skeeter's expose in Deathly Hallows reveals a depressingly reckless, unethical, arrogant and self-serving person. Rita Skeeter's book, The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, is so scathing that no one who reads it can come away still pledging their unquestioned loyalty to Albus Dumbledore. Rita says in her interview with Betty Braithwaite of the Daily Prophet:

Let's just say that nobody hearing him rage against You-Know-Who would have dreamed that he dabbled in the Dark Arts himself in his youth! And for a wizard who spent his later years pleading for tolerance, he wasn't exactly broad-minded when he was younger! Yes, Albus Dumbledore had an extremely murky past, not to mention that very fishy family, which he worked so hard to keep hushed up.1

She goes on to describe Dumbledore and Harry's relationship as "unhealthy, even sinister." 2 Later in Deathly Hallows, Severus Snape accuses Dumbledore of raising Harry as "a pig for slaughter." 3 Where is the kind, generous, brave Hogwarts Headmaster that we have grown so attached to? How could he treat Harry in a way that seems so ¦ immoral?

Good news, readers! You can still love Albus Dumbledore. His actions regarding Harry are neither immoral nor unethical. Dumbledore had a highly-evolved plan based on sound ethical theories and, specifically, Utilitarian moral rules. His goal was not to raise Harry for slaughter, but to raise him for sacrifice.

Utilitarianism has existed as an ethical theory for well over two hundred years. First elaborated in detail by Jeremy Bentham in 1781, the principle of Utility is as follows: "Of the course of action available, choose the one that produces the greatest aggregate well being." 4 More simply put, the greatest good for the greatest number. The example most often used to illustrate this is the over-crowded life raft: in order to keep the raft afloat, and keep everyone else on board alive, someone has to jump (or be pushed) into the shark-infested waters. This same branch of ethical reasoning is often used to justify actions in wartime. For instance, a governmental body may decide that it is in the best interests of the nation to go to war, to sacrifice the lives of soldiers and sometimes even civilians in enemy states, to maintain the safety and freedom of its citizens.

In the early years of Dumbledore's life, he used similar reasoning to justify his desire to seize control of Muggles. Read again his words to the young Gellert Grindelwald:

Your point about Wizard dominance being FOR THE MUGGLES' OWN GOOD”this, I think is the crucial point. Yes, we have been given power and yes, power gives us the right to rule, but it also gives us responsibilities over the ruled. [¦] We seize control FOR THE GREATER GOOD.5

From these words we can assume that the young Albus Dumbledore was well acquainted with utilitarianism. He also believed that the end (Muggle's own good) justified the means (forcible takeover). This is a key point of "Act Utilitarianism": no action can be considered good or bad until the end results of the action is taken into consideration.6 Therefore, the means, or the actions an individual takes, are morally neutral until they are set against the backdrop of the end result. For instance, Robin Hood was not considered amoral for stealing from the rich because many poor people were helped by his actions.

In order to make a decision regarding the rightness of Dumbledore's actions (or inactions) toward Harry Potter, we must first speculate on when Dumbledore knew he was in an ethical dilemma. In the summer of 1980, Dumbledore hears the prophecy for the first time. He now knows that "the one with the power to vanquish the Dark Lord is approaching' that the Dark Lord "will mark him as his equal" and that "either must die at the hand of the other." 7 When Voldemort inadvertently curses himself to "less than spirit' 8 leaving Harry with his famous lightning bolt scar, Dumbledore knows that the Dark Lord has marked his equal, and that Harry Potter's destiny is now closely intertwined with Voldemort's. Dumbledore already has to make decisions regarding Harry's safety ’ he arranges for Harry to be cared for by his Muggle relatives and for the next ten years, he considers what to do about Harry Potter. He must decide when and how he will tell Harry about the prophecy and consider how he can best prepare Harry for an encounter with the Dark Lord that could cost him his life. Dumbledore's dilemma becomes more complicated when he begins to suspect that Harry might be a Horcrux during his second year at Hogwarts. His suspicions are roused because of the three major events. First, Harry hands him Tom Riddle's diary, second, Harry manifests himself as a Parselmouth, and third, Harry opens the Chamber of Secrets. We'll examine these events in more detail.

In the chapter entitled "Dobby's Reward" in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry gives Dumbledore the first Horcrux: Tom Riddle's diary. This is considered "certain proof" 9 by Dumbledore that Voldemort had created a Horcrux; the word "proof" indicating that Dumbledore had some related suspicions about Voldemort's attempts at immortality prior to this point. Dumbledore considers the cavalier attitude with which Riddle treats his first Horcrux to be "most ominous" and Dumbledore begins to suspect that Voldemort has been busy making multiple Horcruxes.10

During the very same school year, Harry shows himself to be a Parselmouth. Harry's ability to speak with snakes was a dark portent to Dumbledore. His comments to Harry in "Dobby's Reward" have a chilling effect when taken into the context of the conclusion of the series:

"You can speak Parseltongue, Harry' said Dumbledore calmly, "because Lord Voldemort”who is the last remaining descendant of Salazar Slytherin”can speak Parseltongue. Unless I'm much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something that he intended to do, I'm sure¦."

"Voldemort put a bit of himself in me?" Harry said, thunderstruck.

"It certainly seems so." 11

Much later in the series, during Harry's sixth year, the ability to speak Parseltongue is the first bit of evidence that Dumbledore cites to Professor Snape to demonstrate to him that Harry is a Horcrux:

Part of Lord Voldemort lives inside Harry, and it is that which gives him the power of speech with snakes, and a connection with Lord Voldemort's mind that he has never understood.12

But perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence given to Dumbledore during Harry's second year was Harry's ability to open the Chamber of Secrets. Recall what Professor Binns tells his suddenly very attentive class in the chapter entitled "The Writing on the Wall" in Chamber of Secrets: "The heir alone would be able to unseal the Chamber of Secrets' 13 Not any old Parselmouth, but Slytherin's own heir. The only other people who have succeeded in opening the Chamber at this point are Tom Riddle, Slytherin's true heir, Ginny Weasley, who carried one of Tom's Horcruxes, and Harry Potter, who was himself a Horcrux. Before Harry's thirteenth birthday, all the pieces that point to Harry being a Horcrux are staring Albus Dumbledore right in the face: Voldemort was making Horcruxes. Harry Potter can speak to snakes. Harry Potter opened the Chamber of Secrets.

How ought Dumbledore to proceed from this point? He knows that Harry is the Chosen One, but he is also guessing that Harry is a Horcrux. How can Harry vanquish the Dark Lord if he himself has to die to make that possible? We can only speculate as to what Dumbledore was planning. He knew that it was only a matter of time before Voldemort returned to full power, at which point Voldemort would begin his methodical elimination of Muggle-born wizards. The pain, suffering, and death to be unleashed on the Wizarding community by this depraved maniac would be enormous. Was Dumbledore ready at this point to sacrifice the life of one boy in order to save thousands of others? Would the end (destruction of Lord Voldemort) justify the means (destruction of Harry)? From what we can extrapolate of Dumbledore the Utilitarian, yes, and the end of Voldemort's reign of terror would justify the sole death of one boy ’ Harry Potter; this decision is not cruel or self-serving, but it is the appropriate ethical decision for this particular situation.

Perhaps the easiest road for Dumbledore at this point was to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes himself (and until he discovered that he was dying, he may very well have been intending to do just that), and then "push Harry out of the raft" by constructing a fatal encounter between Harry and Lord Voldemort. This would return Voldemort to the status of a mere mortal and allow him to be eliminated easily enough. And while this is a sound plan and completely ethical from a Utilitarian perspective, it does not exactly respect Harry Potter as a person. In fact, one group of objections to Utilitarianism addresses just this: individuals are NOT simply a means to an end but are ends in themselves with their own interests and concerns. To treat persons only as means to an end is to deny the respect persons deserve. 14 Keeping in mind this reasoning, read Dumbledore's words to Harry in Order of the Phoenix:

"I cared about you too much' said Dumbledore simply. "I cared more for your happiness than your knowing the truth, more for your peace of mind than my plan, more for your life than the lives that might be lost if the plan failed. In other words, I acted exactly as Voldemort expects we fools who love to act.

"Is there a defense? I defy anyone who has watched you as I have”and I have watched you more closely than you can have imagined”not to want to save you more pain than you had already suffered. What did I care if numbers of nameless and faceless people and creatures were slaughtered in the vague future, if in the here and now you were alive, and well, and happy? I never dreamed that I would have such a person on my hands." 15

It would seem from this confession that Dumbledore wished, initially, to keep a certain detachment from Harry, indeed using him as a means to his end. However, Dumbledore's growing respect for Harry as a person leads him to treat Harry with compassion. In essence, Albus Dumbledore now finds himself in the shoes of the "Rule Utilitarian."

Rule Utilitarianism is the most popular variant of the aforementioned Act Utilitarianism. Rule Utilitarianism does not consider actions to be morally neutral. Instead, actions are only justified if they are the kind of actions required by a correct moral rule.16 Some examples of moral rules are "When you make a promise, keep it' or any one of the Ten Commandments. For Dumbledore, two moral rules he wishes to adhere to are treat others with respect and compassion, and tell the truth.

We'll examine how Dumbledore satisfies each of these moral rules separately, but we must first bear in mind Dumbledore's own ethical history. Through his suffering surrounding his sister's death and his subsequent decision to reject the principles that he and Gellert Grindelwald originally stood for, Dumbledore learns that people are an end in and of themselves. His decision to treat Harry with respect and compassion springs from his own inner longing to follow his self-imposed moral rule. This action then leads to the desired end result ’ the action propels Harry into the correct moral decision regarding his role in the destruction of Lord Voldemort. Rather than "push Harry out of the raft' Dumbledore nurtures and protects Harry's developing sense of his role while fostering Harry's own innate loving kindness, thereby molding a man capable of making great personal sacrifices, even sacrificing his own life, to save the lives of others. Dumbledore's means for compassionately achieving these ends are twofold: first, he allows Harry safe contact with Lord Voldemort; and second, he grooms Harry's attitude regarding death.

At the conclusion of Sorcerer's Stone, even eleven-year-old Harry can see that Dumbledore meant for him to confront the disembodied Voldemort.17 Dumbledore practically admits it himself when he discovers that Harry has researched Nicholas Flamel. "You did do the thing properly, didn't you?" he comments delightedly,18 as if he was hoping Harry might follow a trail of bread crumbs laid out to find Lord Voldemort. But why put an eleven-year-old boy in that kind of danger? Because Dumbledore has charged himself with preparing Harry for his ultimate battle with the Dark Lord; that preparation includes building Harry's confidence by allowing him to confront the weakened Voldemort in the safety of Hogwarts castle. It is unlikely that Harry's second encounter with Voldemort was orchestrated by Dumbledore as carefully as the first, but his comments to Harry and Ron while they are under the Invisibility Cloak in Hagrid's hut certainly point to his knowledge of their secret plans:

"However' said Dumbledore, speaking very slowly and clearly so that none of them could miss a word, "you will find that I will only truly have left this school when none here are loyal to me. You will also find that help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it." 19

As we can see, Harry is never truly alone or defenseless when he faces Voldemort in the form of Tom Riddle within the confines of the Chamber of Secrets. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, we see that the safety of Hogwarts students and the security of the castle in general are so paramount to Dumbledore that he will actually lose his level-headedness when either is threatened. Dumbledore's rage when he learns that he has been duped by Barty Crouch, Jr., masquerading as Mad-Eye Moody, is terrible to behold:

The look upon Dumbledore's face as he stared down at the unconscious form of Mad-Eye Moody was more terrible than Harry could have ever imagined. There was no benign smile upon Dumbledore's face, no twinkle in the eyes behind the spectacles. There was cold fury in every line of the ancient face; a sense of power radiated from Dumbledore as though he were giving off burning heat.20

In light of this passage, the idea of Dumbledore putting Harry or any of his friends in a perilous situation that he could not rescue them from seems ludicrous. The trio is nearly always safe when at Hogwarts and Dumbledore never treats their lives with anything less than the greatest care and attention.

Recall again now that at the opening of Sorcerer's Stone, Dumbledore recognizes that he has indeed met the Chosen One and, having heard the prophecy, knows that Harry may have to lose his life in battle with the Dark Lord. In addition to allowing initial relatively-safe contact with Voldemort, Dumbledore begins, very early, to condition Harry's mind toward the acceptance of death. He first gives Harry perspective of death at the end of Sorcerer's Stone:

to Nicolas and Perenelle, it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.21

Four years later, after Dumbledore begins to suspect that Harry is a Horcrux, he reiterates this theory in his words to Voldemort as Harry watches during the great duel in the Ministry of Magic at the end of Order of the Phoenix:

"There is nothing worse than death, Dumbledore!" snarled Voldemort.

"You are quite wrong' said Dumbledore [¦] "Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness”" 22

At the same time, Dumbledore makes it clear that Harry's life is worth much more than his, and indeed it is, for the complete destruction of Lord Voldemort to be most likely Harry's life must be preserved until all other Horcruxes have been destroyed. As Harry and Dumbledore are about to enter the cave in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore remarks to Harry, "your blood is worth more than mine." 23 Later in the same chapter, he is again quoted as saying he is "much less valuable" than Harry.24 Moments later, the reader is shocked by Dumbledore's own ignominious death: weakened by poison, he is first disarmed by a student and then murdered by a colleague as he seemingly begs for mercy.25

Dumbledore demonstrates to Harry, even in his own death, that there are more important considerations than just preserving your own life. In order to save Draco Malfoy from Lord Voldemort's wrath26 and with the intention of giving mastery of the Elder Wand to Snape,27 Dumbledore lays down his life. In order for Harry to render Voldemort powerless and return him to mortality, Harry must lay down his life. Dumbledore shows Harry that the compassionate utilitarian thinks of the greatest good to be done for all involved, even if it means shouldering the ultimate sacrifice that humans are willing to make for one another.

As evidenced by the beautiful eulogy that Dumbledore gives Cedric Diggory at the end of Goblet of Fire,28 we see that Dumbledore is a man who values the truth. He tells a room full of underage wizards that Voldemort has regained power, much to the chagrin of the Ministry of Magic. Dumbledore second guesses his decision not to allow Harry full disclosure about his past throughout the chapter "The Lost Prophecy" in Order of the Phoenix because his proclivity toward truth-telling and honesty is so strong. Yet, Dumbledore still decides not to tell Harry about the Horcruxes, or that Harry himself is most likely a Horcrux and will therefore have to die for Lord Voldemort to be mortally defeated. Dumbledore shares this reasoning with Severus Snape in Deathly Hallows: "Harry must not know, not until the last moment, not until it is necessary, otherwise, how could he have the strength to do what must be done?" 29

So, Albus Dumbledore does not always follow the moral rule to tell the truth. In this specific case, telling the whole truth regarding Voldemort's Horcruxes to anyone, especially Harry, could jeopardize Dumbledore's entire plan to eliminate all remaining Horcruxes prior to Harry deciding to sacrifice his life. It was essential for Voldemort to assume that no one knew about his Horcruxes, and Voldemort's skill as a Legilimens necessitated that no one but Albus Dumbledore share the burden of the truth.

In this situation we find the fatal flaw of Rule Utilitarianism. Sometimes we have to make exceptions to our moral rules because those rules may come into conflict when they would cause negative consequences. While it is typically a good thing that people follow their moral rules, it is even better when people who normally follow rules that produce good consequences break those same rules when they produce bad consequences.30 When Dumbledore decides not to tell the truth, he is essentially reverting to Act Utilitarianism. This is not faulty moral reasoning; it is, again based on the concept of Utilitarianism, the correct moral decision that the situation requires. In the case of Harry Potter, Harry's knowing the truth about his own fate could have produced disastrous consequences indeed.

The Albus Dumbledore portrayed by Rita Skeeter in her expose is largely misunderstood. He is not arrogant, but isolated by the burden of the truth. He is not self-serving but self-sacrificing. He is not sinister but loving and compassionate. His usage of the Utilitarian Theory proves that he is not unethical and his desire to follow his moral rules demonstrates that he is not amoral. In fact, what makes Albus Dumbledore such a fantastic moralist is his understanding of when to follow his moral rules. What makes him a fantastic teacher is that he imparts this wisdom to Harry. He respected that Harry himself needed to make the choice to die, that this decision would be brought about by Harry's own love and compassion, and that to foster love and compassion you must first supply it in full measure. By following his moral rules appropriately, Dumbledore creates the ultimate Utilitarian: Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, the Boy Who Loved, the Boy Who Jumped from the Raft.


1. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 25.

2. Ibid., 27.

3. Ibid., 688.

4. Furrow, 45.

5. Rowling, Deathly Hallows, 357.

6. Furrow, 45.

7. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 841.

8. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 653.

9. Ibid., Half-Blood Price, 500.

10. Ibid., 501.

11. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets, 332’33.

12. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 686.

13. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets, 151.

14. Furrow, 46.

15. Rowling, Order of the Phoenix, 838’39.

16. Furrow, 47.

17. Rowling, Sorcerer's Stone, 302.

18. Ibid., 297.

19. Ibid., Chamber of Secrets, 263’64.

20. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 679.

21. Ibid., Sorcerer's Stone, 297.

22. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 814.

23. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 560.

24. Ibid., 570.

25. Ibid., 584, 595’96.

26. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 682.

27. Ibid., 721.

28. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 721’22.

29. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 685.

30. Furrow, 49.


Furrow, Dwight. Ethics: Key Concepts in Philosophy. New York: Continuum, 2005.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1999.

”””. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007.

”””. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2000.

”””. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.

”””. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.

”””. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, Arthur A. Levine Books, 1998.

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