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What Harry Potter can teach you about the value of ethics

by The Ethics Centre
08 May 2017
BUSINESS AND PROFESSIONAL ETHICS
The ethics lesson from the first Harry Potter book:  good things only come to those not looking for them.

If you’ve read the Harry Potter series – and let’s face it, many of us have – you will have gained insight into a number of things: the value of friendship, the nature of heroism, the redeeming power of love… the list goes on.

But amidst all the magic, there’s one lesson you might have missed – a lesson which is crucial to the way we think and talk about ethics. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry is able to secure the titular stone and keep it away from the villainous Voldemort for one simple reason: even though the stone is powerful, Harry has no desire to use it.

Genius wizard Dumbledore protects the stone with an enchantment. Any person who wanted to use the stone to become immortal would never be able to access it. Only someone who wanted the stone for the right reasons would be successful. The benefits, in other words, were only available to people who didn’t want them.

If your only reasons for committing to ethics are external – because of what ethics will give you – then your motivation will come and go.

Working in ethics, it’s tempting to present the external benefits the ethical life provides to people. In convincing people to set aside self-interest and do what’s right, we sometimes appeal to people’s self-interest. We use the very logic we’re trying to unwind.

For example, we convince a business to take ethics seriously because it’ll enable them to recruit and keep better staff (it does). We tell a person that living ethically is more likely to make them popular, employable and happy, which it might.

The problem is, if we’re serious about getting people to live ethically, even if we win the argument, we’ve failed in achieving our goal. As soon as someone commits to acting ethically for instrumental reasons – to make money, become popular or whatever – they’re no longer doing it because they think it’s right, they’re doing it because they think it’s effective.

This is a problem. If your only reasons for committing to ethics are external – because of what ethics will give you – then your motivation will come and go. The moment ethics doesn’t help you keep staff or stay popular, your reasons for committing to living an ethical disappear.

Genuine ethical behaviour isn’t only about doing the right thing, it’s about doing it for the right reasons. It means doing what’s ethical because it’s ethical, not because it’ll give us some other advantages.

The debates around torture are a good example of this. Recently, many opponents to torture have argued ‘torture doesn’t work’, so we shouldn’t do it. But this suggests that if torture did work, we wouldn’t have any problem with it. The logic of the argument supports abandoning torture but it also supports undertaking further research to find forms of torture that do work.

But the ethical argument against torture isn’t that it doesn’t work, it’s that even if it did work, it would be wrong. In whatever walk of life you apply it, ethical demands are at their strongest when they force you to choose between what’s beneficial and what’s right.

When someone starts to use the language of ethics to pursue their own ends, they often reveal themselves through hypocrisy. Often they abandon their so-called values when the costs get too high. 

It’s easy to do the right thing when it benefits you. Ethics asks you to set aside what’s convenient, profitable or comfortable and do what’s right. Genuine ethical behaviour isn’t only about doing the right thing, it’s about doing it for the right reasons. It means doing what’s ethical because it’s ethical, not because it’ll give us some other advantages.

In short, ethics is a totally different language to that of self-interest, efficiency or effectiveness. It uses different arguments, demands a different kind of thinking and asks us to reconsider our priorities.

It’s only those who are authentically committed to ethics for its own sake who inspire support and trust in the long term.

The reason this is tricky for ethicists is because ethics is a Philosopher’s Stone of sorts. It does offer lots of benefits. But like the enchanted stone in Harry Potter, these benefits are only available to the people for whom ethics isn’t about achieving them.

People value authenticity and loathe hypocrisy. When someone starts to use the language of ethics to pursue their own ends, they often reveal themselves through hypocrisy. Often they abandon their so-called values when the costs get too high. When this happens, the good will and support offered by others will disappear.

It’s only those who are authentically committed to ethics for its own sake who inspire support and trust in the long term. Like the magic stone, the benefits of ethics don’t come to those who seek them, they are given to those who deserve them.

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