Harry Potter: Are Right and Good Different?

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Image from https://www.themoviedb.org/movie/671-harry-potter-and-the-philosopher-s-stone

Reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone reminded me of J.K. Rowling’s brilliance as an author. This time around, I was drawn to the ideas of right and good and how Rowling introduces the differences in this first book.

We’re conditioned to use the words “right” and “good” interchangeably. But this interesting article by William Meacham, PhD. distinguishes the two as separate ideas under the umbrella of ethics and morality. Meacham writes, “The good has to do with achievement of goals; the right, with laws and rules.” In further elaborating on the definition of good, Meacham claims that “Something that benefits something or someone else is called good for that thing or person”, whereas “What is right has to do with conformance to rules or regulations.” (Meacham). Why is it important to distinguish between the two? It’s important because Harry didn’t always do what adults in the wizarding world regarded as the “right” thing in order to secure the greater “good” of all.

There are several examples of this throughout the novel. One instance is when Quirrell brought a troll into the castle on Halloween. Instead of following the other students to their dormitories, Harry and Ron look for Hermione to warn her (Rowling, 173). Fortunately, they came out of the encounter alive. Unfortunately, McGonagall wasn’t pleased. “‘What on earth were you thinking of?…You’re lucky you weren’t killed. Why aren’t you in your dormitory?'” (177). In the eyes of McGonagall, Harry and Ron didn’t do the right thing, but they chose to do so to save Hermione, which was a good thing.

The troll looking up at his levitating club before it hit him in the head. Image from https://www.pottermore.com/features/behind-the-scenes-trolls

The greatest example would have to be the trio’s journey to obtain the sorcerer’s stone. Harry, Ron, and Hermione broke thousands of school rules in order to prevent Snape (actually, Quirell) from getting to the stone first and bringing Voldemort back to power. Harry recognized that no adult would believe their story, let alone believe they were doing the right thing. Furthermore, he knew exactly what was at risk in allowing Quirrell to get to the stone. So, at the risk of doing the “wrong” thing, they set out to stop Quirrell, for the greater good of all.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione going head-to-head against McGonagall’s chessmen. Image from https://harrypotter.fandom.com/wiki/Chessboard_Chamber

In looking at these instances, it’s easy to see how “right” and “good” are two different things. The adults in the novel believed the right thing was to follow rules and stick to the status quo, but Harry believed that securing what was good for everyone was more important than doing what the adults believed was the right thing.

In recognizing the differences between right and good and how Rowling contrasts the two in her novel, my appreciation for the books was further cemented as well as my belief in Rowling’s brilliance as an author. But the question is still up for debate: is there a difference between right and good? And do you think Rowling differentiates the two in the book?

Works Cited

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” Pottermore, www.pottermore.com/features/behind-the-scenes-trolls.

“Harry Potter Trio Chess .” Harrypotter Fandom.com, harrypotter.fandom.com/wiki/Chessboard_Chamber?file=Harry-potter1-trio_chess.jpg.

Meacham, William. “The Good and The Right.” http://www.bmeacham.com, 2011, www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/GoodAndRight.html.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic, 1997.

TheMovieDB. TheMovieDB, www.themoviedb.org/movie/671-harry-potter-and-the-philosopher-s-stone.

20 thoughts on “Harry Potter: Are Right and Good Different?

  1. I think the answer to your question is answered in the way Rowling makes Hermione the ethical center of the children at Hogwarts and make Harry represent the ideal of “good.” Hermione is always focused on the right thing to do. She studies more diligently than anyone, is a stickler for rules, and sees this as the path to achieving her goals for excellence at Hogwarts. Harry appreciates these things but is more focused on being a great wizard and the impact of his actions. He doesn’t evaluate his actions in terms of right or wrong, but their impact on others. When they are penalized fifty points for sneaking out to shuttle Norbert away, Harry is so ashamed he considered resigning from the Quidditch team and the impact of his actions on the other students of Gryffindor weigh on him more than the detention.

    But Harry continually breaks the rules because it is what needed to be done. He doesn’t break them recklessly or as simple acts of defiance. He does the right thing, usually to help others, out of the goodness of his heart. I think the message Rowling wants to send is that sometimes the right thing to do is to break the rules if your intentions are good. Sticking to rules just because they are the rules doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    • I wonder how Harry Potter would turn out if the famous trio didn’t break rules to the extent that they did. I also can’t help but speculate that the reason why Harry broke so many rules (besides doing so for the right cause) is because he was under a subtle amount of coercion from Dumbledore? I think that Harry would have been expelled if Dumbledore didn’t show favoritism towards him, and I also think things like the invisibility cloke showing up was too much of a coincidence for the headmaster to not have had a hand in enabling Harry to break the rules.

      • Another thing to consider was how Harry was raised. His entire life was filled with rules before he entered Hogwarts. He was not allowed to speak hardly anything to the Dudley’s (not even about his own biological parents). He practically had no friends at school due to his cousin. He could not even leave his home for Hogwarts until he was literally kidnapped by Hagrid. His adopted family did everything in their power to make Harry feel little to nothing. When he finally had the chance to be free to become who he is, he could not help but break a few rules in order to be true to himself.

      • I totally agree here. If Dumbledore didn’t show favoritism to Harry, I think he’d be long gone. But, Dumbledore does it because he believes in him and wants him to fulfill this prophecy… it’s a weird conundrum there. But, at the same time, there are sometimes where even Dumbledore can’t protect Harry (for an example, look at Dumbledore’s reaction to Harry’s name being in the Goblet of Fire). But, I think this level of favoritism is done so Harry can continue to do the right thing, not always the good thing.

  2. Hmm, well, since we’ve been talking so much about the benefits of rule-breaking, I’m going to break my own and sneak us just a hair ahead in the series…. into like Book 6. We learn that Grindelwald’s catch phrase, adapted alongside a young Dumbledore is “For the Greater Good.” You use that saying a lot in the post in reference to Harry, and boy do I find that interesting. First off, “for the greater good” is really a reference to utilitarianism (see Malthusian ideas about population control in the nineteenth century as one example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Robert_Malthus). Basically, it is an ethical philosophy suggesting that we should make decisions based on what benefits the most people rather than focusing on the inherent value of a single person. Or, to put it in the context of the trolley problem, you can either save a bunch of people and kill one person special to you, or save the one person special to you and kill a bunch of people. I’m simplifying it a bit, but I hope you get the idea. Dickens, in the nineteenth-century, thought utilitarianism was dangerous because it devalued love and art and whimsy for the sake of numbers, hard facts, etc., etc. I always believe that Dickens is one of Rowling’s greatest influences and you can see allusions to him all over her work (and not just in HP). Ultimately, Grindelwald turns out to be as villainous and seductive as Voldemort, suggesting that thinking you know what is best for all of the people is a game of hubris that is always unwise and probably self-interested. And yet, as you rightly point out, Harry does make decisions for the greater good, but they are based in love always rather than self-interest or even collective interest…. they are grounded in emotion more than reason. Um, that wasn’t a good question, but discuss? …. Can you tell I’m a Gryffindor?

    • I think that Harry’s being raised by the Dursely’s had a large impact on his decision making abilities and particularly being based in love rather than reason. The Dursely’s imposed many rules on him simply because they could, and by doing this showed Harry that rules are created by people who inherently are imperfect and run by their own desires. In this sense Harry making decisions solely based in love is potentially him trying to be the exact opposite of what he has experienced and hated for his short but eventful life. He simultaneously wants to protect those he loves and get revenge for his parents murders, and in this he is utterly human and could be considered both selfish and selfless. I wonder if as the story progress (event into the next books) if Harry will gain more ability to add reason into his decisions or if he will continue to act solely based on his emotions and relationships and the interplay of them. Do you think by Harry making decisions based on emotion it makes those decisions more or less selfish? What makes Harry so focused on acting in the best interest of the greater good?

      • I love your argument for Harry making decisions based on love. While reading I realized that he was constantly motivated to do good things and help others. I did not think about this in context to how the Dursely’s raised him, but it makes much more sense as to why Harry is motivated to act out of love. I definitely think Harry has acted out of emotions rather than reason. I think Hermione is often the voice of reason among others for Harry. However, just because Harry makes decisions based off of his emotions does not make him selfish. Throughout this novel, Harry acted out of emotions but was still able to help others. For example, I think he acted on his emotions when he tried to get Neville’s Remembrall back from Malfoy and did this to help Neville get his remembrall back (and partly because Malfoy challenged him which was a little selfish). While these emotions can make actions selfish sometimes (like all humans), I think Harry acts for the greater good and is an inherently good person.

        I think he is so focused on acting in the best interest of the greater good because from the moment he is brought into the wizarding world, he is told that his parents helped to fight against Voldemort and were seemingly good people. I think he is also this way because he has empathy for people from how the Dursely’s treated him and he generally wants people to be treated kindly.

    • I love the ethics of this question. What one person sees as good or right might be entirely different than what another sees as good or right. Also, depending on emotions, life experiences, and personal hang ups or prejudices, it can get tricky fast.

      Think of the dilemma that politicians find themselves in. Often times a person who has chosen to go into politics begins from a place of genuinely wanting to help and change his/her world, but as a person moves forward in politics, it becomes evident that forward motion takes money. For a campaign to be successful, a politician might find him/herself compromising on some right/good actions, causes, or issues to maintain forward motion. By the time we see elected officials, especially the people campaigning for high-ranking positions, that individual has compromised so many of his/her beliefs and ethics, it becomes unclear what the individual now stands for and ends up just being a lot of grandstanding to get into office, where that same individual may or may not follow through on the campaign promises.

      I think part of the problem that changes the ability to do a good or right action is power. The more power a person gains, the more opportunities and temptations to keep that power by any means necessary.

  3. I love the debate of ethics between right/wrong, good/evil, and especially the debate about things that contain the question, “are right and good different.” I think you bring up excellent examples, especially when you detail the scene of when Harry and Ron defy the orders of their professors in order to save Hermoine. As both you and the movie mentioned, it was not the right thing, but a good thing. I wonder if this ethical dilemma debate can be related to telling a friend a secret that may hurt them. If it hurts them, would it still be a good thing to do? Even if it is the right thing to do. I also enjoyed that you brought in other sources to back up your topic relating to Harry Potter. It made it not only more relevant to the topic at hand but can be thought about and applied to other aspects of my/other people’s lives.

  4. I think that the world needs rule breakers. If you are breaking the rules with the best intentions and have everyone’s best interest at heart, is it even breaking rules? Are you just attempting to better your life and help those around you. Even if you are not given the outcome that you want you are still doing the right thing, at least in your mind. Harry is always trying to help everyone, he wishes the best for everyone, even though he was not dealt the best hand in life. So personally I think his good/right instincts are pretty good!

    • I totally agree with you on this. The world needs rule-breakers! Now, breaking the rules just to create an impression of toughness, I’m not condoning. But breaking rules to help someone or because, as you mentioned, you have everyone’s best interest at heart? I say go for it! Harry was quite the example for me growing up. I never did anything out of line or even caused petty trouble, but if I felt the need to stand up for someone or for what I believed in, I would rebel if it was needed to do so.

  5. I think the definitions of right and good can sometimes be used interchangeably, but sometimes what is good is not always right and vice versa. I really like the definitions you used in your post, as doing something right means following the rules or laws whereas doing something good is helping others or something.

    I think Rowling shows us throughout the novel that there is a difference between doing something that is right versus doing something that is good. It is often a hard question for our morale of whether we should do something right or do something good, but I think Rowling addresses it in a way that shows readers it’s okay to break rules sometimes for the greater good. Examples of this include Harry and Ron breaking the rules to save Hermione, or breaking rules to save the Sorcerer’s stone.

    Rowling also shows us there are sometimes people who do not believe in right or good or have the wrong idea of good. Towards the end of the novel, when we discover Professor Quirrell is the one trying to steal the stone, Quirrell tells Harry “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”

    Rowling also sheds a light into how the bad guys aren’t always who we think they are. Throughout the novel, Harry, Ron, and Hermione suspect Snape as the one trying to steal the stone, however, it is actually Quirrell as we later learn.

  6. When reading your post, a light bulb clicked in my head. I love the way that you truly differentiate the two, but I feel as though maybe you could also differentiate good and right through values and choices. When making a good decision, one uses their core values in order to as you said, “benefit oneself or all parties,” but when making a right decision, it is a mindless choice. The adults of the Potter world expect students to make the “right decision” through mindless choices, but Harry truly does make “good decisions” by using his core values of loyalty and bravery. What do you think of this concept?

    • I’m on board with what you mentioned, about equating good with values and right with choices. I mean, when it comes down to it, Harry’s version of “right” was simply not always aligned with his teachers’ version of “right”. He was willing to go against their version in order to stay true to his values and moral compass, which, ultimately, is to do what was good for his friends and the entire wizarding community. I think this also explains why readers bring up this idea of rebellion. Harry wasn’t necessarily rebelling against adults just for the heck of it. He did so because it was a means to an end, a series of choices he believed was right in order to accomplish a good.

    • I’m not sure if a necessarily agree with the concept of the “right” thing being a mindless choice. For character development I would almost consider what is expected or the “right” choice as a flat an uninteresting outcome. If a character constantly follows the expected choice, it would be easy to bore the reader quite quickly. Honestly, I was expecting far more differences in the novel from the film than what I encountered. Specifically, the invisibility cloak was too much of a grand design for me. The cloak itself solved the largest issue facing Harry’s quest. Being able to move unhindered into places which he as a student was restricted or barred from. Perhaps this Deus Ex Machina is something that I’m just now beginning to notice as a recurring issue in YA Literature? It might be too soon to tell.

    • I agree with George that the “right” choice isn’t necessarily a mindless decision. Though I get what you mean that by making a good decision that it’s in coloration to your values, but that doesn’t necessarily write off the right decision as mindless. I feel that in making the “right” decision, it is the acknowledgement that there is a reason to the existence of the rule. Though it may conflict with one’s personal morals, it may be due to the greater good of another cause altogether-i.e. in Harry Potter, the safety of Harry, his friends, and his fellow classmates.

  7. The decisions we make and the paths we choose to take towards our goals will depend on our values, upbringing, acquaintances, etc., and that is the same case for Harry. Being raised in such a strict household where everywhere he turned were new rules and big no-nos, we can conclude that perhaps in part Harry did many of the things he did because he now had a say in it. Beforehand his life was governed by the Dursleys but now he is the boss of his decisions and ultimately their consequences.

    I like how you clarify the definitions between right and good because we associate them so frequently that oftentimes we seem to think they are the same thing. When it comes to Harry I notice that everywhere he goes he is admired and revered, primarily for being alive despite the assassination attempt made against him but also because of whose son he is. Even before their death the Potters were well known wizards, even famous according to Hagrid. Bearing the name of such highly esteemed persons who were such good people according to those around him must be a source of pressure for Harry to prove not to his friends but to the wizarding world that he is worthy of being a Potter and a wizard. Everyone has high expectations for the Boy Who Lived. Even the wand seller Mr. Ollivander, tells Harry “I think we must expect great things from you, Mr. Potter” (85) Taking into account those factors we can understand a little of why Harry breaks the rules so often in exchange for doing what is good.

  8. I definitely believe there is a difference between right and good and J.K. Rowling has recognized that difference in writing Harry Potter. What it is that Rowling recognized is that these two are an objective and subjective difference rather than one in the same thing. It may be that the rules in place at Hogwarts are an objective truth and the right thing to do is to adhere to them. However, in what way they are followed and in what capacity is subjective. When we see harry and the gang breaking the rules and their reasons behind doing so, we as readers cheer them on while knowing that that they are doing is wrong objectively. Rowling’s ability to show the difference in the two as easily as she does not only shows how skilled she is on the subject, but how simplistic the concept of them being different can be. I say “can be,” because it is possible for that line to be blurred in particular situations.

  9. Jules,
    There is a clear distinction between what is “right” and what is “good” throughout this series. In the first book alone, there are numerous explains of Harry and his friends abandoning what would be considered “right” to accomplish something “good.” This includes acts of friendship, such as when Harry stood up to Draco and reacquired Neville’s Rembrall by flying his broomstick, even though it was expressly against the rules (148-149). It is also present in the examples you provided, in which they defy rules in a greater effort to support what is good and to defeat what is evil. Rowling provides a good argument toward favoring the “good” over the “right.” If Harry, Ron, and Hermoine had not defied certain rules throughout the novel, many people would have been harmed and the power of the sorcerer’s stone would have almost certainly fallen into the wrong hands. This proves that the “right” thing to do is not always the best path to take.

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