Hermione’s Moral Development: From Good Girl to Activist
Throughout the Harry Potter series, Harry, Hermione, and Ron take on the role of fighting against evil driven by their strong moral principles. Even at the age of 11, the trio has a sense of right and wrong that is stronger than that of many adults. Morality, however, tends to change throughout adolescence, and our three main characters do not start out the series with the same moral codes that they have at the age of 17. Hermione, in particular, has a clear development in morality over the years.
Lawrence Kohlberg, a cognitive scientist, theorized that there are three distinct levels in children’s development of morality. The first level is pre-conventional morality, which occurs in early childhood and is based primarily on gaining rewards and avoiding punishment. By age 11, Hermione is already at conventional morality, where her behavior is based on gaining social approval and following social rules. This is the “good girl” stage, where Hermione would rather be liked by her teachers than help those in need. When Malfoy steals Neville’s Remembrall, Harry springs into action, whereas Hermione says, “Madam Hooch told us not to move – you’ll get us all into trouble” (SS 9).
Hermione first starts questioning the conventional stage during the troll incident on Halloween. Hermione not only lies to figures of authority, but she also ends up getting in more trouble than she would have if she had told the truth. She does this in order to protect Harry and Ron from a punishment that she doesn’t believe they deserve. In this first step, however, her morality is still based on her intimate connections rather than more general moral principles. In the second book, Hermione takes another step along the path of moral development when she makes the Polyjuice Potion. Hermione is more willing than either Harry or Ron to steal from Snape and risk expulsion in order to stick up for her moral principles. She tells the two of them, “I don’t want to break the rules you know. I think threatening Muggle-borns is far worse than brewing up a difficult potion” (CoS 10). Hermione is willing to face the social disapproval of both her friends and her professor in order to protect justice for everyone.
It isn’t until the fourth book that Hermione truly moves into the post-conventional level of morality. In this level, morality is based on abstract principles that transcend societal rules and attempt to take in the perspectives of all people. The individual realizes that, when laws are at odds with people’s rights, those laws need to be changed. After learning more about house-elves, Hermione’s eyes become opened to the fact that the laws of the wizarding world are not just to everyone. Hermione’s cause for house-elves is unlike any of the moral decisions she has made before in that it is not based in any way on her own safety and comfort or that of her close friends and family. Hermione is truly attempting to take on the perspective of someone in a different situation from hers and is compelled not to bend the rules, but to change them completely.
Harry and Ron also develop their morality throughout the series, but their development is not rational or logical enough to fit with Kohlberg’s stages. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, Harry bases his moral decisions on intuition and acts with spontaneity, whereas Ron’s morality is often based on protecting the interests of the people he cares about most deeply. The three of them often have different opinions on the morality of certain actions, but when they work together, they tend to be able to make ethical decisions.