Veritaserum and Controlled Substances in the Magical World
An original editorial by Stuart C.
In the course of the Harry Potter
story, we have been introduced to the potion
Veritaserum on several occasions; but we have actually seen it administered only
once, to Crouch Jr., at the end of GoF. Snape threatens Harry with it on one
occasion; Umbridge attempts to administer it secretly to Harry in OoTP (not
knowing Snape provided her with fake serum), and threatens it again at the end
of Book 5. Yet only one time do we actually get to see its effects--when
Dumbledore doses Crouch, Jr.
We know, too, that the Ministry of Magic strictly regulates the application of
Veritaserum. Dumbledore, who demonstrates little patience with Ministry
bureaucracy when the need is urgent, doesn't hesitate to give Crouch Jr. the truth
serum. Given the circumstances and Harry's tale of Voldemort's rebirth, time is
of the essence and Dumbledore must discover what Crouch knows as quickly as
possible. Umbridge, of course, has no scruples about Ministry regulations when
it comes to her unbalanced quest to ruin Harry and his allies. But why is
Veritaserum so srictly controlled? What are its uses and effects?
We have seen countless examples of controlled substances in the magical world, as
well as strict regulations for the use of a multitude of spells, especially the
Unforgivable Curses. The Ministry carefully regulates practically everything in
the magical realm: restrictions on underage magic, OWLs and NEWTs, licenses for
certain forms of magic, trade in magical substances and creatures, the Floo
Network, etc. Lest we be too hard on the Ministry, it should be noted that there
is good reason to regulate the practice of magic; one has only to look at the
cases that come into St. Mungo's or the tragic death of Luna Lovegood's mother to
To understand the reasons behind the tight restrictions on the use of
Veritaserum, it is helpful to compare the use of this potion with the
Unforgivable Curses. As we all know, J.K. is a great defender of human rights
and the importance of free will. Other editorialists have pointed out why the
Unforgivable Curses are forbidden: the Cruciatus Curse inflicts tortuous pain,
the Imperius Curse deprives one of free will, and the Killing Curse destroys
life. The only time the Ministry has ever permitted the use of these curses is
against the Death Eaters at the height of Voldemort's reign of terror. Even
then, many like Dumbledore thought such actions to be wrong, since it
compromised the very principle that led to the curses' regulation in the first
place. Dumbledore is a man who knows how to love his enemies, seeking their
redemption rather than their destruction.
Veritaserum is in a category not unlike the Unforgivable Curses. The potential
for abuse is great. Essentially it deprives a person of their free will in
responding to interrogation. Naturally, it has its legitimate uses, as
Dumbledore knows, but on the whole poses a great danger if used indiscriminately.
Information that ought to be concealed may be brought to light before the wrong
people. The bottom line: truth can be a dangerous thing.
Nevertheless, Veritaserum also has the limitation of not really providing the
truth itself. Because it is administered to a person, only what that person
perceives as true will come out of their mouth. If one were to take everything
that is admitted under the influence of Veritaserum as the absolute truth,
terrible errors could occur, just as we are often mistaken in our own perceptions of
things. Imagine for a moment that at his trial Karkaroff had named Snape as a
Death Eater under the influence of Veritaserum instead of as a bargaining chip.
If the Ministry thought Veritaserum an infallible means of producing truth,
Dumbledore's intervention on Snape's behalf would probably have been in vain.
However, the Ministry knows that Veritaserum is not infallible, but can only
provide truth about what a person knows or believes to be true.
There is also the moral question of what one has a right to know and how. If I
were to wander into an Edinburgh coffeehouse and find a sheaf of papers
containing the whole outline of the Harry Potter series accidentally left there
by one J.K. Rowling, I doubt I could resist the temptation to read it before
returning it to her. But would someone else be justified in dosing me with
Veritaserum simply because millions of fans want to know that same information?
Just as the Imperius Curse is unforgivable because it denies an individual free
will, so does Veritaserum negate free will by compelling cooperation. To what
extent can a confession be forced? Veritaserum is more harmless than the
Cruciatus Curse as a form of torture, but morally it is a fine line. Umbridge
crossed it when she couldn't get Veritaserum to force a confession out of Harry,
and so she was prepared to resort to the Cruciatus Curse.
Veritaserum, like so many other controlled substances in the magical world, is
justly regulated because of its potential harm to oneself or others. Like
certain magical elements or creatures, one must really know what one is doing to
apply it properly and judiciously, understanding both its potency and its
limitations. The indiscriminate use of Veritaserum would wreak havoc. While it
would seem to be an easy cure-all for discovering truth, one must remember that
it provides us not so much with reliable truth as subjective knowledge.