Theft, pt. 3: magical ownership
In my previous post I talked about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and how the purpose of magic is to make it possible to place people, arbitrarily, the kind of abhorrent situations that cause skepticism. Murder, torture, mind control, etc: for the most part I’m comfortable with how Rowling gives these sins magical life; I have more problems with how she treats those sins that are less abhorrent. Consider things like property and privacy and honor, and their attendant sins, theft and charity and voyeurism and exhibitionism and slander and boasting. How would magic affect these? And what is their relationship to skepticism, anyhow?
Honor is perhaps the least badly done. The Potter books are at least fairly critical of Rita Skeeter and her Quick Quotes Quill. But the quills themselves aren’t treated as particularly problematic. Wouldn’t the kind of power they give be even more socially dangerous than love potions and memory spells, since they affect not just one person, but the whole community?
Well, yes, and I think that’s why Rowling doesn’t explore the problem further: Rowling isn’t interested in magic that calls into doubt the standing of the community. A loss of honor’s skeptical correlation isn’t a personal/universal worry (“is there an external world?”, “do other minds exist?”), it’s a communal one: “what if the community is wrong?” The wizarding community being wrong is something that happens all the time, of course, but it’s never blamed primarily on magic, it’s blamed on the people who are wrong. Rowling doesn’t seem interested in how difficult magic would make it to build up enough trust to form a community in the first place, because she needs the community to be there already so that Harry can rebel against it.
In a related issue, the Potter books basically ignore the problem of privacy, and I can see why, but it’s not really an excuse. Potter-verse magic makes it possible to observe anyone at any time undetected; it’s perfect surveillance technology, and available to everyone, not just the government and big corporations. Really now–a handful of (fairly bright) teenagers were able to create a Marauder’s Map that was able to tell you the exact location of anyone within Hogwarts’ school grounds. What would stop a wizard a bit smarter from switching that map from “street layout” to “satellite”? How would the Ministry of Magic deal with magical peeping Toms? I’ve no idea. I’m not sure it could.
Privacy is a really complicated thing, and magically calling it into question raises a number of skeptical worries, but the most important one, maybe, is this: “what if the community makes up its mind?” Whenever we do something wrong we don’t want it to be found out because we want a chance to take it back; with privacy gone, we lose the gap between what we do and who people think we are. Does this just mean eliminating hypocrisy? Well, maybe, but hypocrisy’s not all bad, for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere. It’s a complex issue, in any case. And Rowling almost entirely ignores it.
And what about theft? That’s perhaps the most complex of all. With scarcity done away with (and thus commerce as we know it, though Rowling ignores this implication), theft only makes sense if what’s stolen has more than material value: if it’s an artifact, an artwork, a sentimental token. A relic. The theft of a relic is a strange in-between case. It’s not quite a crime against grammar, because even relics are objects and really can be owned, but it’s not just stealing money either (well, as if money were completely material!). Theft of magical artifacts plays a big role in Harry Potter, of course, but artifacts in those books seem to always gravitate towards their “proper” owner, as if by magic. There don’t appear to be spells to change an artifact’s owner; moral and magical and legal ownership are coextensive.
This is reassuring, but perhaps not very plausible. Mostly, I find it an unfortunate failure to explore what could have been a fascinating question: what happens when I’m forced to confront the fact that the things I care about don’t care about me? This isn’t a form of skepticism only because it’s true, because putting your faith in aesthetic objects has always been an absurd proposition. Except in the Potter-verse, it’s not; swords can chose their swordsmen, paintings can talk back to you, hats can tell you who you are. Which is charming, until it begins to seem horrifying: what is it like to be a person in a painting? Would destroying the painting be tantamount to murder? If so, is there any way for the painting-person to die a natural death? Or is the painting world a kind of hellish afterlife?
And that hat: why would you trust anyone other than God to know you that well, and to announce to the world who you were? To invade your privacy and make or break your honor? Harry Potter takes as an unstated premise the idea that we would let society do these things to us, without batting an eye. It matters who’s running the Ministry of Magic, of course, and when bad men get control of it, things get very bad–but the existence of that Ministry, and its simultaneously haphazard and absolute powers of propaganda, surveillance, and enforcement, aren’t up for debate.