How the Sorting Hat Made Me Think About Justice

Admit it. Some time in your life, you’ve probably taken a Harry Potter sorting quiz, typically from the Internet, as I just did yesterday. Supposedly, I’m a Hufflepuff, but one of the hypotheticals this quiz used to make that determination stood out to me:

“You have saved up for months to buy a new bike. As you’re getting ready to buy it, a child runs by and steals your money. You chase him down and find that his mother is deathly ill and the child stole the money to buy her medicine.”
The Almighty Guru

Granted, this dilemma is not particularly deep, and it’s at least as old as Les Miserables, but even my cynical self can acknowledge the value of asking the simple questions. This scenario frames the matter in a different light than that book, as the thief is a child, whose mother’s sickness is directly emphasized.

None of which makes the problem any easier. The compassionate thing to do obviously seems to be to let the kid keep the money, considering America’s health care system does not — as far as I know — guarantee a safety net of basic life-saving care for someone who cannot pay for it. How, after all, does the value of a bicycle compare to that of a person’s life, especially when that person is loved dearly by a child?

Put that way, it looks simple. Any other course of action would be callous by comparison. Yet how can we say this consistently when our priorities, in so many ways we like to pretend don’t exist, claim otherwise?

Our society allows grotesque numbers of preventable deaths — in this country alone — because people don’t have the money that we spend on extravagant dinners and extra TVs. We consider it theft for a government (as for one person) to use taxation to combat this solipsism.

We unquestioningly make automobile transportation the social norm, and many of us criticize capital punishment for being a cruel institution of denial of life’s value. This is despite, as the speaker in the video below notes (skip to about 4:35), the damage several orders of magnitude greater inflicted by car accidents compared to the death penalty.

The uploader’s numbers vary somewhat from the source above (even considering the video was made in 2011), but his point stands independent of the particular ethical question he addresses here — which I may return to in future posts, particularly referencing the central argument of this video. I encourage the reader to watch it in full regardless, since if nothing else it’s a case study in the subtle complexities of moral arguments that appear straightforward, one way or the other.

DISCLAIMER: None of this is to say that the above attitudes are necessarily unacceptable (or, if they are, they may be brute facts of apathetic human nature we have to accept), as I am of course oversimplifying things. (Or am I? Is this what every generation that permits appalling social evils tells itself, just as we said centuries ago that slavery was too integral to the South’s economy to abolish?) It could be that the true error lies in our moral hypocrisy, or that the value outweighing the proverbial mother’s life is a fundamental liberty, although I like to think the obvious answer to this dilemma really is the right one. It wouldn’t be easy to live up to, but it would leave us less demoralized and more confident in our consciences.

I’m not trying to be wishy-washy. I just think some perspective on issues like this couldn’t hurt, and if the idea I imply here does turn out faulty upon further inspection, so much the stronger does the truth stand after this test. Undoubtedly, this consideration will help us as we continue looking at John Locke’s work.

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5 thoughts on “How the Sorting Hat Made Me Think About Justice

  1. “We consider it theft for a government (as for one person) to use taxation to combat this solipsism.”

    I hope you were being sarcastic when you said that.

    • I honestly wasn’t. That really is a standard view among most people I know (although I’ve grown up in a fairly conservative context). It’s where the fear-mongering cries of “socialism!” come from, after all, and even more level-headed libertarians agree with its premise. Granted, it’s not as if America has no welfare system whatsoever right now for those who genuinely need it, but it’s imperfect enough to make scenarios like the hypothetical I mention in this post unsurprising.

      • A debt that you ethically and legally owe cannot be called “theft”. Calling taxes “theft” is like calling the landlord a “thief” for requiring you to pay your rent. And in a democracy, where we all help to elect the representatives who determine the programs and the taxes, it is you calling the rest of us “thieves”.

        And even F. A. Hayek, in his classic anti-socialist book, “The Road to Serfdom”, endorses social insurance programs (see Chap 9) and distinguishes these from a centrally planned economy which is what “socialism” actually refers to. So lets try to keep that straight as well.

        • Right, I’m not necessarily endorsing either the “publicized health care is theft” view or a pro-socialist view. The “we” I refer to is the aggregate of American critics of public health care who assume it is equal to Obamacare, or who flat-out admit to caring more about keeping their “hard-earned” surplus money than about saving fellow citizens’ lives. Some degree of self-interest is warranted in a free society, but it seems like madness to preserve a person’s right to horrendously splurge at the expense of those stricken with afflictions they didn’t ask for.

          Not sure if you’re intending to be accusatory here, but that’s the impression that I got, so I just wanted to set the record straight there. I agree that “A debt that you ethically and legally owe cannot be called ‘theft’,” but the people whose extreme libertarianism I am criticizing here disagree.

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