Lesson 9) Ethics in Herbology /Essay Topics in Herbology (Should I become a NEWT)

Herbology 501

Professor Tudor


Year 5 – Politics, Theory, and Research

Lesson 9 – Ethics in Herbology – Philosophy and Herbology

Lesson Objectives

  • Students should leave this lesson with a grasp on how to approach ethical decisions in Herbology
  • Students will be able to discuss ways of making ethical judgements in Herbology based upon popular ethical theories

Optional Extra Reading

           Note: As a Professor, I am not endorsing this standpoint on ethics, and will leave my own opinion of Professor Dumbledore out of this reading recommendation. This piece is here to give you a perspective to read through and critically analyze on your own, which is excellent skill development for your continuation of Herbology.


Students! Welcome to the last class we have together before you write your O.W.L. examinations. This lesson is going to be a little different in order to ensure you are all prepared for the examination ahead. Please note that there will be no review point at the end of this lesson, as we will be spending that time discussing what you can expect from your O.W.L., and then what you should know when considering whether or not to continue through to N.E.W.T. level Herbology.

Different Ethical Systems and Their Relation to Herbology

In order to develop an understanding of the various ethical systems, we need to begin with a list of the most popular ones that are used or discussed today. We may not go as in depth into all of them, but in case you are interested in any particular set of theories, you should leave this lesson with enough knowledge to seek a deeper understanding on your own.

  1. Utilitarianism: One should do what causes the most good, or “utility,” which is usually defined as whatever causes the most happiness.
  2. Kantianism: One should act based upon universally acceptable logic.
  3. Virtue ethics: One should act according to what shows the best moral character.
  4. Egoism: One should act according to their own self-interest.
  5. Religion or divine command theory: The standard depends upon the religion, but it is generally either “One should do what God says because God is the highest being in the universe” or “One should act according to the standard of morality set by God because God is the perfection of morality.”
  6. *Natural law: Moral standards should be derived from the nature of humans and the world.
  7. Social contract theory: One should act according to the way their society functions.
  8. Moral relativism: All standards of right and wrong are based only on the time and the culture, rather than as a universal truth.


Utilitarianism is about actions yielding the greatest "utility," which can be interpreted in many ways. Utility is often understood in terms of producing the most happiness, pleasure, or satisfaction. This theory is popular in our time as a way in which others approach our feild. This is because it is easily applied in politics, business, and other broad decision-making occasions. How this theory is applied to plants is through implementing a cost-benefit analysis. Let’s look at how this works by examining the harvesting of Mandrakes for a potion to revive petrified people.

The first step in a cost benefit analysis is assigning “units of benefit” to every factor involved in the process. This is generally done by assigning a monetary value to everything. Imagine that five people have been petrified in a workplace accident. The workplace would put a value on those people's’ lives based upon the amount of money they would need to spend on paying out insurance and combating the negative publicity. Plants would be priced based on their cost to obtain. In our case, we are going to simply equate the life of one plant with the life of one human, as it is the simplest way to evaluate the process. In one batch of the Mandrake Restorative Draught (which is capable of reviving up to five people), two mandrakes are used. According to a cost benefit analysis, you use two units of benefit (the mandrakes) and gain five units of benefit (the people unpetrified), which means a total gain of three benefits. Since more benefit occurs from brewing the potion than leaving the Mandrakes alive, in this case the theory would consider making the potion to save the people to be the most moral choice.

The utilitarian method is clearly capable of being applied to a wide variety of situations involving herbology. A cost-benefit analysis is able to consider factors such as impact on the environment. Many people, including a sizeable percentage of herbologists, object to assigning a monetary value to human lives, and the environment. Assigning units of benefit may at times be arbitrary as well, as it can be difficult to evaluate potential outcomes and risk. Despite the negative attributes of this theory, the fact that it can be consistently applied to various situations involving plants means that it is going to be in use for a long time. Since this method is used in the political sphere, it is especially important to understand how it works when approaching politicians in regards to laws surrounding herbology.


The idea that “one should act based upon universally acceptable logic” is quite difficult to apply to the intricate questions of morality faced in the field of herbology; however, it may be applied to show actions which are reasonable on a general level. Kant (the founder of the theories of Kantian ethics) believed that for every moral situation there is a categorical imperative, or a universal truth to follow.

Let’s look at the general question “should we take care of the natural environment?” in order to examine this philosophy. First, Kant would look at the environment and say “what is its purpose?” Well, the natural environment is a space we live in, and we need it in order to have a good and healthy life. Kant’s conclusion would be that, because the purpose of the environment is to promote good lives for everyone, we should always act in a way which takes care of the environment (so that the environment can carry out its purpose), even if others do not. Kant’s theory reasons that it is universally true that the environment is necessary for life and that it is always necessary to care for the environment because of this reasoned universal truth.

While this theory yields a positive outlook on caring for the environment, it is difficult to both use “universally acceptable reasoning” as well as make every moral question a matter of universal application. For those who subscribe to Kant’s theory of ethics, it is clear that there is a generally positive outcome for moral questions involving herbology.

Virtue Ethics

This theory is rather simplistic in terms of its relation to herbology. Like in Kantianism, one would conclude that a person should care for the environment, but because it shows that they are acting in a benevolent manner. Those who apply this theory of ethics would make choices that tend to respect plants, as morality is based upon what actions show that a person is good. (What is defined as virtuous depends on the group of people promoting this theory - see http://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_virtue_ethics.html for some examples). Asking yourself “would I appear to be a good person if I …” before acting may seem rather foolish, but could produce good choices in many situations. Would you seem like a wise and kind person if you watered your plants when they needed it? Yes. Unfortunately, the appearance of virtuous actions can be quite subjective and arbitrary when applied to complex situations. This theory is neither promoted nor officially rejected by herbologists at this time.


Herbologists reject the use of egoism as an ethical theory when applied to situations involving plants and the environment. When a person is acting in a way which only promotes their own interests there is little room for benefiting the field of herbology. For an example of how Egoism could play out, take the fact that I have an allergy to dandelions. In Year Two we discussed the benefits of dandelions (and grew them!), including how dandelions bring up nutrients in the soil and have a high vitamin and mineral content. Dandelions are quite beneficial to the field of herbology; however, if I were to act according to the ethical theory of egoism, I would destroy any dandelion I come across because it can give me an allergic reaction. Another reason egoism does not work well in the field of herbology is that it is easier for a person to be lazy than to be productive. Is it in your own best interest to go outside and water the plants in the greenhouse when you can stay inside and keep reading your favourite book? When people are only thinking about what is best for themselves it can be difficult to see how caring for something or someone else is a desirable choice.

Religion or Divine Command

If you are a person who bases moral choices upon a religious basis, I recommend doing your own research about how your system of beliefs would apply to herbology and the treatment of the environment. There are simply too many different faiths to get into them all here. 

Natural Law

You may have noticed that I placed an asterisk next to this theory in the original lists of theories. That is because this is the method promoted by most herbologists as the best way to determine moral actions in relation to individual plants. With the theory of natural law in determining ethics, the focus is on the morality of an action itself (rather than basing the judgement on the consequences of the action). To use natural law reasoning we start with the idea that what is good and right is what fulfils the meaning and purpose of life. From this standpoint, we can derive things such as “murder is bad” because it ends a human life, which goes against the natural purpose of a human (which is to live). This theory applies quite nicely to plants, as it involves looking at the natural purpose of each plant and making an ethical decision based on the best use for that plant. Let’s go through two examples.

First of all, imagine that we are back in the utilitarian ethical scenario where five people are petrified. When determining whether it is good to uproot two Mandrakes, we would ask ourselves “what are the natural purposes of a Mandrake?” In examining the properties of a Mandrake, we see that the plant is naturally capable of helping restore a petrified person. So, using the logic of natural law, we can reason that utilizing it to save the people is an ethical decision.

Now imagine you are walking through the forest and you spot a lovely flower which you want to take home. You know from your Herbology classes that this flower, when fully matured, turns into a fruit which helps sick creatures recover from their illnesses. Natural law would reason that the purpose of the flower is to become a fruit to save creatures, and not to look pretty on your kitchen table. Natural law therefore expresses the need to conserve the environment for productive uses, rather than committing acts of waste which, over time, harm the environment.

Social Contracts

In terms of herbology, the ethical theory of following social contracts basically comes down to following the laws which the Ministry of Magic has in place. While the actual meaning of a social contract is an implicit agreement among people which causes the organization of a society, there are very few scenarios where these implicit agreements are clear in herbology. However, it can be argued that as a part of the magical community, those involved in herbology are implicitly liable to the Ministry and therefore responsible for following the explicit rules set out by the government. Herbologists will argue that “what is legal is not always right” (such as the rounding up of Muggleborns under Minister Pius Thicknesse, or under Cornelius Fudge, when, according to Educational Decree No. 27, any student found in possession of The Quibbler was to be expelled). Herbologists are currently advocating for many changes to current laws as well as asking for the formation of new laws in order to protect the environment and their work.

Moral Relativity

While this theory of ethics has gained a popular standing, it is difficult to accomplish much with it. If right and wrong are subjective, then there is no objective difference between harvesting two Mandrakes and letting five people remain petrified. There is no consistent method for critiquing the judgements of any particular time or culture, since no time and culture is privileged over others. If it is considered good in one society to add pollutants to the environment, then for them it is good. If it is understood by the people that worshiping the earth and caring for plants has the highest value in another culture, then that is what is good for them. Herbologists mostly avoid this method of determining ethics, considering that since the Gardening Effect it has been mostly normal to devalue plants and the environment.

We O.W.L. Got Expectations

Now that we have covered the different ethical theories and how those perspectives can relate to herbology, let’s talk about what is weighing on all your minds. Those upcoming O.W.L.s. Students, I am proud of the work I have seen from you all this term, and know that, for the most part, you are ready to take your O.W.L. examinations. And there is still a little bit of time left for those of you who need to complete further study of some aspects of Herbology.

Remember that your O.W.L. examination will be cumulative – that is, you will be tested on material from all five years of your Herbology education. That does not mean that questions on material from your first year will be easy, as you will have to apply that information with the level of knowledge you should be at now. Identifying plants and theories, handling aspects of caring for plants properly and efficiently, and being able to analyze information related to herbology are all skills you should be confident in when you take the exam. You will need to bring your wand, and other protective equipment (aside from earmuffs) with you.

Now is also the time when you may be considering whether or not you are going to continue with Herbology to the N.E.W.T. level. It may be decided for you by the requirements for the career you want, but if you still aren’t sure about your future, or if you are thinking about electives, I of course recommend continuing in Herbology. Aside from learning about plants, Herbology also teaches you practical skills such as critical thinking and decision making, and develops your creativity and quick reflexes. Next year we talk about famous herbologists, especially in terms of ancient and modern herbology. We also take care of many N.E.W.T. level plants, such as Venomous Tentacula.  In Year Seven we get to work with rare magical plants and discuss complex aspects of herbology. It is in this year that you will learn about how plants communicate to each other. As a part of N.E.W.T. level studies, you will be required to pick a topic of particular interest to you and write a paper. Picking a topic must be done in collaboration with your professors. It is possible to seek out help finding research materials.

That is all for today! Good luck on all your examinations! Professor Rowan and I hope that you will continue studying Herbology.

New Year Five Herbology lessons will be posted as soon as possible.

To continue to receive house points, you may choose to complete these lessons.

Thank you for your patience,
Professor Rowan