Responsibility in its purest form - does it apply to you? Massive spoilers for HPMOR ahead - you have been warned.

I have read HPMOR twice now, and will probably read it at least a third time sometime in the future. Even though the first few chapters could need a rewrite, overall it is very high among my favourite books, partially because it pushed me towards rationality in a significant degree - and I had considered myself rational before. I can only recommend you to read it

Warning: MASSIVE spoilers ahead. It is about maybe the most significant turning point, about 2/3 into the story. If you have not read HPMOR yet, it will give you an utterly wrong image about it. You have been warned.

Catching up

In Chapter 90, Hermoine just got killed by the troll - he sits outside of her hospital room, trying to think. Professor McGonnagall tries to comfort him, saying that it was not his fault, to which he responds:

“Of course it’s my fault. There’s no one else here who could be responsible for anything.”

And later on, when she wants to be held responsible by him:

“People like you aren’t responsible for anything, people like me are, and when we fail there’s no one else to blame.”

You might want to read HPMOR or at least the chapters leading up to it, or the chapter itself, before continuing. Large sections are quoted, to provide sufficient context for both of these quotes.

Fault and Responsibility


Let’s take a look at the first quote. We’ll need a bit of context for that. First, Professor McGonnagall is talking, then Harry.

She was aware now that tears were sliding down her cheeks, again. “Harry - Harry, you have to believe that this isn’t your fault!”

“Of course it’s my fault. There’s no one else here who could be responsible for anything.”

“No! You-Know-Who killed Hermione!” She was hardly aware of what she was saying, that she hadn’t screened the room against who might be listening. “Not you! No matter what else you could’ve done, it’s not you who killed her, it was Voldemort! If you can’t believe that you’ll go mad, Harry!”

“That’s not how responsibility works, Professor.” Harry’s voice was patient, like he was explaining things to a child who was certain not to understand. He wasn’t looking at her anymore, just staring off at the wall to her right side. “When you do a fault analysis, there’s no point in assigning fault to a part of the system you can’t change afterward, it’s like stepping off a cliff and blaming gravity. Gravity isn’t going to change next time. There’s no point in trying to allocate responsibility to people who aren’t going to alter their actions. Once you look at it from that perspective, you realize that allocating blame never helps anything unless you blame yourself, because you’re the only one whose actions you can change by putting blame there. […]”


Fault is something interesting. It implies responsibility for failure - something went wrong, and it was your fault. We don’t like to have faults, it implies there is something wrong with us. And while it’s hardly possible to be without faults, how many do people usually take responsibility for? Not that many.

What’s really interesting, however, is the next part: he claims responsibility for something he did not do. She’s trying to blame Voldemort - even though he was involved only indirectly - not that anyone really knows at this point. In reality, it was a troll who killed Hermoine. And yet, Voldemort is blamed. And yet, Harry takes responsibility. The funniest part: it’s both by an at least similar mechanism: Apparently it only depends on ‘Voldemorts’ and respective Harry’s actions, and not on anyone or anything elses - no one blames the troll.


When you do a fault analysis, there’s no point in assigning fault to a part of the system you can’t change afterward, it’s like stepping off a cliff and blaming gravity. Gravity isn’t going to change next time.

This might very well be the crux of the situation - When seeing it as a system of interactions, there is just no point in assigning fault to a part of the system that won’t change. The troll killed Hermoine - and he likely wouldn’t change any of his actions next time. At least, they cannot influence it in any way. Their circle of influence is only so big - the troll might as well be considered a ‘static’ part of the system, one you are not able to modify, or change in any way. It get’s dangerous fast as soon as you consider other people to be ‘static’.

You are not to blame


There is really just a few sentences missing from the last long quote, nothing signifiantly relevant to our current story.

“You’re not responsible,” she said, though her voice trembled. “It’s the Professors - it’s us who are responsible for student safety, not you.”

Harry’s eyes flicked back to her. “You’re responsible?” There was a tightness in the voice. “You want me to hold you responsible, Professor McGonagall?”

She raised her chin and nodded. It would be better, by far, than Harry blaming himself.

The boy pushed himself up from where he was sitting on the floor, and took a step forward. “All right, then,” Harry said in a monotone. “I tried to do the sensible thing, when I saw Hermione was missing and that none of the Professors knew. I asked for a seventh-year student to go with me on a broomstick and protect me while we looked for Hermione. I asked for help. I begged for help. And nobody helped me. Because you gave everyone an absolute order to stay in one place or they’d be expelled, no excuses. No matter what else Dumbledore gets wrong, he at least thinks of his students as people, not animals that have to be herded into a pen and kept from wandering out. You knew you weren’t any good at military thinking, your first idea was to have us walking through the hallways, you knew some students there were better than you at strategy and tactics, and you still nailed us down in one room without any discretionary judgment. So when something you didn’t foresee happened and it would’ve made perfect sense to send out a seventh-year student on a fast broom to look for Hermione Granger, the students knew you wouldn’t understand or forgive. They weren’t afraid of the troll, they were afraid of you. The discipline, the conformity, the cowardice that you instilled in them delayed me just long enough for Hermione to die. Not that I should’ve tried asking for help from normal people, of course, and I will change and be less stupid next time. But if I were dumb enough to allocate responsibility to someone who isn’t me, that’s what I’d say.”

Tears were streaming down her cheeks.

“That’s what I’d tell you if I thought you could be responsible for anything. But normal people don’t choose on the basis of consequences, they just play roles. There’s a picture in your head of a stern disciplinarian and you do whatever that picture would do, whether or not it makes any sense. A stern disciplinarian would order the students back to their rooms, even if there was a troll roaming the hallways. A stern disciplinarian would order students not to leave the Hall on pain of expulsion. And the little picture of Professor McGonagall that you have in your head can’t learn from experience or change herself, so there isn’t any point to this conversation. People like you aren’t responsible for anything, people like me are, and when we fail there’s no one else to blame.”


Of course she just wants to help, and prevent him to blame himself. It was her responsibility after all. She did not hold herself responsible as to what happened, as of yet - she wept for Hermoine and wanted to help Harry directly afterward. She did not hold herself responsible for what happened, she did not yet have the opportunity to. Based on the narrative of the story, she probably would have blamed herself, but not to the degree Harry would have blamed her if he saw her as someone responsible. As he would have blamed someone non-static.


But normal people don’t choose on the basis of consequences, they just play roles.

Taken from [Wikipedia][role]:

A role is a set of connected behaviors, rights, obligations, beliefs, and norms as conceptualized by people in a social situation. It is an expected or free or continuously changing behavior and may have a given individual social status or social position. It is vital to both functionalist and interactionist understandings of society.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it’s something between the mentioned ‘paradigms’ and ‘scripts’. In GTD it’s sometimes directly referred to as ‘role’. Sometimes a ‘commitment to the community’ (role: community manager) or taking ‘responsibility as father’ (role: father) include a role just as well. Same with identities - everything ‘I am ____’ is just one more role you have. Keep your identity small.

People like roles - me included. They make life tremendously easier, and give you a predefined set of behaviours, a safe way of acting. Having roles is somewhat meshed with (Virtue) Signaling - some roles provide a certain types of signal, e.g. a police uniform signals your role as a policemen, which you are currently executing.

Simply wearing a police uniform makes people behave in a way they would expect or want policemen to behave, watching out for details they think they would pay attention to. Something similar happens with your behaviour when you wear your good shirt for once - you are much more behaved and civil than usually, because now you are of higher social status and people like that behave more civil. Cloth maketh man.

Back to responsibility: Is it such a wonder that responsibilities induce similar changes, if not even more drastic ones? Does that in any way change your relationship with responsibility?

Roles and Responsibility

Behaving in a way you think someone with your role or responsibility should behave will only get you so far. Sure, it might massively help you executing your role, but it does not necessarily mean you will make the right decision - as is referenced in this chapter. If anything, it increases your responsibilities: You now have to act your role, and notice when it would be more beneficial not acting it. The first is hard enough already. Is it such a wonder that people succumb and not succeed?

Obviously it does not absolve you of any responsibility for acting according your role only - you acted after all. But can you blame others to act in a way they were expected to act? To act in a way they expected themselves to act? I would say no. Though it would be highly commendable and prove that they are a person of high self-confidence and intelligence. Self-confidence is required to break through the role, and intelligence (not necessarily IQ) to notice the appropriate situations for breaking through.

When you do a fault analysis, and they acted in the way you would expect them to, and everything still went wrong - maybe it’s time to adjust what their roles entail. If you are capable of doing so. But simply putting your students life before everything else only gets you so far if it is not known that you appreciate them breaking your rules in favour of attempting to save lives. They will just act their roles - and if it includes being an ‘obedient student in dangerous situations’, the likelyhood of seeing them doing something useful off-script is considerably small.

Others Responsibility

“People like you aren’t responsible for anything, people like me are, and when we fail there’s no one else to blame.”

I’m still not sure what to make out of this.

What not to take away

Being at Fault and Taking Blame

they are different:

  • you can always be at fault when you did something wrong
  • you are only to blame from your own perspective, everyone superior to you needs to blame themselves as well


It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one. - Unknown