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There are three Unforgivable Curses:

  • The Killing Curse (Avada Kedavra): Kills someone
  • The Cruciatus Curse (Crucio): Causes pain
  • The Imperius Curse (Imperio): Controls their will

But what about the Memory Charm (Obliviate)? Despite its label as a charm, shouldn't it be classified as an Unforgivable Curse?

We see them quite clearly in Chamber of Secrets where by Lockhart's own admission, it has the power to make someone lose their minds:

'The adventure ends here, boys!' he said. 'I shall take a bit of this skin back up to the school, tell them I was too late to save the girl, and that you two tragically lost your minds at the sight of her mangled body. Say goodbye to your memories!'

He raised Ron's Spellotaped wand high over his head and yelled, 'Obliviate!'

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - p.224 - Bloomsbury - Chapter 17, The Chamber of Secrets

As Au101 wrote in this answer about why Gilderoy Lockhart couldn't recover from his backfired Memory Charm:

"'Say goodbye to your memories!'" There's no talk of wiping out the last 24 hours or anything like that. "[Y]ou two tragically lost your minds", he's not just gonna do enough to get away with it.

Wiping someone's mind permanently seems like a short step away from outright killing them. And even if they don't completely wipe their mind, it seems like a huge personal violation to tamper with another person's memories. You could make them forget something really precious to them (e.g. the day they met their spouse) or some harm that was done to them (e.g. abuse).

Given all of this, why isn't the Memory Charm (Obliviate) an Unforgivable Curse? Or for that matter, why isn't it regulated at all?

  • 149
    The people in charge were going to put that on the agenda, but they all mysteriously forgot. – starpilotsix Oct 10 '16 at 17:34
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    I think that the issue here is the assumption that the use of this spell (as well as other spells that can be used for harm) is completely unregulated. The three unforgivable curses are largely only useful for harm, whereas there are legitimate unharmful reasons to allow a wizard to use Obliviate. But as we see with Sectumsempra and the Patronus Charm, there is the opportunity for regulation of spells, even those they are not specifically unforgivable to cast. If anything, I'd wonder why a number of curses, such as Sectumsempra, aren't likewise unforgivable (politics, I'd guess). – LJ2 Oct 10 '16 at 18:17
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    Honestly - I can't think of many legitimate uses for Obliviate compared with the number of potentially harmful ones (in the wizarding world anyway - as cited in an answer - dead useful for dealing with Muggles - but even then it's a bit of the honor system isn't it?) Good question! – NKCampbell Oct 10 '16 at 20:50
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    @Daerdemandt - “Dealing with regime’s enemies is always legitimate.” citation needed – Adamant Oct 11 '16 at 7:19
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    @Adamant In muggle world? Maybe. In Wizarding world? If you can't perform magic you would need very open-minded employer to get even an entry-level job as a janitor or something because you can't even be a part of society normally. It would be closer to some disability preventing one from mundane tasks like driving a car or using public transport, doing chores efficiently and so on. So, more like "crippling anxiety that prevents one from using any electronic device" than "taking away one's iphone". – Daerdemandt Oct 11 '16 at 9:17
65

It's not an unforgivable curse because it's a standard spell, used all the times by the wizards who have to deal with muggles witnessing magic.

‘It’s like some sort of … I dunno … like some sort of rally,’ said Mr Roberts. ‘They all seem to know each other. Like a big party.’ At that moment, a wizard in plus-fours appeared out of thin air next to Mr Roberts’s front door. ‘Obliviate!’ he said sharply, pointing his wand at Mr Roberts. Instantly, Mr Roberts’s eyes slid out of focus, his brows unknitted and a look of dreamy unconcern fell over his face.

Goblet of Fire

They are even called Obliviators

Arnold Peasegood, he’s an Obliviator –member of the Accidental Magic Reversal Squad, you know … and that’s Bode and Croaker … they’re Unspeakables …’

Goblet of Fire

Indeed in Halfblood Prince there are entire teams out there responsible for maintaining secrets

Fudge grimaced. ‘He used giants last time, when he wanted to go for the grand effect. The Office of Misinformation has been working round the clock, we’ve had teams of Obliviators out trying to modify the memories of all the Muggles who saw what really happened, we’ve got most of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures running around Somerset, but we can’t find the giant –it’s been a disaster.’

Halfblood Prince

It should also be noted, although Crouch authorises the use of unforgivable curses during the first war, this can be linked to martial law during WW2, emergency situations can lead to normal laws being relaxed or set aside.

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    I don't like the implication that a spell that can violate a person's memories is okay because "everybody is doing it" and it has institutional support, but I suspect that in the Wizarding Workd, that may be the right answer. – Thunderforge Oct 10 '16 at 18:00
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    That's using it on Muggles who saw things, though. That doesn't explain the lack of laws against using it on other wizards. – Slacklord the Terrible Oct 10 '16 at 18:01
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    @Thunderforge I'm pretty sure it's illegal when used to cause harm, but it's not unforgivable. Admittedly, it's not that different from Imperius. – Bergi Oct 10 '16 at 18:21
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    This answer is using some serious circular reasoning. It's not unforgivable because everyone uses it because it's not unforgivable? Right. – Martha Oct 11 '16 at 2:41
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    Funny how even someone like Hermione (who used Obliviate on the Death Eaters who attacked them in the cafe in London in Deathly Hallows) doesn't seem to have even the slightest qualm about the completely arbitrary way wizards Obliviate Muggles all the time. It may be necessary to preserve the secret of magic, but it never occurs to any wizard that this is a violation of another human being's mind. Maybe Muggles are considered sub-human by wizards? – Wallnut Oct 11 '16 at 15:16
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The Unforgiveable Curses are the curses for which there is no legitimate use at all. A memory charm could have, and does have, legitimate, honourable uses - modifying the memory of a muggle who's seen magic, or helping a person to overcome severe trauma, for example. Like almost anything, there's the potential there for abuse, absolutely there is, but unlike the Unforgiveables, they can be used for good. The Unforgiveable Curses are so named because

"The use of any one of them will...earn you a one-way ticket to Azkaban."

It's worth remembering that JKR pretty much wrote the Potterverse in broad strokes, skipping a lot of detail that we, as obsessive fans, then...well...obsess over. Details like exactly how you control how much memory is wiped by the memory charm, or how you can control what memories are wiped. Apparently that control does exist, though, because we know that Hermione managed to wipe her parents memories of her, specifically. We also know that these memories can be restored later, another reason that the charm is not Unforgiveable.

EDITED TO ADD:

For a wizard, who has access to the ability to stun, disarm, restrain, or otherwise incapacitate an attacker, self-defence isn't a legitimate reason to kill/cause agonizing pain/override one's free will. We muggles are used to the idea that to stop someone, you might have to kill them or cause extreme pain, but even we have the notion of 'excessive force'. For a wizard, killing someone directly and unambiguously is excessive. Even a spell like Sectumsempra could be used to, say, cut off someone's wand hand.

The exception would come when one is facing an enemy that routinely uses the Killing Curse, which cannot be blocked. That's why Barty Crouch authorized the use of the Unforgiveables during the war.

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    There are legitimate uses for most effective sef-defence spell on the market though. – Daerdemandt Oct 10 '16 at 22:34
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    It's not that they have no legitimate uses (self defense is usually considered legitimate), it's that they have no uses that don't cause harm. But this is still closer to the correct answer than saying that "everybody is doing it, so it must be OK". – Martha Oct 11 '16 at 2:39
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    I would have thought the Imperius Curse (Imperio) (controls their will) could be used for the occasional good? Imagine someone wanting to throw themselves off a bridge. This could be used to stop them but you'd get a nasty trip to Azkaban for trying to help? – Tikeb Oct 11 '16 at 10:09
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    Better to use a hover charm to catch them, or a stunner to knock them out and move them to safety. The thing is that with other spells available, you don't need to use the Unforgiveables. It's the difference between shooting back at an attacker and killing them vs executing an unresisting person at point blank range with a headshot. We muggles tend to think of self-defence as the ability to kill an attacker, because we don't really have an effective middle ground. Wizards do have that middle ground. – Werrf Oct 11 '16 at 12:03
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    Hmmm. I'd argue that anyone being mortally threatened by a wizard who has a shield stronger than they can break can only reasonably defend themselves by means of a spell which can go through any shield. Though wizard society seems to have a lot of "might makes right" type assumptions. – Murphy Oct 11 '16 at 15:13
4

The classification is done by the ministry, which clearly has great convenience from using obliviate on muggles. They'd need a strong incentive to outlaw it, which they don't have, given the spells usage is socially accepted.
Compare it to todays guns laws: even very restrictive countries equip their soldiers and law officers with guns, since not doing so would bring them a disadvantage with no real benefits.

On a side note, unbreakable vows can also be used to control someone, and are considered quite normal if I recall correctly.

  • How does an unbreakable vow control someone? – JohnP Oct 5 '17 at 18:56
  • It kills the victim when he breaks the vow - basically the victim can choose between the effects of avada kedavra and imperius. – sh4dow Oct 6 '17 at 20:55
  • It kills both of them. Hardly a great control. – JohnP Oct 7 '17 at 7:36
  • It kills the one who breaks the vow, and there is no rule that says that both have to promise something. If there is a difference to the unforgivable curses it's that for the vow to work the victim has to verbally agree (which might be done via imperio as a 2nd layer of safety, or by persuasion/extortion/*crucio*), while the other curses are unblockable, and that the vow isn't useful in actively hostile environments. – sh4dow Oct 8 '17 at 9:57
  • @sh4dow Are you saying Imperio can't be resisted? Because that's not actually true. Harry even resists Voldemort's in GOF (Barty Crouch Jr as Mad-Eye teaches Harry's class but only Harry is successful in the ability)! And Barty Crouch Jr resists his father's too though it took years for him to do so. – Pryftan Dec 3 '17 at 0:27
2

I imagine that the obliviate curse could be resisted, similarly to Harry's resistance of Voldemorts mind reading ability.

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    Not true. The Imperius Curse can be fought. – Wildcard Oct 11 '16 at 16:17
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    -1 for clearly wrong answer. Like Wildcard pointed out, The Imperius Curse can be fought. And in fact Harry was more talented of blocking Imperio than using Occlumency against Voldemorts Legilimens. And to quote Professor Snape "You have no subtlety, Potter. You do not understand fine distinctions. It is one of the shortcomings that makes you such a lamentable potion-maker." Meaning that there's a clear difference between Legilimens and mind reading. (I didn't find that exact quote in english, but that points to the same thing) – Renttutar Oct 14 '16 at 7:57
  • true those are possible to resist, I was referring to the Killing Curse, sorry I did not make this more clear, but again your comment makes my point, Obliviate is not forbidden in part because there is a possibility of resistance. – William Ledbetter Nov 14 '16 at 2:18
  • @WilliamLedbetter Harry resists that is more like after Voldemort tries to possess him and Harry thinks of his friend/loved ones it pains Voldemort so much he doesn't try Legilimency again. And later on Harry still sees in Voldemort's mind/actions but he also does block it out at times of necessity. I don't see how you could resist Obliviate though if you're hit by it. Someone else can extract it though for sure; Dumbledore does this and so does Voldemort. And Hermione only uses a False Memory Charm on her parents so that she can restore their memories of her etc. – Pryftan Dec 3 '17 at 0:31

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