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As Dobby clearly states, house-elves are enslaved to families, not individuals.

"Your family?"
"The wizard family Dobby serves, sir...Dobby is a house-elf - bound to serve one house and one family for ever..."
(Chamber of Secrets, Chapter 2, Dobby's Warning).

Whilst most house-elf tasks are probably pretty mundane, it seems to me that there is the potential for a conflict of interest between different family members. Say there were two brothers who were the sole heirs to the family name and therefore the only two who could give orders to their house-elf. If they were to give the elf contradictory orders (e.g. one said, "Leave the house" and the other simultaneously said, "Stay in the house". Or one said, "Give this person this message" and the other had already commanded, "Do not contact this person in any way"), what would the elf do? Would it have to find a way of obeying both orders, even if that was impossible? Or would it simply have to pick a side and punish itself later?

We know that whilst elves can exercise autonomy in how they interpret their masters' commands and that they can do things that they haven't been ordered to do (like Dobby warning Harry), even if their masters may disapprove. But they cannot disobey a direct order from their master(s). They have to comply.

The canon-example that prompted this question was Regulus' order for Kreacher to keep schtum about the cave.

"And his mistress was mad with grief, because Master Regulus had disappeared, and Kreacher could not tell her what had happened, no, because Master Regulus had f-f-forbidden him to tell any of the f-f-family what happened in the c-cave..."
(Deathly Hallows, Chapter 10, Kreacher's Tale).

Mrs Black never thought to order Kreacher to tell her what happened to Regulus, but she could've done. In which case, Kreacher would've been in a real quandary.

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    Their head explodes and you need to buy a new house elf to clean up the mess. – Valorum Dec 3 '16 at 11:43
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    @Valorum That can't be it. If their heads exploded then you couldn't mount them on the wall – CHEESE Dec 3 '16 at 12:10
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    "Or would it simply have to pick a side and punish itself later?" - this sounds like the most likely answer. – Rand al'Thor Dec 3 '16 at 12:43
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    I think it would punish itself anyway. – trysis Dec 4 '16 at 3:16
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    Ohh sure!!! Now, the Dark lord takes notice of the elves... – user96551 Dec 4 '16 at 17:41
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"As Dobby clearly states, house-elves are enslaved to families, not individuals."

I am not sure I agree. House elves obey the family members, sure, but it seems the elf has a master he belongs to. This person's orders take precedence. They obey the other family members as long as it doesn't contradict a direct order by their owner. For example in the Crouch family, Winky served Bartemius Crouch Senior. On his orders, she was the keeper of his son, Barty Crouch Junior, and used her magic to subdue him:

"Winky was afraid to see me so angry. She used her own brand of magic to bind me to her. She pulled me from the tent, pulled me into the forest, away from the Death Eaters. I tried to hold her back. I wanted to return to the campsite. I wanted to show those Death Eaters what loyalty to the Dark Lord meant, and to punish them for their lack of it. I used the stolen wand to cast the Dark Mark into the sky. “Ministry wizards arrived. They shot Stunning Spells everywhere. One of the spells came through the trees where Winky and I stood. The bond connecting us was broken. ~Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - Veritaserum

Barty's story about his escape proves that he could not order Winky to let him go free, otherwise he would have done so. Winky was under instructions from the head of the family to keep him prisoner.

There is also the example when Sirius, head of the Black family, left all his property (including Kreacher) to Harry Potter, who wasn't member of the Black family, and Harry became the owner or Kreacher:

“Well, that simplifies matters,” said Dumbledore cheerfully. “It seems that Sirius knew what he was doing. You are the rightful owner of number twelve, Grimmauld Place and of Kreacher.” ~Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince - Will and Won't

And that's the resolution of Dumbledore's dilemma what to do with an elf whose head is full of secrets of the Order. When Sirius left all his property to Harry, Kreacher became Harry's slave, had to obey Harry's orders and not anyone else's. He may call Bellatrix or Narcissa 'mistress' and Draco 'young master' but those are empty words. Harry is the one he has to obey.

"Mrs Black never thought to order Kreacher to tell her what happened to Regulus, but she could've done. In which case, Kreacher would've been in a real quandary."

It is unclear whom Kreacher had to obey above others in the Black family. The pureblood inheritance seems to follow the principle of primogeniture, and it might be that Regulus' orders took precedence over Walburga's. It also might be that at same point Kreacher was given to Regulus as his personal slave. Or maybe the precedence was by senority, and had Walburga given a direct order, Kreacher would have told her what happened with Regulus. In any case, when given a direct order by the owner, or the family members, the elf tries to obey according to his best ability. But there are slips:

“The Mudblood touched Kreacher, he will not allow it, what would his Mistress say?” “I told you not to call her ‘Mudblood’!” snarled Harry, but the elf was already punishing himself: He fell to the ground and banged his forehead on the floor.~Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Kreacher's Tale

And situations when the elf is unable to carry out the order:

“Nothing Kreacher did made any mark upon it,” moaned the elf. “Kreacher tried everything, everything he knew, but nothing, nothing would work. . . . So many powerful spells upon the casing, Kreacher was sure the way to destroy it was to get inside it, but it would not open. . . . Kreacher punished himself, he tried again, he punished himself, he tried again. Kreacher failed to obey orders, Kreacher could not destroy the locket!

That's probably the solution to the elf's dilemma if he receives conflicting orders from his owner or from two or more members of the family - if the elf can't figure out which orders he should follow and is unable to ask for clarifications from his master, as @Rand al'Thor suggests, the elf would probably punish himself for failing to obey orders.

  • Kreacher loved regulus especially, which may be why his order not to speak over-rode any orders to the contrary. And he hated sirius, which is why he was able to go to cousins bella and narcissa instead for orders to lie to harry and ultimately cause sirius' death. – marcellothearcane Dec 16 '18 at 21:45
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The elves we have seen do suggest to me a hierarchy within families.

Your Regulus example is an interesting one, because I was going to say that clearly in the Black family, Sirius and Regulus's mother Walburga was Kreacher's mistress and he had minimal respect for Sirius in particular despite his being a full family member. However, your example shows her suffering because of an order from one of her sons. But, as has been suggested, I think that she could have ordered the truth out of Kreacher if she had thought to do so - but she had no inkling that her lowly elf would know anything of use.

I know of no concrete evidence, but I think that Kreacher's adoration for the woman he calls his mistress repeatedly and lack of respect for her son suggests that older members of the family have priority in cases of conflicted orders.

Does it seem likely then to think of Dobby having more respect for Lucius or Narcissa than Draco? I certainly think that that seems very likely - not that I imagine Draco played up much during his younger years!

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    It would seem sensible to give adults the prerogative. However, surely that would be part of the practicalities of parenting. You would want to allow house elves to say no to children if they were to give irresponsible orders (like stealing a wand). Or maybe house elves don't receive orders from family members until they're of age. But if you were to have a household of adult wizards, how would the elf choose who to obey? – The Dark Lord Dec 3 '16 at 14:28
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    Well, Sirius's mother does seem to be his mistress above others. Perhaps there is always one in that position? I'm going to look into Winky's case to see if that helps but I've had to go out. – ThruGog Dec 3 '16 at 15:05
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It might be dependent upon the family, but the house elf might be able to point out that they already have opposing orders, assuming no hierarchy.

Hierarchy, I'm sure is also at work, as you wouldn't want to lose your house elf because your 3-year-old thrust a shirt into the elf's hands, thereby giving them clothes in a some what similar method to Dobby's freedom. But assuming two adult family members, there may or may not be specific hierarchy. Kreacher resents Sirius's rule over him, but has to obey, as he does once Harry gains ownership.

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Have you noticed that a lot of the house elves we encounter in the series are a bit cuckoo?

Apparently contradictory orders causes them mental distress until it's relieved, either by clarification, or a few beats of the head against the floor.

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