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NOTICE: The author of this question does not deem the use of those curses to be forgiveable under any but the most extreme circumstances.

What made the Unforgivable curses such? Is it due to legislation, consensus or otherwise? There are other curses which are equally evil, such as Obliviate - look what it does to Lockhart - which should also be considered Unforgivable. What about permanently transfiguring someone?

In short, What gives?

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    As is mentioned below, there is some degree of subjectivity. Compare it to our current legal environment for drugs. Some are basically legal (alcohol, marijuana in some US states), some are legal with restrictions (Valium, etc.), some are essentially illegal (such as cocaine). – EvilSnack Jul 16 '16 at 21:30
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Well, the Avada Kedavra, Imperius, and Cruciatus Curses were made illegal by the Ministry of Magic in 1717 and classified as Unforgivables at that time via legislation, "with the strictest penalties attached to their use." (Tales of Beedle the Bard - Page 142 - Collector Edition). So, technically, it's due to legislation.

However, legislation is always based on the will of a group of people (I won't say 'all'), so at some point before 1717, concern regarding Avada Kedavra, Imperius, and Cruciatus reached a boiling point. Perhaps there was a particular incident or series of incidents that served as a catalyst for the legislation and categorisation of the Unforgivables, but it's clear that these three spells in particular were problematic.

Evil is subjective. Why the Unforgivables are classified as such while Obliviate or Sectumsempra or an entrail-exploding curse are not included in that category is unclear from canon. Personally, I think that wiping memories or transfiguring someone against their will into an animal is morally reprehensible in general. There are always exceptions to the rule, where the use of a particular spell or curse might be deemed justified. It depends what POV you're looking at a situation from. Did Potter fans get all up in arms when Harry used the Imperius Curse in Deathly Hallows? No. Because they believed in him and his mission. But no-one likely felt sympathy for Barty Crouch for keeping Barty Crouch Jr. under the Imperius Curse for the however many years that he did, because his motivations were not ultimately selfless. That's what makes evil so insidious, I think. Like humour, it's so often subjective.

(NOTE: No cat was actually mowed over during the production of this post)

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    -1 for all the oppressed photoshopped cats – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jan 18 '12 at 17:59
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    Brilliant answer. I was pretty up in arms over Harry's use of Imperio, at least when I watched the film (Where I thought he cast Cheerio the cheering charm). I don't remember it being used in the book. – AncientSwordRage Jan 18 '12 at 18:05
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    @DVK - Pretend it's Mrs. Norris ;) – Slytherincess Jan 18 '12 at 19:00
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    As far as Imperio goes, here's another thing to consider: Choice and free will are very important to Rowling, and it shows in some of the spells she created. Harry lived because his mother chose to protect harry knowing she would die. Harry had the same protection cast on Hogwarts itself when he willing chose to go into the forest and face his death. The Sorting Hat doesn't place you in a house based on your abilities, it does so based on your choices. So it makes sense then that Imperio, which takes away your free will, is seen as such a evil curse. – Alex Jan 18 '12 at 19:41
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    I didn't mean that the children choose their house, just that the choices they've made is how the sorting hat determines the house. – Alex Jan 19 '12 at 5:40
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Well, they're called the unforgivable curses because that's what they are legally, right? I'm not going to get my book out, but I think fake!Moody says as much when he is teaching the class about them.

I don't think it is legal in the Harry Potter universe to use 'obliviate' the way that Lockhart does - he has a sinister plot going, and he gets his comeuppance. But 'obliviate' is a legal spell under the appropriate circumstances - for example, when being used by the ministry to preserve the secrecy of the wizarding world. Similarly, it's not OK to forcefully transform someone, but those transformation spells do have legal and helpful uses. There is NO situation, however, in which it is legal to torture someone, control someone else's actions, or to murder someone out of hatred. Therefore, those 3 spells, which have no other conceivable purpose and are in fact impossible to cast without cruel intention, are the unforgivables.

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    I think it's worth pointing out that Crucio and Avada Kedavra both require strong negative emotion and/or intent to actually do anything. I am not sure on Imperio, but I'm willing to bet that it, too, requires similar. This means that one cannot effectively cast the Unforgivable Curses calmly, with good intent and a clean conscience. Even when used for the greater good, Harry used Imperio in a stressful situation to conceal what was really happening. And I imagine he had at least some guilt about it afterwards. – Martin Carney Feb 26 '15 at 22:52
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If the oblivate spell were illegal, muggles would know everything about the wizarding world.

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These 3 spells are the only ones that can't be blocked by any known magical shielding spell. For a society that still has dueling as a tradition, an unblockable spell is the height of shame and outrage. It's the equivalent of bringing a gun to a sword fight; the level of dishonour is literally unforgivable.

The wiki says that the legislation was passed in 1717 when dueling would have still been an accepted way of solving disputes. So the law ensured that no one could use any of the 3 cheater spells in any duel.

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    Do you have any evidence of this? In particular, only Avada Kedavra is unblockable, as I understand it. – Adamant Jun 8 '16 at 4:54
  • The wiki says that the only way not to get hit against any of the 3 is not being the first thing it hits (ie dodging or cover). For Imperio only, a strong enough will can be used to resist the commands. The only other possibility is Elder Wand vs true master (ie end of Deathly Hollows), but as this is an esoteric & unique interaction I doubt it has any bearing on law. – Luke Jun 9 '16 at 10:15
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    Luke - Hmm. The HP Wiki is known for occasionally making errors. Is there any primary reference (books, JKR, Pottermore) that confirms this? – Adamant Jun 9 '16 at 10:16
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    For Crucio, the wiki points to Question 14 of the Grade 3 WOMBAT that Rowling wrote and had on her site prior to 2012. The question asks for the writer to choose the false answer from 5 possibilities and while "No defensive spell exists against the Cruciatus Curse" is a choice, it is not the correct choice (which is "Patronuses vary in strength according to which animal's form they take." -> this is false). – Luke Jun 9 '16 at 10:49
  • For Imperio, there is no direct evidence, but the only defense ever mentioned in any of the books is resisting the effects after you get hit with it. I can't believe that if there was a shield or counter to the curse, it would never have been mentioned at least once by any of Moody, Remus, Severus or Albus. – Luke Jun 9 '16 at 10:49

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