Old text of my previous Ethics article, rewritten and updated in July 2020.
A metaphor or two
A friend of mine, whose background is in the Feri tradition, gave a description I really liked a few years ago. She suggested that each of us has a cast iron cauldron living inside us. Each and every action we do affects that cauldron (just like each and every food we cook in a cast-iron pot affects that pot.)
Over time, we can build up a powerful seasoning that makes doing other similar things much easier (sort of like a river running a pattern in rock, to mix my metaphors.) On the other hand, doing something that goes against that seasoning affects everything else we make from then on.
We have two options: live with the flaw until other seasoning eventually blots it out (which might take a very long time), or scrub everything out, make amends for the thing that went against our seasoning, and start all over again.
When you put it this way, there aren’t that many things I want to do that go directly against my previous choices. Most people I might be upset with aren’t worth that kind of long-term work and cleaning and re-seasoning to fix the effects and get back to where I am now. Put that way, it’s actually much easier to take the high road, make necessary changes, and to get on with my own life, rather than getting caught in wishing someone ill, or wanting to harm them.
What inspires our ethics?
Unlike Christianity or Judaism or Islam, we Pagans have no single central religious text. Wiccan based traditions look at some common sources for our ethical structures, and it’s good to be aware of what these are. (Reconstructionists generally look at honoured writings or teachings within their path in a similar away). These sources are advisory, not rules that must be followed.
There are multiple versions. Many people are aware of the short Rede: “An it harm none, do as ye will.” It’s often misunderstood (see below), but at its base, it’s saying “If this doesn’t harm anyone, do as your will directs” Will is often considered to have a magical implication: we’re talking about your fully-developed and considered will, not a passing fancy or whim.
You have probably already noted that it doesn’t say what to do if what you want does harm someone. This is where other considerations come in. It’s also good to recognise that there are different degrees of harm.
- You can read a complete history of the Rede at the Waning Moon site.
The Threefold Law
Often given as “Everything you do comes back to you times three.” Taken at face value, this seems a silly – if we hit someone in the face, are they going to hit us three times (and then we’d hit them 9 times, and they’d hit us 27 times…)
But on a more metaphorical level, there’s a lot more to recommend this. No, we won’t get 3 physical responses for each action, but each thing we do does affect us and ripple back in multiple ways. Some interpretations include:
1) Each thing we do affects us on multiple levels: intellectual, emotional, and physical.
2) Each time we do something, we change in three ways. We first consider an action (and become someone who will consider that as a possible choice.) We then do the action (and become someone who will do that thing.) And finally, we become someone who has that action in our past – which may change our future response. (We might be more willing to do it in the future – or we might decide we never want to do it again.)
3) Each thing we do ripples out from us, and can have unpredictable effects as it comes back towards us. After all, we’re interacting with a vast world, with many interconnections and responses.
One of the most potent concepts in witchcraft ethics is the idea of self-responsibility. We have no idea of a savior – someone who can save us at death’s door, if needed, no matter what our previous choices are. Instead, we are the only ones responsible for our choices. We can choose to do or not do things – and we can also choose how to react if we feel we’ve done something we regret, or have hurt someone, or have anything else that needs repair.
This is often the hardest concept for people new to the Craft to internalise: our society often encourages us to blame something outside ourself, or to duck responsibility. However, it’s also important to focus on the self: we’re not responsible for all the flaws of the world, or even for things in our upbringing that shaped what we do. We’re just responsible for what we choose to do with that, and how we choose to act in response.
The Charge of the Goddess
There are many versions of this text, based on the initial version by Doreen Valiente, one of Gerald Gardner’s early priestesses. The Charge includes a series of virtues that many people find very powerful: “And therefore let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence within you.”
The balance of these is, in many ways, one of the central mysteries of the Craft: just like the polarities between fire and water, or male and female, or projective and receiptive energies. One of the things I most like about the Charge is the emphasis on needing balance among these things, not just going all out in in one direction.
Finally, there are many other values that might be addressed. Robin Wood’s book When, Why … If does a great job of outlining other ethical structures using a variety of values.
The issue of “Harm None”
As mentioned above, there’s an issue with this one. A lot of modern exoteric Wiccan-based comments use this as the base for their ethics. There’s only one problem: it’s a really hard rule to live by. Jainists (a particular Buddhist sect) try to do this – by eating only foods that don’t destroy the plant, by wearing special shoes and covering their mouths to avoid killing insects, and by living very simply and with very minimal possessions (a simple robe from plant fibers, a food bowl, and a few religious items.)
But in a modern daily life, it’s really tricky to live like that. Even if we’re eating food from a CSA, we’re causing some harm by getting it to where we live. Each time we accept a job offer, there are other people who don’t get that opportunity. And sometimes, we need to set appropriate boundaries in our lives about how we interact with others. All of these can feel hurtful or harmful to others – but may have no such intent.
The other problem is that it guts a lot of the potential power of any self-realised individual (and that’s what witchcraft is partly about: recognising and working with our own power, and sharing it with our Gods (if we’re religious witches), our loved ones (family and coven) and some aspect of our community (other Pagans, our workplace, other organisations we belong to). We’re not just talking magical power, here, but our intelligence and creativity, commitment and drive, intuition and understanding, and practical skills and resources.
There’s an old saying that in order for a witch to be able to heal, we must also be able to harm. That doesn’t mean we should harm, or that it’s the best choice in many circumstances – just that understanding how things can harm also teaches us what heals them (and vice versa.) This knowledge can help us make wiser decisions.
One other problem with ‘harm none’ is that many people who espouse it have a hard time backing it up. One good criteria of a solid ethical system is that you should be able to explain why something is there. What’s the underlying value? How does it play out in your life? How does it affect your choices? None of us is perfect, and we won’t always live up to our ethical ideals – but we should have some idea what living up to them would look like in a lot of different circumstances.
Here are a few examples of complex situations.
A friend has been abused by a romantic partner. They decide to take legal steps to end it (restraining order, seeking divorce). They also take some magical steps to cut emotional ties, cleanse and protect their home, and help things get sorted out quickly and as easily as possible for them.
These things can ‘harm’ the abuser, but they’re also very appropriate responses in the situation. (On the other hand, directly ill-wishing the ex might be more of a problem ethically. Or doing things to get them in trouble beyond the end of the relationship.)
The practical issues discussed above- how we live, where we live, what we eat, how we get from place to place, getting a job.
For example, when job hunting, some people consider it unethical to use magic to help someone put their best self forward during the process. And yet, most people who are seriously job hunting give some attention to how their resume or application materials look, what they wear to the interview, how they greet the interviewer, and all those other details. A bit of magical work to give ourselves confidence, clarity, or other things that are part of us but may not always show is the same thing.
On the other hand, magic to manipulate the outcome, or harm someone else going for the same job would be a problem in a lot of people’s ethics (just like doing something like making it impossible to get to an interview on time would be a thing most people would think would be unethical.)
One complication of the Rede is that people disagree about what ‘harm’ is. For some people, it’s a significant thing that causes long-term negative change or problems or injury. Yet, other people define harm as ‘some stranger was passingly mean to me online!’ and try to use that to control other people’s behavior.
Obviously, these are vastly different responses based on which way you view this.
Take a situation where one person is very upset because another person keeps standing them up when they’re going to get together, or showing up late. On one hand, that’s not a great behavior (it’s rude!). But for most people, it’s probably not a major harm.
However, for some people it might be a bigger issue. For example, if you’re someone who has chronic health issues that mean you can only go do fun things occasionally, someone cancelling on you last minute or just never showing can be a big problem. Even if someone’s only late, it may take a lot more energy or add discomfort to their lives
Yet, even if that’s the case, a proportionate response is probably more along the lines of sitting down and talking to your friend, saying “It really hurts me – literally! – when you don’t show up on time. Can we find a solution?” (which might be agreeing to meet less, but really make it a priority, or meet in a different setting, or talk more online, or some combination.) It’s probably overkill to get in a huge argument, or to use magic to try and solve what frank conversation could do.
People have all sorts of things in their history. Someone may lash out (and even be hurtful or abusive) because they have things in their own past that are so painful they can’t do anything in that moment. Their action might be a problem (or even a horrible thing), but causing them more harm probably isn’t going to fix the problem.
Thea Califia’s book Dedicant: A Witch’s Circle of Fire has some interesting ethical situations to think about at the end of some chapters.
Last edited December 23, 2016