What are ethics? Fundamentally, our ethics are about creating the lives and communities we want to be part of. Sometimes these involve doors (things we are open to), sometimes these involve boundaries, fences, or walls (things we won’t do.)
Think about your values
Ethics are the core of what we do – and what we decide we’re not going to do. But what are they, and where do they come from, and how do we decide what matters to us?
Depending on your background, you may have grown up with a long list of things you were supposed to do, or not supposed to, that connected to your religious life. You may have grown up non-religious, but still had expectations about not just your behaviour, but why you did those things.
Morals are the guiding principles that help us make choices, and ethics are how we put those guiding principles into action.
In religions with a core religious text or texts, or a founding religious teacher, the morals and ethics usually come from those texts or that teacher.
They’re often laid out very clearly – think of the Ten Commandments (Judaism and Christianity), or Jesus’s instructions to his followers (Christianity), the guidance from the Vedas and Upanishads (Hinduism), or the Four Virtues (Buddhism), or the guidance of the Qu’ran (Islam).
Many professions also have their own guidance. As a librarian, there is a set of ethical principles I work with (like the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics). Doctors, nurses, lawyers, all sorts of other professionals have their own ethical codes. Some organisations do, such as fraternal organisations, scouting troops, artistic projects. Even online forums and community spaces have forms of ethics, in terms of what actions are acceptable and what aren’t, in that space.
As witches, we don’t have religious texts that list this all out for us. Instead, each witch is responsible for figuring out their own values, and for living them.
We don’t do this because we think the Gods or Goddesses or Powers will punish us if we don’t. (Though they might have opinions about things if we make commitments, especially to them, that we don’t keep.)
We do it because how we choose to act and what we choose to do is one of the most powerful acts of magic any of us have available.
A good place to start is by identifying what your values are. That’s an awfully big task, so there are two ways to go about it.
Start with what you know you won’t do.
It’s often a lot easier to figure out what you know you don’t want to do. Take a look at the lists of guidance from other religions, like those listed above. I bet you’ll add a number of things to your list.
For Pagans, looking at historical Pagan sources can be particularly relevant. The 42 Negative Confessions made to Ma’at (from the Papyrus of Ani and other funeral texts) are a great starting place. You might take inspiration from the Celtic triads. Some of these aren’t particularly about ethics, but others are very relevant. If you’re drawn to the Greeks or Romans, look to their philosophers and their laws.
Think about what you value
As you go through your daily life, spend a couple of weeks writing notes to yourself about what you value. What do you value when it’s done to you? What actions make you feel like you’re doing a good job being the kind of person you want to be? If you find yourself getting upset at something, can you figure out why?
I value kindness. (Not niceness, niceness is a totally different thing.) I value wisdom and learning.
I value people making choices that work for them, as long as they don’t take away other people’s choices. People having different kinds of relationships than what I want for myself, that’s fine. Abuse and coercion? That’s not fine at all. And so on.
One great source focused on Pagan and witchy ethics is Robin Wood’s book When, Why.. If? which looks at seven core values and asks questions to help you explore what they mean to you and how you might live that value in your life. The seven values she focuses on are honesty, self, love, help, harm, sex, and will.
Another source people look to for guidance about values is the Charge of the Goddess, written by Doreen Valiente. If you read through it, there are all sorts of values mentioned – peace, freedom, joy, mystery. Then there’s love and pleasure, beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, and mirth and reverence. That’s a pretty good set to get started with. Poetry in general can be the way into a lot of thoughts about values.
Consider other sources
Stories in general are one of the best ways we can learn about ethics and what we value. Honestly, you could do a lot worse than go watch all the seasons of The Good Place (which is all about ethics and how we live our lives, as well as being funny and challenging in the best ways.) Star Trek, Babylon 5, and a number of other SF shows also regularly take on issues of ethical action and power in all sorts of interesting ways.
If those aren’t your style, take a look at the books and movies and podcasts and online places you’re spending time with. What values are there? What values do people talk about having, but don’t do a good job living up to? How do those stories and experiences shape you?
Choosing how to act
There aren’t simple rules here, both because we’re going to have different things we value, or degrees to which a value is important. Once we have our values, though, they should be informing our decisions.
I love the explanation a friend (a Feri witch) gave me some years ago. Are you familiar with cast iron cookware? Over time, it builds up seasoning on the iron so that food won’t stick to the pan, and the food cooked in the pan takes on some flavour from everything that’s gone before it.
Imagine you’re a cast iron cauldron. Everything you choose to do goes into your cauldron and cooks there. Some actions only add a little of a particular flavour, others may add a lot. Sometimes certain flavours have an outsize effect (ever added just a bit too much salt or lemon juice to something?) Over time, you want to build up a seasoning in your cauldron that works for what you do most of the time, the way you want to live day to day.
You could choose to do something very different in that cauldron, something that would alter the seasoning forever. But honestly, do you want to mess up possibly years of work and attention for one action that goes against your values – your seasoning? Probably not.
The thought might be tempting, in the aftermath of a horrible relationship or betrayal or in a moment of anger, but long-term that’s going to make it even harder to recover and rebuild what you need to.
Instead, what happens if you look for actions that are consistent with your values and seasoning, and do those?
As humans, we’re all going to mess up and do things that go against that seasoning sometimes. And there are options to clean it up. We might end up being extra careful what we do for a while going forward until we’ve got things back the way we want them. We might even do the equivalent of scrubbing out all that history, as much as we can, the good with the bad, and starting over. But neither of those are simple or fast.
More than once, the amount of effort I’d have to do to get back where I actually want to be has kept me from doing something short-sighted in the moment.
There are some other kinds of guidance that can help you figure out some ways to act.
The rule of three
You may have heard about this one already, also called the Threefold Law.
It’s a principle in some paths of witchcraft that what you do returns to you three times. On a physical level this is sort of ridiculous – if you punch someone in the nose, are you going to get punched three times? Probably not.
However, on a broader level, the idea that what you do is amplified out into the world, and ripples back to you has some merit. What are you putting out there? Is that what you want to get back? Usually there’s more than one way to tackle a particular problem.
Say someone is being awful to you at work. You could turn around and do your best to make their life miserable. You could try to get them in trouble with their boss, you could do magic to make them unhappy, you could undermine them in various ways. But that probably wouldn’t feel great to do, not in the long run. And a lot of people feel that acting like that opens you up to other people treating you that way. (Certainly, it might make that more normalised in your work place… ugh.)
What would happen if instead, you worked on having firm boundaries? Or if you expected civil professional behaviour from your coworkers, all of them? You’d give the same back, even if you weren’t in a great mood or didn’t like them as individuals.
If someone did something awful to you, it would probably be pretty obvious to everyone else, and it might be something you could legitimately get help fixing (from your boss, from HR, from other people where you work.)
There’s an awful lot of power in taking the higher road and making deliberate choices to behave the way you choose, not the way people want to force you into. That’s because you’re conserving your energy and continuing to use it where it does good for you and everyone around you.
Another way you can look at the threefold law is that each action you take changes you in three ways. First, you become someone who’s willing to entertain an idea as a possible action. (We all have tons of stuff we know we wouldn’t ever actually do, even though the option is technically available.) Then you become someone who does an action. Finally, you become someone who has that action in their personal history.
You may decide that thing you did was great was great, you’ll do it again. But you might decide it was awful, and you never want to be a person who does that ever in the future. Both of those are big important changes.
The Wiccan Rede
People make a lot of fuss about the Wiccan Rede, but many people don’t know or don’t realise that it’s one specific piece of advice. Here’s the other thing. It was never originally Wiccan. A lot of traditional Wiccans eye it and go “Not terribly relevant.” However, it’s still talked a lot about, so here we go.
If you care about including it, it should be only part of forming your ethical practices, not the whole thing.
In its short form, the Wiccan rede is: An it harm none, do as ye will.
“An” is an archaic word that means “If”. So this is a conditional statement. It talks about the freedom to make choices about what you do. If it’s not harming anyone, go for it!
This is, in its way, a really radical statement, particularly when it was first expressed this way. The idea that we can love who we wish, spend time with whom we wish, that there are so many diverse and wonderful ways of being in the world is an amazing concept.
However, it’s a bit like saying “If it’s raining out, take an umbrella.” It doesn’t tell you what to do if it’s not raining. It doesn’t tell you what to do if you don’t have an umbrella (but maybe you have a jacket, or a plastic bag or something.) Or if you could decide not to go out in the first place, and don’t care if it’s raining.
Less flippantly, the Rede doesn’t say much at all about what to do if there’s harm in the equation somewhere. It especially doesn’t give much guidance at weighing between two harms. And that’s a situation that comes up a lot.
Someone has cancer. Not treating it will cause harm. However, the treatments might involve surgery or chemotherapy or radiation, all of which cause specific (carefully managed) degrees of harm, in hope of a long-term good outcome. The Rede doesn’t have much advice on how to weigh this.
Or take a parent who has very clear specific ideas for how their adult child should behave. Maybe that’s how they dress, what work they do, who they have relationships with. Not following the parent’s wishes might bring harm (especially in cultures that put a lot of weight on respecting your elders), but the adult not living the life they want (which is not harming anyone else) could bring harm to them.
Even a fairly common social situation can illustrate this. Two people you know have a falling out. You don’t know most of the details – maybe any of them, other than the fact something happened. How do you decide who you stay in touch with? Who you invite to gatherings or parties? What information would change that equation for you?
Check out the resources list below for more about the history and make up your own mind.
Try out ideas for yourself
One great thing you can do for yourself is try thinking through different ethical situations. What would you do if you were in that situation? (Or what would you do so you were never in that particular situation?) What would you do if someone in that situation asked you for advice? What pieces of the situation would matter to you? Which ones wouldn’t matter?
I read a number of advice blogs, in large part because I’m fascinated by the different ways people think through situations, how they demonstrate what they care about and value, and how people who think differently than I do go about resolving things. If you’re looking for examples to think through, try AskMetafilter (all sorts of things), b (personal interactions), and Ask A Manager (workplace situations). You can read the ones that intrigue you and pick up a lot of how to think through different situations along the way.
(As always, my listing something here doesn’t mean I agree with everything in it, just that I found it interesting and potentially useful.)
The evolution of Wiccan ethics (and a history of the Rede) from John Coughlin.
Patti Wigginton on the Wiccan Rede.
The Wiccan Rede and Threefold Law: Not as Stupid as You Think by Keldan. (Does a good brief overview of the history, too.)
Thea Califia’s book Dedicant: A Witch’s Circle of Fire has some interesting ethical situations to think about at the end of half the chapters.
Rewritten and updated July 2020.