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The Delicate Balance of Pagan Ethics

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The Delicate Balance of Pagan Ethics

Author: Lyon
Posted: December 28th. 2003
Times Viewed: 2,928

If you've been on any of the Pagan paths a while, you probably know about the Wiccan Rede. Briefly, it can be summed up as "Do what ye will, that ye harm none." At first that seems pretty simple. Since Neo-Paganism is a mere 60 to 70 years old, as a religious group we have yet to adopt a code of what are ethical behaviors and what are "taboo." Right now we have to figure out for ourselves what Harm None really means.

Many non-Wiccan paths have adopted some form of "Harm None" into their belief systems. Many have not. Whether or not you are Wiccan, having some form of a moral guideline is part of any religious path. Morals are often customs that have become so deep-rooted in a society as to become unquestionable.

Our very lack of a set of written rules causes confusion for many Neo-Pagans. Just what is 'harm' anyway? Taken to one extreme it could mean we should eat no meat because that means we have to kill something first. So you decide to eat no meat. After deciding to eat no meat you become a vegetarian, but wouldn't that mean ending the lives of plants as well? You end up eating only dead and rotten things. But wait! That would deprive the creatures and animals that eat dead or rotten food of their food supply, harming THEM. Now you're down to eating nothing, causing even more harm to yourself and eventually you die of starvation. You're stuck in a morbid little Catch-22, if there ever was one.

Some people turn to a Pagan lifestyle to justify risky behavior. These individuals use the lack of specific rules to justify their actions, because they don't see where it harms anyone. As another example, I knew of a group of Pagans who called themselves a coven. From my outsider's point of view, they seemed to be a group whose only goal was using large amounts of drugs (both legal and illegal) and alcohol, and having orgies. They claimed that was the best way to celebrate the Esbats and Sabbats. I don't know about you, but I think being plastered out of my mind would make it really hard to celebrate anything.

Sadly, it was also a pretty good way to harm themselves with legal problems or health issues resulting from excess. In America we do live in a society where certain activities are accepted while others are not.

Some people may ask: where was the harm there? They didn't hurt anyone. But, they did: they hurt themselves, their children and the greater Pagan community with their actions. Such events cause groundless rumor and give the non-Pagan a bad impression of all of us when they become public knowledge. That group even has a really bad name around the tight-knit Pagan community where they are located.

Really, both of the above examples are drastic. I use them mainly to show that a "Harm None" way of life is not cut and dried. Answering to ourselves and being responsible for our own actions are some of the joys and privileges of leading a Pagan lifestyle. We don't have a special person in charge to report to. A good thing, if you ask me. But on the down side, this leaves a big gray area as to what is and isn't acceptable Pagan behavior.

I post on several Pagan web forums. There is a constant flow of inexperienced folks seeking spells. They want to know how to cast them, where to find them or just plain demanding the more experienced witches on the boards give the spells away. They want love spells, weather spells, binding spells, healing spells and money spells. These kinds of spells all fall into a questionable nature. The spell caster alone is left to decide if the spell will cause harm or not, often making his or her choice on personal experience and knowledge.

Sometimes a spell cast with the very best of intentions, such as a healing spell, if done without the knowledge or permission of the ill party, can have unwelcome results. Believe it or not, there are some people who do not want to get better, even if there are mundane treatments available.

Forcing healing onto a person who doesn't want any is harmful because your wishes would take the place of the sick person's. I have a sick relative who has decided not to have life-saving chemotherapy. He is tired of medical interventions and wishes to let his cancer take its course. What right have I to do anything that will change his mind? In this case "Harm None" will allow him to die. It is his right to decide. All I can do is watch him die while I make him as comfortable as possible. Even if doing nothing isn't what I want to do, in this case, it is the right thing to do.

Unhappily, with many younger people and those newer to the Ways, their knowledge is limited to what they have seen on TV or in theaters. The shows and movies, though entertaining, neither show a very true nor very good idea of what being a real witch is all about.

We live in a society where many laws came from a Christian-Judeo outlook. Some of the laws in the United States bother certain Pagans. Personally, I think Blue Laws are pretty silly. But they are the law in some states and if we live in those places, we must obey the law of the land. The same goes for the laws wherever we may live.

Areas of behavior about clothing and sexual conduct are also not very clear. In a Pagan opinion, nudity is not shameful. However, there have been situations where nudity has gotten more than one person in legal trouble because there were minors present.

Being naked is viewed as a private act in our society. Some people choose to ignore that particular custom, but Pagans who have or care for children can't do that. Again we are put in a situation where we have to use our judgment as to what is "right" and "wrong." If we, as a group, are not careful, a Pagan retreat can be shut down and/or minor children removed from their parents' care.

Some folks say it is Pagan to have as many sexual partners as they want, whenever they want. Once more it comes down to many factors; age, fear of sexually transmitted diseases and a current partner's wishes, to name a few.

There was a legal case in the Northeast where a woman was accused of having sex with her 16-year-old babysitter. She was thrown in jail. Her children grew up in foster care. Last I heard there are still major problems for the woman and her family. For years the Pagan community was smeared and the local "occult" stores had to deal with various forms of harassment every time this case came up in the local news.

On the other hand, I know of a handfasted triad with young children who are in a loving committed relationship. The three adults and their two children are very happy. Combinations like these and other non-traditional unions hardly caused trouble worth mentioning for the families in them or for their surrounding community. What's the difference you ask? Why is one cause for harm and the other not?

What can cause harm in one case may not be harmful in another. It all comes down to taking into account all the important issues in any given situation. Key factors include commonly accepted behaviors in the society. Even behaviors that were considered unacceptable as little as 20 years ago, have become acceptable now. What is socially "proper" can change over time. Something that can be called harmful today may not be seen in the same way in a decade or two. Other details to consider are long-term costs as well as legal and health consequences.

I can hear some of you moaning even now. "That's so HARD. How can I know what the long-term costs of my actions are?" Simple answer is, you can't. You have to use your best judgment. You have to find someone you can trust and ask their opinion if you don't know the answer. I often ask my Pagan friends to tell me about what might happen if I cast a particular spell. There have been times they told me something I never thought about before. Sometimes that was enough to make me change my mind about casting my spell.

Living an ethical life is not easy, but it is rewarding. Sometimes you have to put off or avoid action. This is really hard if you or someone you love has been hurt or injured. Many times you'll want to react in the heat of the moment. While responding violently to injury may be satisfying at the time, you might not be happy with the results somewhere down the line.

Living a "Harm None" life does not mean that you need to be a doormat, though. As in the earlier example of the vegetarian version, we need to eat to live. So too, we must protect ourselves from harm.

When I was attacked with a knife to my throat, I fought back. Did I break the "Harm None" ideal? I was worried I had. I spoke with an Elder who put my fears to rest. She told me that causing a small harm to avert a greater harm is not an unethical action.

Parents are put into this situation all the time, especially if they have a toddler. Young children are unaware of what will hurt them. They run into the street, try and put their fingers into light sockets or reach for a hot pot. An adult while protecting them may cause a smaller hurt by pulling the child out of danger. In my situation, I was afraid for my life, I did what I needed to keep myself safe. As soon as I was safe, I ceased hostile action.

At times you may need to take defensive action on the magical plane. You should use only as much magical "force" as necessary to maintain your safety. Surprisingly, this is often accomplished with a minimal spell. I asked a friend to write a spell for me when my 4-year-old was in danger from a molester. The spell she wrote asked for a protective bubble to turn aside harm from my daughter. Because I was so close to the situation, I wanted a more forceful spell, binding the molester so he couldn't harm my baby again. As it turned out the gentler magic worked just as well. Ethically, I had not compromised another's free will.

Ethics and morals are of a very personal nature. They have to do with your own upbringing and living situation. What may be unethical in your life might be perfectly okay for another person. There are outside factors to consider when making your decisions. As we age and our lifestyles or situations change, so does the personal meaning of "Harm None."

Pagan ethics are a delicate balancing act. Unlike our Christian brothers, we have no big hefty book telling us right from wrong. We don't confess our bad behavior. Although the concept of "sin" is foreign to the Neo-Pagan Ways, there is a price for certain behaviors. We have to consider each situation as it comes up. In the end, the thing that matters most is whether or not you can hold your head up high and look in the mirror knowing that when you come face-to-face with Goddess you can be proud of the way you live your life.

(This article was originally published in the October 2003 issue of Seeker Journal.)

Lyon

Final Vision

 

Life is the flash of a firefly in the night.

It is the breath of the buffalo in the winter.

It is the little shadow which runs across the grass

and loses itself in the sunset.

 

-Crowfoot (Blackfoot)