Navigating the ethical minefield

Normative Ethics: a guest post by Woods Wizard

As we go through life, most of us find our ethics are guided by the field of Applied Ethics. That is, we use concepts of duty and legal/contractual obligations to guide our behavior. Witchcraft requires a different approach: one of normative ethics. Normative Ethics attempt to define, in general terms, what actions are morally right. In this discussion, I have divided normative ethics into five categories: Nihilism, Ethical Altruism, Utilitarianism, Ethical Egoism and Consequentialism.

With the exception of nihilism, all of the different ethical approaches have their place, and must be considered together. Of course the approach we use is dependent on our situation. A starving man is more interested in doing what he can do obtain food, without consideration of the general welfare of others, for example.

 

Nihilism

Ethical nihilism is the view that morality does not exist, therefore no action is preferable to any other. This is an extreme position of situational morality wherein a person refuses to judge any action or ethical code as morally right or wrong. Alternately, a nihilist might argue that all meaning is relative depending on the outcome. This point of view is actually a form of Consequentialism, discussed later. Ultimately, nihilism can be self-destructive. The nihilist argues therefore that actions are random, based on whatever emotion or motivation dominates the individual at the time. This can easily lead to the conclusion that one is not responsible for one’s actions, as no one action is preferable to another, or that the consequences of an action cannot be foreseen.

 

"Daienin Kannon". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Daienin_Kannon.JPG#/media/File:Daienin_Kannon.JPG

Daienin Kannon: Kannon statue in Daien’i, Mount Kōya, Japan”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Ethical Altruism

Ethical altruism holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve, or benefit others, if necessary, at the sacrifice of self-interest. Practical altruism sacrifices one’s own interests to help others’ interests, so long as one’s own interests are equivalent to the others’ interests and well-being.

While there have been many good examples of altruism (Quan Yin is a popular one), it is a most difficult ethic to maintain. Not everyone can “belong to the world” as Mother Teresa described herself. Yet, at times all of us exhibit altruistic traits. We all have the desire to help those in need.

Yet, altruism can have a negative side. A suicide bomber, sacrificing his life for his cause, is still sacrificing self-interest for the “benefit” of others.  Any soldier sacrificing his life for the greater good can be considered an altruist, at least at the moment of sacrifice. In both these cases however, duty-based ethics dictate this altruistic behavior.

 

Utilitarian Ethics

In its simplest form, Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that argues the rightness or wrongness of an action is determined solely on the outcomes (consequences) of choosing one action/policy over other actions/policies. Many utilitarian philosophers judge an action by its usefulness in bringing about the most happiness (or good) of all those affected by it. As such, it moves beyond the scope of one’s own interests and takes into account the interests of others. Something is ethical if the total “good” it generates, to include intangible forms of “good,” outweigh the negatives. Statements like “An (if) it harm none, do as ye will.” in the Rede are utilitarian. It prevents us from harming a large number of people to benefit what we may perceive as the greater good, or for our own benefit.

Two influential contributors to this theory are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.  Bentham treats all forms of happiness as equal, with goodness measured in terms of intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent.

Mill’s famous formulation of utilitarianism is known as the “greatest-happiness principle”. It holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest aggregate happiness among all sentient beings, within reason. Mill’s major contribution to Utilitarianism is his argument for the qualitative separation of pleasures. Mill argued that intellectual and moral pleasures (higher pleasures) are superior to more physical forms of pleasure (lower pleasures).  Mill distinguishes between happiness and contentment, claiming that the former is of higher value than the latter, a belief wittily encapsulated in the statement that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

Classical utilitarianism as espoused by Bentham can be hedonistic, but values other than, or in addition to, pleasure can be employed. G. E. Moore, in his Principia Ethica (1903), presented a version of utilitarianism in which he rejected the traditional equating of good with pleasure. The test whether something is good can be applied to moral assessments and rules of conduct. According to utilitarianism, the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome, although there is debate over how much consideration should be given to actual consequences, foreseen consequences and intended consequences. Witches face these same issues.

One of the biggest problems with utilitarian reasoning is that the reasoning itself is nothing more than a problem solving tool like mathematics or computer programming. If, as in computer programming, you put garbage in, you will get garbage out.  When we set the right objectives and incorporate valid assumptions, utilitarian reasoning can be a very powerful and necessary tool to help us reach our goals.

Utilitarian reasoning is by no means a philosophy where everyone can reach the same logical conclusion. Over the ages, people have had different ideas about what constitutes the highest good, and how to get there. For example, John Locke put a heavy emphasis on the preservation of an individual’s right to private property, whereas Karl Marx wanted to collectivize as much property as possible. Who is right? We would likely argue the concept that promoted the greatest freedom results in the greatest good, but both Marx and Locke would have arguments that their philosophies do that also.

Utilitarian ethics strive to avoid I win – you lose scenarios, but must also consider the three other possible win-lose combinations.

  • In a win-win situation, the utilitarian has many ways to act “good,” all of which create “good” out-comes. The most “ethical” choice is the one that yields the greatest overall good.
  • In lose-lose situations, one must select the lessor of evils. Either choice will cause harm (loss of a breast or loss of a life to cancer is a good example), and the Utilitarian choses the least harmful option.
  • In a short term lose, long term win situation, the Utilitarian makes a short term sacrifice in hope of achieving a greater long term gain. In this instance, the utilitarian must be very careful to ensure that his goal is beneficial for all, not just for himself.

A primary advantage of utilitarian reasoning is that it challenges us to think more broadly about the impact of our actions on the world around us, and encourages us to make ethical decisions on our own rather than rely on government or our social circle to think for us. This ties into Kant’s belief that true morality (ethics) came solely from reason. Kant stated: “I ought never to act in such a way that I could also will that my maxim become universal law.” In other words, whatever one decides, one must be willing to accept that decision is true for others, as well as oneself. Kant’s belief is critical for utilitarianists, for it helps to avoid the pitfalls of ethical egoism and consequentialism.

Another advantage of utilitarian thinking is that it gives us some flexibility. We can examine alternatives and decide on the most ethical course of action. The utilitarian viewpoint encourages us to think ahead and avoid the pitfalls the unethical people of the world lay for us.

 

Ethical Egoism

Ethical egoism is the position that one ought to do what is in one’s own self-interest. Egoism elevates self-interests and “the self” to a status not granted to others. It is focused on the Self (or clan) while utilitarianism does not treat the Self’s own interests as being more or less important than the interests, desires, or well-being of others.

Ethical egoism does not, however, require harm to the interests and well-being of others when making an ethical decision. Egoism allows for others’ interest and well-being to be disregarded or not, as long as what is decided and acted upon satisfies Self-interest. Nor does ethical egoism necessarily purport that one ought always to do what one wants to do. It endorses selfishness, not necessarily foolishness.

American philosopher James Rachels, arguing the pros and cons of egoism over utilitarianism stated that

“each of us is intimately familiar with our own individual wants and needs. Moreover, each of us is uniquely placed to pursue those wants and needs effectively. At the same time, we know the desires and needs of others only imperfectly, and we are not well situated to pursue them. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that if we set out to be ‘our brother’s keeper,’ we would often bungle the job and end up doing more mischief than good.”

He also argued that

“All of our commonly accepted moral duties, from doing no harm unto others to speaking always the truth to keeping promises, are rooted in the one fundamental principle of self-interest.”

While Rachels was a proponent of ethical egoism, he also noted that the best objection to the theory is that it divides people into two types: themselves and others, and then discriminates against one type on the basis of some arbitrary disparity. This, to Rachels’ mind, provides the soundest reason why the interests of others ought to concern the interests of the self. He asks:

“What is the difference between myself and others that justifies placing myself in this special category? Am I more intelligent? Do I enjoy my life more? Are my accomplishments greater? Do I have needs or abilities that are so different from the needs and abilities of others? What is it that makes me so special? Failing an answer, it turns out that Ethical Egoism is an arbitrary doctrine…. We should care about the interests of other people for the very same reason we care about our own interests; for their needs and desires are comparable to our own.”

In his best known work, “The Moral Point of View,” Austrian philosopher Kurt Baier opines that ethical egoism provides no moral basis for the resolution of conflicts of interest, which form the only vindication for a moral code. Far from resolving conflicts of interest, claimed Baier, ethical egoism all too often spawns them. Baier also argues that egoism is paradoxical: that to do what is in one’s best interests can be both wrong and right at the same time, depending on one’s point of view. Although a successful pursuit of self-interest may be viewed as a moral victory, it could also be dubbed immoral if it prevents another person from executing what is in his best interests.

 

Consequentialism

Consequentialism is the class of ethical theories holding that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission) is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence. This is the dark side to Normative ethics best expressed in the statement “the ends justify the means.”

A completely ruthless Consequentialist acts only for himself and has no feelings for others or society. He does not hesitate to rob, cheat, and steal whenever he feels he can get away with it.  Many people not considered criminals in today’s society employ consequential reasoning that only factors in their own gain and do not take into account the needs of other people. These people employ a short term win, long term lose situation: they are greedy, enriching themselves in the near term while inflicting greater overall costs to society. Short term win, long term lose situations are often created by people who lack the character to delay gratification who are motivated by personal power or who do not, for whatever reason understand the full consequences of their behavior.

 

So Which System is Right?

With the possible exception of Consequentialism and nihilism, the answer is all of them, dependent on the situation. Most of us think of what works best for ourselves (or our group) first (Ethical Egoism) and then (hopefully!) secondly consider what our friends will think or whether our actions are illegal (Applied Ethics).

From the perspective of many pagan paths where Deity-imposed Commandments are not part of our moral code, one more step is required: once an action is examined from egoism and applied ethics perspectives, consider it from a utilitarian point of view. Is the action going to provide the greatest good (or least harm) to all affected? Is there a short-term loss that will produce a longer term gain for all involved? For a Pagan, the action, once it passes egoism and applied ethical tests, ought to pass utilitarian reasoning as well.


 

About Woods Wizard

Woods Wizard always had a close spiritual connection with the earth, but didn’t identify as a pagan until about 10 years ago when a certain Celtic Deity came knocking.  Self-taught, he has spent the last five years organizing the Shadows of Nature: Guardian Steading (because coven implies agreement as to theology) and writing educational material for that group. Material in this guest blog is condensed from the ethics chapters of the Seeker book he wrote for the Steading.   He lives on eight acres of woodland and meadow outside of Spokane Washington and maintains a web page, Spokane Pagan Village Commons, for local pagan groups: www.spokanepagans.com  Woods loves trying to tie together mythology, history, archeology and science into an internally consistent theology – and sometimes it actually works!  He makes a living as a geologist.

 

What colour is your witchcraft?

In my previous article “7 things I wish people knew about Wicca“, I wrote a section about “black witchcraft” versus “white witchcraft”. It is one of those topics that is not easily dealt with in a quick soundbite, and this quickly became apparent from the comments.

I also realise that the headline of that section (There is no such thing as ‘black witchcraft’ or ‘white witchcraft’) was ambivalent. What I meant was that there isn’t a whole movement of people who consider themselves to be “black witches” or “white witches“, not that there is no such thing as “black magic” or “white magic“, although I do consider those terms to be very very unhelpful for a number of reasons.

Besides, as everyone knows, the colour of magic is octarine.

“It was octarine, the colour of magic. It was alive and glowing and vibrant and it was the undisputed pigment of the imagination, because wherever it appeared it was a sign that mere matter was a servant of the powers of the magical mind. It was enchantment itself.
But Rincewind always thought it looked a sort of greenish-purple.”

Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic

There are of course Black people who are witches and/or Wiccans, and that is one of the reasons I object to the use of the term “black” to mean maleficent. If you say “there are no black witches” (meaning “there are no 100% maleficent witches”) it sounds like you are saying “there are no Black witches” (meaning “there are no Black people who are witches”, which is obviously not true). Furthermore, associating black with evil is unhelpful, as it may reinforce racist assumptions about Black people.

I am not denying that magic can be used for bad or selfish purposes, or even that it can be used to call upon entities with a less than benevolent agenda. I would deny that the entities called upon are the source of the magic, however. The universe is the source of the magic. However, people cannot be divided up neatly into “black witches” and “white witches”, and there is no cosmic force of evil or cosmic force of good in the Pagan worldview.  There are no personifications of good and evil in Wicca, but there are personifications of destruction, disorder, etc. (Loki, Kali, Eris, etc.), but these are regarded as part of the natural cycle: agents of chaos or destruction, bringing change so that renewal may take place. There are also personifications of growth, life, and light to balance the agents of chaos and destruction. And Wiccans are strongly discouraged from using magic for bad purposes. Therefore the question “are you a black witch or a white witch?” is redundant.

I believe that the same energy underlies all magic, and that energy is a natural property of the universe – or perhaps preternatural. In my view (which as far as I know is agreed upon by a large number of Wiccans and other magical folk), magic exists independently of those who wield it, whether they are human or spirit. Magic is a bit like the Force in Star Wars – which was actually based on the concept of the Tao, or possibly on ch’i (which are of course not equivalent to each other).

Magic, and spiritual beings, are agreed upon by most Pagans to be immanent in the universe, intertwined with matter – not outside and beyond the universe. if there is an Otherworld or spirit realm, it is usually seen as very close to, or intertwined with, the physical realm. As Michael York writes:

The supernatural as we know it is largely a Christian-derived expression from the idea that its ‘God’ is over and ‘above’ nature – material/empirical reality. It is this notion that is the target of secular and naturalistic animosity alike. Instead, rather than ‘supernatural’, I turn instead to the ‘preternatural’ that expresses the non-causal otherness of nature – one that comprehends the magical, miraculous, numinous, mysterious yet non-empirical quality of the sublime. Most important, however, the preternatural does not demand belief or faith but instead encounter and experience – whether through contemplation, metaphor, spontaneous insight, ecstasy, trance, synchronicity or ritual or any combination of these. As Margot Adler expressed it, paganism is not about belief but what we do.

Yes, magic can be used to call upon entities such as gods and spirits (who may be preternatural or supernatural depending on your theological perspective), but why would you call upon an entity that you consider to have a negative or maleficent agenda? Of course, there are people who work with entities who are labelled as demons, but I’m pretty sure those people would defend their magical work and the entities as benevolent or at the very least, just misunderstood.

As to the possibly malevolent or beneficent agenda of magical entities: surely that depends on your perspective? Some entities may be hostile to humans, because we are busy despoiling the planet and making other species extinct. From the perspective of those other species, humans are evil (even those of us who are not actively going out and killing endangered species are complicit in the habitat loss and pollution that is making many species extinct). Some entities may be entirely indifferent to humans, and not notice that they are trampling on us. The hurricane and the volcano and the venomous spider don’t intend to kill people; they just do.

I am aware that there are people who use magic for selfish or even maleficent purposes; but Wiccans are taught that this is a bad idea, because there are negative consequences. A person who consistently acts only in their own interest will hurt other people, and eventually hurt themselves.

I believe that morality and ethics are much more complex and contextual than a simple black/white dichotomy. For example, if someone was to curse a dictator such as Stalin or a mass murderer like Pol Pot, would that be “black magic” or “white magic”? Or if I give healing (normally considered “white magic”) to someone who then goes on to commit a very evil act, was my healing “white magic” or “black magic”?

Magic is a bit like a tool: it can be wielded for good or bad purposes. As Lori Ann James commented on my previous post:

Magick is a tool. A hammer can smash a window, or it can build the cabinet.

The intent of the magic-wielder, and the consequences of the magic, and the intentions of any magical allies who helped with the work, all contribute to the benevolence or malevolence of the magic. So, until all the consequences have played themselves out, and until all the motives have been weighed and analysed, it is a bit difficult to tell whether it was good magic or bad magic. As in the story of the Taoist farmer, the consequences of many actions or events are hard to classify as wholly good or wholly bad.

The problem is, when someone asks “are you a black witch or a white witch”, they are not looking for a long explanation of the Pagan worldview, or Wiccan morality and ethics. They are looking for a quick soundbite; they probably want you to say “a white witch, of course”. But it is an ignorant question in so many ways, and one to which there is no simple and straightforward answer. That’s why I tend to reply with “I am a green witch” or “your question makes no sense in my paradigm” because otherwise one ends up reinforcing a simple binary view of morality and people as neatly divided up into “good people” and “bad people”, or “good actions” and “bad actions”.

Starry Night, VVincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Starry night, Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Both magic and reality are swirly and complex. We do ourselves, our Craft, and the gods a disservice if we allow them to be reduced to a simple binary dichotomy of “black” and “white”; and if we allow darkness to be used as a metaphor for evil, we also do the night a disservice.

In Wicca, darkness does not symbolise evil. The darkness is necessary for rest, growth, and regeneration. Death is not evil, but a necessary adjunct to life. If there was no death and dissolution, there could be no change or growth. The cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth is part of the interaction of the polarities. Suffering is also part of the process of growth; just as a tree is shaped by the wind, we are shaped by our experiences. It is only by experiencing suffering that we acquire sufficient depth to know the fullness of joy. It is then that the full light of consciousness dawns in us, and we achieve mystical communion with the divine/deities.

So, if someone asks you “are you a white witch or a black witch?” how do you answer the question?

Pagans and Money

Contemporary Paganism – like much of the rest of the world – has a deeply conflicted attitude to money. Money is probably even harder to talk about than sex and death. People tend to think it is a deeply unspiritual topic. It probably is – but we still need to talk about it.

Whenever the subject of Pagans and money comes up, there arises the vexed question of what spiritual services to charge for. The ethics of charging money for spirituality-related events is always tricky. On the one hand, there are those who argue that if they expend energy, they should be paid for it, and on the other hand, there are those who argue that money is the kiss of death to spirituality.

"CoinsOfTheParisii" by PHGCOM - self-made, photographed at the MET. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CoinsOfTheParisii.jpg#/media/File:CoinsOfTheParisii.jpg

Coins Of The Parisii” by PHGCOM – self-made, photographed at the MET. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

In order to think about this issue a little more clearly, let’s go back to a time before money, and look at how money was probably invented.

The tribe – a communal effort

Let’s imagine that I am the village spirit-worker. It’s my job to find herds for the tribe to hunt, and to talk with the ancestors and the spirits to find out useful knowledge, and to heal ailments suffered by the tribe. I contribute my knowledge and skills to the tribe in order that the people may survive and flourish. The hunters contribute their hunting skills, and bring back food. Various other members of the tribe cure leather, sew it together to make clothes, make tools and weapons and cooking pots, knap flint, and gather herbs. Everyone contributes, and everyone gets their share. And everyone knows that “what goes around comes around”. No-one keeps count of who owes what to whom, because everyone pulls together for the survival of the whole group.

The village – barter

In later centuries, a hierarchical view develops, and some people are considered more worthy of food and resources. Now, the tribe has settled in one place, and owns separate houses and separate cooking pots and separate hearths. A barter system develops, in which I exchange my work for food, clothes, and medicine.

The city – and money

After a while, people start to think that it is a bit inconvenient to exchange work for things. What if you need me to help out with your harvest, but you can only offer me a couple of chickens in exchange, but I don’t actually want any more chickens right now? Then it is easier to say, well I will give you this lump of gold, and you can exchange it for whatever you want later on. In addition, villages have got larger and become cities, in which the inhabitants don’t know everyone else in the town. Tribal links are weakened, perhaps dissolved. Family links and alliances become more important – and it is only in family settings that people don’t count the cost. Though perhaps guilds provide a kind of replacement for the tribe.

And that, I would suggest, is how money was invented.

The Celts started to use coins from the 5th to 1st centuries BCE, and minted coins based on Greek designs (they needed money for trade with the Greeks). The ancient Greeks began to use coins in about 700 BCE. The Romans began using coins in the third century BCE.

At various points in our lives, we return to one or other of these means of exchange. During a harvest, or when someone moves house, or at a Pagan camp, we return to communal effort mode. It feels idyllic, partly because we have lost our need to ‘count the cost’ in the knowledge that we are all mucking in together, and that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.

Sometimes, when money runs short, we return to barter mode. There are community credit schemes where you can exchange piano lessons for bread-making, or baby-sitting for bicycle repair.

A Pagan camp in communal effort mode

If you go to a Pagan event with a large number of people, and a significant number (say, more than half) of them are offering workshops, helping out with the fire-pit, organising the technical aspects, and generally contributing to the community, then you know that you won’t have to do more than your fair share, and you will get to benefit from other people’s workshops, and at this type of event, you probably don’t expect to get paid for your one- or two-hour long workshop, because you will attend at least ten other really good workshops given by other people, and you know that if you attend the same event in the future, you will benefit from the workshops there too. So this type of event becomes like a mutually supportive tribe – what goes around comes around – no need to pay speakers.

A Pagan camp in city mode

If, on the other hand, you go to a different type of Pagan event, where less than half of the participants are offering workshops, and the workshop leaders are contributing more than a couple of hours of their time each, and are not getting a comparable benefit from attending other people’s workshops (perhaps because the speakers have considerably more knowledge than most of the other attendees, or because it is a day or weekend event, and so there is no time for them to attend other people’s workshops) – then it’s a really good idea to factor in paying the speakers.

And it’s really important to note that in both these examples, the speakers get paid – it’s just that in the first example they are paid ‘in kind’ through receiving the benefit of workshops from other people; and in the second example, they get paid with money.

An exchange of energy

In an earlier post on the Pagan value of reciprocity, I wrote:

The giving of money in exchange for something does not create relationship, it ends it. If I pay in full for a service or a commodity, my obligation is discharged, and that ends the relationship. If I pay for a massage, a Tarot reading, or a workshop, that is because the masseur, Tarot reader, or workshop leader is not going to receive from me (at some unspecified future date) a massage, a Tarot reading, or a workshop. The relationship is ended by the payment. This is, I think, why Wiccans believe strongly that we should not charge trainees for training. Members of a coven are in a relationship, and payment for training would end that relationship. What you gain in return for teaching is an opportunity to formulate, clarify, and refine your own views in the process of transmitting them to others. You can also learn from your trainees. And in due course, you will have a coven to work with who can write rituals for you to take part in.  All members of a coven are expected to contribute food for the feast and candles and incense for rituals, and help with the washing-up, however. 

Note that I am not saying that charging money for services such as Tarot reading, or even rituals like a handfasting, is a bad thing. All services create some obligation. If I invite you to my ritual, you will probably feel obliged to invite me to yours. If someone gives you training in Wicca, you should feel obliged to turn up on time, make an effort to absorb what they try to teach you, and at some point in the future, to reciprocate by creating awesome rituals that they can enjoy, and to “pay it forward” by training others in Wicca.

Paying money for services rendered just ends the obligation. That can help to make things simpler; sometimes we do not want to enter into relationship with a person who has done something for us, because they are not part of our social group, or because – for one reason or another – we won’t see them again, so we discharge the obligation by paying them in full.

However, we do end up having a sort of relationship with people we pay money to – you go to a particular shop because the staff are friendly, or because the shopkeeper is nice; you go to the same hairdresser because you have become one of their clients.

The barter and exchange model, and the communal effort model, both create a web of obligation and relationship. That’s great – but there can be a shadow side to that, just as money has its shadow side. One can end up so obligated to others that they have power over you in some way, for example.

And then there’s capitalism

Of course, all of this gets much more complex and layered by the introduction of capitalism. Once capitalism rears its ugly head, you get third parties who want to make money by brokering the services offered by others, and as Rhyd Wildermuth recently pointed out, it has even infected hitherto communal exchanges like offering acquaintances a bed for the night.

The introduction of capitalism means that people can buy the services of one person, and sell them at an inflated price to someone else, and that a third party can invest in the whole enterprise, and expect to get a profit in return for their investment, despite not having done any actual work.

And then, even paying your workers comes to seem like a bad idea to some capitalists, so they go and kidnap a large population from somewhere else, treat them as property, and make them work for nothing. And that is how colonialism and slavery were invented.

Money is energy

So, whilst the abstract nature of money is partly what made capitalism possible, it is also a really useful marker for indicating that you are owed a certain amount of goods or services from the communal pool.

Of course, it might be wonderful to move towards a tribal model where everyone gets what they need, as Jonathan Woolley has suggested – but that would entail a considerable loss of individuality, and I am willing to bet that even the most ardent advocate of communal living is not quite ready to go there yet. And we do not have the kind of society that makes that kind of community possible for more than a short space of time, though we can pioneer it as a model.

I think it would be very difficult not to reinvent money, even if we succeeded in re-establishing a tribal / communal model, because there would still be a need for long-distance trade with strangers who would be outside the pool of communal effort, which means you need non-perishable tokens of exchange (otherwise known as money).

Nor do I think it is realistic to ask people to offer workshops entirely for nothing – you either get paid in kind, or with money, or you operate on a pay-it-forward model. Yes, I train people in Wicca for the good of the tribe, and I don’t expect money in return, but I do expect commitment and effort on the part of trainees, and one day, I can relax and let them run a ritual for me to participate in. What goes around comes around.

 

Why Pagans don’t proselytise or evangelise

There are various different ways in which religions can try to attract new adherents and/or communicate with others.

Interfaith dialogue means providing other faiths/philosophies with information about your own religion or philosophy, and having a dialogue about how to co-exist peacefully. Some members of some faiths may participate in interfaith dialogue in the hope of making converts: I don’t think that should be our goal. I think it is dishonest and undermines the whole purpose of dialogue if the participants have an aim to convert each other. One can certainly enter dialogue with a willingness to entertain another perspective, but not to persuade others to join your own faith.

Interfaith is a bit of an awkward name for having a dialogue with atheists, humanists, and people who don’t adhere to any faith, but the same rule applies: we are not there to make converts; we are there to communicate with others and provide information about Paganism(s).

A deer in Holland. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow

A deer in Holland – too busy eating to evangelise any local cats. Photo by Yvonne Aburrow (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Providing information to others who might be interested in Paganism (because they have a gods-shaped receptor, or a Nature-shaped receptor) but don’t know we exist. This type of communication doesn’t have a special name, but is certainly desirable. There are still people out there who have never heard of contemporary Paganism, or if they have heard of it, don’t have a clue about it.

Evangelism is telling other people they will be happier if they adhere to your faith. But we can’t prove that non-Pagans would be happier if they were Pagan – maybe they are perfectly happy as atheists or whatever – different people are wired differently – some people have a gods-shaped receptor, others have a God-shaped receptor, some don’t have a receptor for god(s). So I do not think that evangelism is a good idea. Where religions do evangelise, I suspect that they find that converts made through evangelism are often not very engaged, and fall by the wayside at the first sign of difficulty.

in any case, which Pagan deity would you evangelise  on behalf of? Cernunnos? As this Lolcat meme makes clear, the cats (who obviously worship Bast), would be pretty unimpressed. What about Woden? A well-known UK Heathen once turned up to a party with an amusing T-shirt reading “Woden’s Witnesses”.

Proselytising is (technically) where you tell people that they are doomed in some way if they don’t follow your faith. As Pagans don’t believe that our gods have an unpleasant fate prepared for non-believers, this is not an option open to us, nor would it be a desirable route to take. No-one should be persuaded to join a religion on the basis of some kind of threat, whether the threat is of suffering in this life or a hypothetical next life.

Pagans don’t actively seek converts because we believe that the realisation that you are a Pagan wells up from within, as a response to the beauty of Nature, the call of the Pagan deities, or a growing convergence with Pagan values and a Pagan world-view. We do not believe that it is “cosmically necessary” to be a Pagan – our gods want willing adherents, not forced ones, and they do not punish people who do not believe in them (ancient pagans also did not believe in punishment for non-believers).

Most Pagans feel that you cannot be converted to Paganism, because being a Pagan is not about the acceptance of a set of propositions or a creed, but a sense of connection with Nature, the old gods, the Earth, or the land. Instead, we call the realisation that we are Pagan a feeling of coming home.

In an excellent article for the Theologies of Immanence wiki, Judy Harrow wrote:

I’m a convert, and probably so are you. Very few of us were raised as Pagans. Most of us come to this religion in adulthood, by conscious choice. Some Pagan elders find satisfaction in welcoming newcomers to our community, helping them to find their way around. It’s good for all of us to reflect upon the process of change that most of us have experienced.

Among ourselves, we don’t call new Pagan affiliation “conversion” at all; we call it “homecoming.” The difference is not trivial. Remember, language shapes thought. Most religions expect conversion to be a transformative experience. They expect new adherents to think, behave, even speak differently, utterly renouncing their old ways. In contrast, we say “you don’t become a Pagan; you find out that there’s a name for what you already were, and a community of others who feel the same way.”

All we really expect from a new homecomer is a deep sigh of relief. Certainly we have our community mores and customs. However, instead of indoctrinating or re-socializing newcomers, we like to believe that they come to us because they find us already feeling and doing the very things that made them misfits in their previous faith communities. They find the home they never thought existed for them. That’s what it felt like for me, how about you?

It’s not that simple of course. Whoever comes home as an adult has left a previous home. Although it was less satisfactory, still there are aspects they’ll miss, and baggage they’ll carry along. And anybody who has ever moved house, even to a much better location, knows how disorienting, and how much work, it can be.

In the article, Judy goes on to point out that all processes of conversion (whether they are called that or not) involve a shift of perspective, a leaving-behind of a previous paradigm, a search for a new paradigm and a new community, and settling in to the new community.

Storytime: Wayland’s Tale

 

Small candle, Mind-Forge, help me fly

Through thorn, to World Tree nine worlds high,

What Was, Is, Will Be:

Three Sisters stand by me.

 

Light a candle, my love, a small mindfire to prick the growing night. For all this starts with a story. Not a pretty or happy story, but one that is True…

 

Once not so long ago, or very long ago indeed, or maybe not until next week…

there was a god who wanted to try his luck as a man. It happens now and again, and there’s always a story to come of it.

This particular man had two brothers, and the three of them were fortunately enough (and that is very fortunate indeed, bad luck or good) to marry three sisters. Nine years they all lived happily enough, and then the sisters flew, called off by their father to far fields of battle. Nine years have we been together, nine years will we be apart, they told their mates. Never seek us, never search us out. We will come back to you. And off they flew, crying and calling to war.

Now the man’s two brothers could not abide to live with their grief and solitude, and they urged the young man to come with them and chase their wives, bring them back to home. But the young man trusted his wife to come back as she said she would, and he urged his brothers to have patience. This they could not, and so they said good bye to the young man, and went to seek their wives. With one thing and another, those two quickly met their deaths, for you cannot chase after what has flown away from you and ever come to any good.

The young man knew nothing of this, however. He turned to the hills, and found within them ore and jewels, and month by month and year by year he practiced a lonely craft as smith. It wasn’t long until he became so skilled at his art, that his reputation spread throughout the land and his small house filled up with treasures of his own making.

 

Now it happened…

that a neighboring King heard of the renown and reputation of the Smith. How could he not, when rumors ran across the country? No smith so skilled as he, travelers told the King. And none so wealthy, either. All by himself he lives, just him, alone, in a house full of gold rings, chains, and hammered armor all of utmost skill and craft.

The King could not forget this Smith, this no one noble, once he had heard these tales. Who is this man, he asked, to have more wealth than I do? Am I not king? And for whom does he do this work, for whom does he hammer the gold and iron, if not for the king? By rights I should have him here beside me.

So the King gathered twelve of his strongest soldiers in the hall guard and together they traveled to the Smith’s small house, intending to ambush him and bring him back to the King’s hall. Luck was with them. The Smith was out hunting when they arrived. The house was empty of any person, but the stories were proved true, it was filled with gold buckles, rings, ornaments and armored magnificence. The men had time to arrange themselves in hiding.

And the King, looking around, had time to take the most beautiful ring of all and stash it in his pocket.

 

As it turned out…

they didn’t have long to wait. The Smith returned successful, a bear over his shoulders. In no time the thirteen had overpowered him, and without delay they tied him up and took him back to King’s great hall, his realm and home. Once there, to ensure the prisoner would not escape (for he was very strong), the King ordered his men to hamstring and hobble the Smith. Then they locked him away by himself, on an island close by. It was the Smith, his forge and anvil, a chest to keep the metals he would work, a simple bed, and very little else.

The ring he stole, the King gave to his only daughter. To his young sons he gave nothing, for he had no other stolen goods to give.

 

Can you imagine, now…

how the days and nights stretched on for the prisoner. Nothing but the sound of surf and seagull, the roar of the forge, the clink of his hammers. Wounds slow to heal, both outer and inner, oh my yes. Yet in his pain, his grief, his anger, he didn’t stop work. And out of that crucible, all his jeweled ornaments, all his fanciful masterpieces, went now to the King.

How long did this last? Some months? Years? How should such mortals as we, free and yet untested, measure time’s reach for one who is captive, for one who has been a god? But the Smith would have his revenge.

 

For as you might guess,one day…

the king’s two sons took it into their heads to row out to their prisoner. They were curious boys, and they knew the rumors of the chest of gold and other metals, they’d heard whispers of the jewels he kept to work his magic on. And after all, what gifts had they received? Did they just want to look, or were they hoping together to trick the smith, or overpower him, and steal his wealth? They didn’t tell me, my lovelies, if they were.

The Smith, healed on the outside by now, at least, welcomed them in and agreed they should see the wonders contained in the chest he kept by the forge. Eagerly, the two leaned over. And as they did, their prisoner brought down the lid with such force it severed their heads from their bodies at once. Oh, he made a clean job of it. The bodies he buried under the dirt floor of his cell. But the heads he had use for. Taking the two skulls, he veined and lined them with gold, fit fine jewels into the eye sockets, and sent the two goblets—rare beauties—to the King as a most precious gift. Delighted, the King promised they should toast the princes, when his sons returned from their bear hunt.

 

But you haven’t forgotten the King’s daughter, surely?

She who was gifted the Smith’s ring had broken the jewel. Worried her father would find out, she rowed out to the cell just as her brothers had, to ask him to fix it, a favor. Her he welcomed more warmly, with spiced wine. And the stories are not so clear, my dears and darlings, if that wine was drugged, or if the drink only softened her smile. But here is the truth of it: when she rowed home, the princess was carrying the Smith’s child. She might have been able to hide her broken ring, but a baby she never could. Weeping, she told her father the King what had happened.

Now the Smith flew free, for he had in the long years of captivity and anger made wings for himself, and hovering above the shocked King his enemy and captor, he admitted, laughing grimly, all he had done. He revealed the goblets’ deep secret, the fate of the princes. And he claimed the son the princess carried, and laid a charm of protection upon both her and the babe, so that the King must house and feed them, until the Smith, a god once more, came back to claim them both for his own.

And the King, broken and bereft, admitted his folly and too late regretted his acts. For the Smith’s triumph over him was utterly complete.

 

Keep the fire lit, a while, my loves, and get you to bed. I won’t be sleeping this night, and how the cold comes on.

 

 

And so the first debt is paid, the first promise kept.

It is.

fire in fall

 

Pagan leadership

“I think it is absolutely essential that people think for themselves because unless they make their own contact with the inner planes, they won’t have any power. This is enormously important that people do not slavishly follow anyone’s lead. I hope witchcraft never has any gurus or leaders. I know that people have criticised Gerald Gardner; I have myself but he once told me, the power is in you and you have to bring that power out.” – Doreen Valiente 1

Does the Pagan movement have leaders? Do we need them? What is a good model of leadership?

I don’t think there is anything wrong with having leaders, but it depends what you mean by leaders. If you mean the kind of people who empower, nurture and teach others, those are the leaders we want. If you mean the kind of people who block others’ access to the numinous, and fleece them of large amounts of money, we don’t want those in the Pagan community – but frankly they would not get very far anyway. Even those paid leaders who work hard and serve others don’t make a lot of money.

Anari

Moina Mathers in priestess garb

We might have a lot of leaders, but I don’t see a lot of followers. Pagans are not sheep, we are goats. We don’t really have congregations (which is basically Latin for “flock”); we are more like tribes. There are many people who serve the Pagan community in an administrative or representative capacity. There are many people who share their thoughts on blogs and in books. There are some leaders who want power, admiration, and followers (fortunately these are fairly few and far between). But I don’t think leaders who want to get rich quick or have a lot of followers will get very far within the Pagan community.  Pagans are too independent-minded.

Sometimes Pagans’ independent-mindedness can backfire, as any time someone looks even vaguely like they are on a pedestal, someone will come along and knock them off it. It is good to check first whether the person actually wants to be on the pedestal, or whether they would rather get off it.

Incidentally, I have a small team of people with instructions to kick me up the backside if ever I start exhibiting the symptoms of a Big Name Pagan with a lot of neophytes in tow. This is unlikely, as I am too lazy to organise my own life, let alone anyone else’s.

My approach to leadership is to seek to empower others, and enable them to write and facilitate ritual and so on. However, not everyone who joins a coven wants to write and facilitate rituals, and that is alright. They may have other abilities which could be nurtured.

In Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca, every initiated Wiccan is a priestess or priest in their own right. However, a first degree is a priestess or priest unto themselves; a second degree can be a priestess or priest to others; and a third degree to the rest of the community. This is not a hard and fast rule – it is just that the degrees are not expected to take on being a priestess or priest for others until they attain the higher degrees. It is also worth remembering that in Wicca, witches are held to be ‘the hidden children of the Goddess’ – in other words, we do our public service covertly, not necessarily advertising that we are witches. If someone asks me for help, they do so because I have a sympathetic manner, not necessarily because they know that I am a witch. We don’t need to wear a special hat – if we are any good, people will recognise the qualities of witchiness in us, and seek our help.  I don’t hide the fact that I am a Wiccan, but I don’t advertise either.

In OBOD Druidry, there are also three grades – Bard, Ovate, and Druid.  The Bard is a storyteller and uses words to enchant. The Ovate is more shamanic and prophetic. The Druid is more of an all-round magical practitioner. It is worth reading OBOD’s explanations of what each grade does, as it is more complex than I have suggested with my simple summary.

In Heathenry, there are goði and gyðja (priests and priestesses) who are generally selected by acclaim of their group, because of their experience, or end up leading rituals because they are the most experienced.

In Religio Romana, priestesses and priests are expected to have a sincere calling to the deity for whom they wish to be a priestess or priest, and to carry out research on their chosen deity, and to worship the chosen deity in their home.

In my experience, even if some leaders of Pagan groups let it go to their head for a while, they soon learn that they are leader by consent of the group, and if they do not care for the needs of all the members of the group, and nurture and empower their members, people will leave.

The best Pagan leaders are those who listen – both to the promptings of spirit, and to their group members. A Pagan leader should not regard their community as serving them, but feel that they are serving the community (which includes other-than-human beings). Those who think they are elders are probably not elders; one gets that title by being acclaimed by others (and not just by virtue of being old, either, but by having wisdom and experience). In return, the community should value those who serve. They should not be expected to cover their expenses from their own pocket; if they spend time preparing a day or weekend workshop, and travelling long distance to deliver it, then they should be remunerated for their time, skill, and expenses.  I do not think people should ever pay for coven training in Wicca, but I do think leaders of public workshops should be adequately remunerated. We need an organic approach to paying clergy.

When I was high priestess of my coven, I was in that role because I was the most experienced member of the group. As high priestess, I encouraged members of my coven to develop their skills in ritual and magic, so that they could also design and facilitate ritual. If a new member wanted to join, every member of the group had to agree that they could join (it was not just on my say-so).

What are your thoughts on Pagan leadership? How is it in your tradition? Please share in the comments.


Thanks to Julie W for posting the Doreen Valiente quote in the Centre for Pagan Studies Facebook group – as you can see, it inspired this post.

Erotic Ethics and Pagan Consent Culture

In the wake of Kenny Klein’s recent arrest for possession of child pornography, many Pagan groups are discussing what policies and ethics statements might help to safeguard our communities. My co-writer Yvonne Aburrow has some excellent concrete suggestions here, and various people are again looking at the collective statement of sexual ethics spearheaded by Brendan Myers to consider whether it might be formally adopted in their groups. I hope these resources will be of use to our readers.

As these discussions continue, I’d like to offer some recommendations on how new sexual ethics statements and policies might be framed. In times of crisis, we often focus on what we DON’T want. But if we are to create a healthy consent culture, our vision of our erotic ethics must be framed in positive terms. What does a Pagan consent culture look like?

1. Rather than focusing purely on sexual touch, let’s focus on touch in general. If we create a culture of consent around touch, and learn to treat touch as an opportunity for a sacramental moment between two people, we will have clear standards for what constitutes appropriate touch in all cases. Not only will it be easier to identify boundary-violating warning signs from potential predators, but well-meaning people will find it easier to offer and accept touch only when it’s wanted, not out of a sense of social obligation.

2. We must acknowledge that our culture is rife with power imbalances, and that all relationships occur within these power imbalances, because no two people are perfect peers. With this in mind, we need language to talk about power in those relationships so as to maximize the autonomy of both parties. Further, we need to be able to speak openly about the fact that with a large power differential, there is a greater chance for exploitation or abuse–and yet retain the conviction that adults do have the ability to consent to touch. No adult’s experience of pleasurable, consensual touch should be dismissed as “patriarchal brainwashing,” as some sexual ethicists of the past have done in order to attack the validity of unequal relationships (such as heterosexual partnerships).

3. We must acknowledge that adolescent sexuality is a a blessing and make sure that our efforts to protect adolescents from abuse do not result in their desires being denied or punished.

As a Pagan, I believe deeply in the potential sacredness of touch and of sexuality. Accordingly, my sexual ethics are different from those espoused in mainstream religious institutions. I seek to create a culture in which enthusiastic, ongoing consent is an expected part of any relationship involving touch, and I believe deeply that adults have the right to consent to any form of loving touch that they desire, regardless of whether or not that touch is considered “deviant” by our society.

In our fear and grief over recent events, let us not mirror mainstream culture with destructive assumptions about the danger of desire, the asexuality of adolescents, or the responsibility of potential victims to protect themselves. We need to change our culture. We need to change the conditions that create people who abuse others, and that allow others to overlook the signs of abuse. Further, we need to avoid utterly demonizing those who commit sexual violations and acknowledge that problematic behaviors are rife in our communities — some persisting as a result of ignorance and lack of understanding, some as a result of genuinely dangerous mental illness. We need to be able to confront those who violate others with compassion, with the understanding that compassion can involve calling the police and sending predators to prison, for the good of all.

So I repeat: let’s take the long view here. Let’s not focus the coming discussions purely on seeking out predators. Instead, let’s concentrate on creating a healthy culture of enthusiastic consent. Not only will that approach better help to reveal those who seek to hurt others, but all our relationships will benefit.

 

Resources:

Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspectiveby Christine Hoff Kraemer (Particularly the discussion of consent at the end of the introduction) [Full book available here, or contact me at ckraemer at patheos dot com]

Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, eds. Friedman and Valenti

Erotic Attunement: Parenthood and the Ethics of Sensuality between Unequals by Cristina Traina

 

Virtue Ethics (Seeking the Mystery, Chp. 5 Excerpt)

As promised, an excerpt from Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologiesnow available in both e-book and paperback editions.


Excerpt from Chapter Five: Ethics and Justice

Neglected Virtues

Brendan Myers’ The Other Side of Virtue attempts to recontextualize some of the virtues that were valued by pre-Christian societies for contemporary Pagans. His work draws on Greek, Celtic, and Northern European cultures to recover traditional systems of ethics and their virtues. For example, in heroic literature, honor is defined as an inherently social quality. An honorable person is one who exhibits loyalty, honesty, reliability, and trustworthiness in his relationships with others. In Northern European traditions, the word for honor is “troth,” which is related to the English word “truth.” To be honorable suggests that one demonstrates integrity in all of one’s dealings. According to Myers, however, honor is something that is given to an honorable person, not a virtue that can be cultivated in a vacuum. It is tied up with reputation and with community respect.[i] In our highly individualistic Western culture, this virtue is rarely recognized, let alone cultivated. Busy, harried schedules lead many of us to routinely break commitments to friends, and the dependable structures of relationship that are necessary for sustainable community are slow to form. Our relative isolation from each other and narrow focus on our individual households means we have few opportunities to gain honor—and yet this virtue is central to many of the myths that contemporary Pagans value. How to cultivate such virtues within a wider culture that does not support them is one of the ongoing struggles of contemporary Paganism.

The contrast between Pagan values and mainstream Western values is particularly noticeable around issues of sexuality and the body. A person who is passionately physical and delights in loving sexuality can be seen as expressing important human qualities. Yet the words that were once used to positively describe this virtue—such as “lusty”—have a negative connotation in modern English. At times, neglected virtues can be reclaimed. The older meaning of “pride,” for example, has recently been revived by pride movements such as Gay Pride and Pagan Pride. In Western culture, “pride” is often synonymous with “hubris,” the arrogance that precedes a disastrous fall. But pride is more properly understood as the state of owning one’s self and identity without apology or shame. Although community is not as essential for the cultivation of pride as it is for honor, gathering with like-minded others makes taking pride in oneself a far easier task—and sustainable pride requires choosing friends who treat each other with respect.

Contemporary Pagan ethics are inherently pluralistic. Not all virtues can be expressed at the same time, and different virtues may even suggest different courses of action. Many Pagans are polytheists, and their gods express diverse strengths and virtues. The cultivation of these virtues can support multiple ways of being ethical. For example, a practitioner might cultivate creativity and fierce compassion in honor of Brighid, poet and healer, or clear thinking and communication in honor of Hermes, patron of orators and inventors. In some cases, Pagans seek to hold paradox by cultivating the capacity for virtues that superficially contradict. In Wicca’s “Charge of the Goddess,” the Goddess calls witches to have “beauty and strength, power and compassion, honor and humility, mirth and reverence within you.”[ii] According to the Charge, a virtuous person must be capable of a variety of qualities depending on context. A successful group leader, for example, sees his leadership as service to the group; he puts his own agenda partially aside in order to create a harmonious atmosphere and empower individuals to work together effectively. Good leadership requires humility. However, a good group leader also has a backbone, and he is willing to use the respect the group gives him to protect it when he must. A group member who becomes disruptive or even abusive must be held accountable for that behavior by the leader, who is supported by the group as a whole. A good leader must accept that power and be willing to use the authority he has been granted. Finding the balance between virtues—for every virtue also has a shadow side—is one of the challenges of virtue ethics. Unbalanced humility can become subservience; unbalanced power can become egotism and tyranny.

Virtue-based ethics make for a highly flexible ethical system. Based on principles rather than rules, virtue ethics can easily adjust to the particularities of situations: people, places, and times. To those who were raised in a rule-based system, where ethical decisions are often framed in black and white terms, virtue ethics can appear to lack a foundation, almost like having no ethics at all. If there are many ways of being ethical, how can a person choose between them? Even worse, isn’t it possible to mistake a vice for a virtue and end up tolerating destructive behavior? Yet virtue ethics are not entirely subjective or relativistic. Ultimately, all virtues are properly cultivated in community. Healthy religious communities have elders and ancestors who embody the virtues that they value. Virtuous behavior is modeled on the actions of these role models, and the virtuous behavior of members of the community is acknowledged and praised by other members. Life experience and time-tested community traditions help young people learn virtuous behavior.

It is nevertheless possible for both individuals and communities to hold up a “virtue” that is destructive. In our own culture, for example, the ability to accumulate individual wealth is often admired as a virtue, regardless of whether that wealth is used for the good of the community. Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle differentiated false virtues from true with the concept of eudaimonia.[iii] Sometimes this term is translated as happiness, but a more accurate translation is “flourishing.” A thoroughly virtuous person can be recognized by the fact that they are flourishing on many levels. The term is an expression of spiritual, mental, and physical health, not simply of a passing emotion. (Some ancient philosophers believed that that spiritual health necessarily correlates with physical health and prosperity, but I disagree. It is certainly possible to actively choose poverty out of a spiritual calling and find that poverty freeing. A spiritually healthy poverty is part of a stable lifestyle, however; it does not involve racking up credit card bills that one cannot pay. Additionally, although poor physical health can have psychological or spiritual roots, illness is a natural part of human life. A spiritually healthy person may struggle with poor physical health, but she is able to face her health crises with compassion, grace, and humor. More than outward signs of material wealth or physical health, “flourishing” is best expressed by the joy and engaged sense of presence that a spiritually healthy person brings to her community.)

In contrast to this flourishing, the pursuit of false virtues brings only a shallow and passing happiness. According to virtue ethicists, the pursuit of material wealth or worldly power for reasons other than the health of the community does not result in flourishing, but rather a persistent sense of emptiness and a lifetime of regrets. The possession of personal virtue, however, is thought to foster alignment with the divine, peace of mind, and satisfaction regardless of whether virtuous behavior is consistently acknowledged by others or results in a clearly good outcome. When greed is held up as a virtue in community, the soul sickness and social injustice that result are signs that the community has lost its way. As we know from our own society, this sickness can be difficult to correct, particularly when those embracing the false virtue have gained positions of power and are no longer accountable to those around them. Virtue ethics function most effectively in small communities with a high degree of social accountability, as well as in the presence of experienced elders whose advice and wisdom are taken seriously. As contemporary Paganism moves through its adolescence as a religious movement, the need for fair-minded elders to stabilize scattered religious communities and help to ensure accountability grows ever greater.


[i] Brendan Myers, The Other Side of Virtue (Hants, UK: O Books, 2008), 44-50.

[ii] Doreen Valiente, “The Charge of the Goddess,” The Doreen Valiente Foundation. Available at http://doreenvaliente.org/2009/06/poem-the-charge-of-the-goddess/.

[iii] “Ethics,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Available at http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/34560/Aristotle/254721/Ethics#toc254722.

What is the foundation of Pagan ethics?

Pagans don’t have a holy book with commandments from a deity. We tend to derive our ethics from reasoning about the world around us. We cultivate virtues rather than following commandments.

But we also have a specifically and recognisably Pagan response to the world.

Teo Bishop writes, “I have always believed that the stories you tell about the gods you worship need to be relevant in the world you live in. They must be more than just stories. They must have application.” He goes on to say that “the intersection of the myth and the meaning is where morality is born”.

My comment on this was,

I think the foundation of Pagan ethics is the idea that everything is sacred, because the Divine is / deities are immanent in everything.

The stories and mythologies that we share illustrate the idea of deities and spirits being involved in the world, and of people taking care of each other and of animals and plants. These are the illustrations of that basic insight.

If you believe that the physical universe is an embodiment of the Divine, and life is something to be celebrated, then your mythology, and your ethics, will flow from that.

Each Pagan story, myth, and legend will reinforce the view that everything is sacred, but the stories are not necessarily the source of that insight. Rather the insight rests in our emotional response to the world around us, a sense of being in right relationship with it when we treat it as a Thou and not an It.

Ethics versus morality
I have always felt that ethics are a bottom-up approach to behaviour, where your ethical choices spring from your ethos, whereas morality was a top-down approach, where morals were arbitrarily imposed from above by a deity. (The dictionary definition of morals and ethics does not bear out this distinction, but I still find it useful.)

Some traditions may derive their ethics from the traditional body of lore of a particular culture. This wisdom from the past, embedded as it was in experience and an ethic of responsibility towards other beings, is an excellent source of ethical guidance. Have a look at these Irish triads and Scottish proverbs, which are full of wisdom.

My criterion for deciding whether anything is right or not is, “does it harm anyone?” Of course it is impossible to completely avoid harm, but we can and should reduce the harm caused by our actions. I also draw on the Eight Wiccan Virtues as a guide to how to act.

 

A gift for a gift: a Pagan ethic of reciprocity

“A gift in return for a gift” – The Hávamál

In ancient times, hospitality was regarded as sacred. In English, the words ‘guest’ and ‘host’ are very closely related. In German, the words are ‘Gast’ (guest) and ‘Gastgeber’ (host, or literally, guest-giver). There were rituals of giving and accepting hospitality, and it was regarded as a sacred exchange. A guest under your roof was to be protected. That is why stories where the relationship of hospitality is betrayed are so powerful and shocking. In Germany and in Pakistan, it is still the custom for a guest to bring a gift for the host on their first visit to a house (even if they are not staying the night). This is the custom in other countries too. Hospitality was regarded as a sacred obligation in ancient Greece; it is mentioned several times in Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus is shipwrecked, it is because of the obligations of the host towards the stranger that Nausica comes to his aid; and when he returns home to Ithaca disguised as a beggar, the shepherd Eumaios welcomes him as a guest. In India, the guest is regarded as a manifestation of the Divine, and hospitality is based on the principle Atithi Devo Bhava, meaning “the guest is God.”

The exchange of gifts is a way of establishing relationship. In gift economies, gifts are given without any formal agreement as to when the favour will be returned; however, the ethic of reciprocity is so strong that the gift creates an obligation to return the gift or favour, and in this way, an ongoing relationship is created. We can see this ethic at work in the giving of gifts for Yule and birthdays. If a friend gives me a gift, I feel an obligation to get them a gift in return. If someone looks after your cat while you are on holiday, you get them a gift while you are away.

Sadly, the giving of gifts has become bound up with monetary considerations, as we feel the need to buy something of equal value to the gift we were given. However, the point of a gift is the amount of effort that went into it. Perhaps your friend went to a lot of effort to find something that they knew you would like; perhaps they went to a lot of effort to make something beautiful. Either way, it is the effort that counts, not the money. It is the idea that the friend cares enough about you to spend time making something for you, or finding a gift that expresses something about who you are. The gift then becomes an outward and visible symbol of your relationship with the giver. This is why I disagree with the idea that we should give up on all material things and get rid of stuff; quite often the stuff that you have around your home represents friendships and relationships.

The giving of money in exchange for something does not create relationship, it ends it. If I pay in full for a service or a commodity, my obligation is discharged, and that ends the relationship. If I pay for a massage, a Tarot reading, or a workshop, that is because the masseur, Tarot reader, or workshop leader is not going to receive from me (at some unspecified future date) a massage, a Tarot reading, or a workshop. The relationship is ended by the payment. This is, I think, why Wiccans believe strongly that we should not charge trainees for training. Members of a coven are in a relationship, and payment for training would end that relationship. What you gain in return for teaching is an opportunity to formulate, clarify, and refine your own views in the process of transmitting them to others. You can also learn from your trainees. And in due course, you will have a coven to work with who can write rituals for you to take part in.  All members of a coven are expected to contribute food for the feast and candles and incense for rituals, and help with the washing-up, however.

A similar situation exists in the development of friendships. A friend is someone you can open up to, who will not judge you for your actions; they may offer constructive criticism, but they do not reject you for your oddities and quirks. However, the process of opening up to each other is gradual and reciprocal. One person will reveal something about themselves, and the other will reciprocate. Revealing your innermost thoughts and feelings is to make yourself vulnerable, to give the gift of yourself. If the other person does not reciprocate with a revelation of similar import, it feels as if there is a major imbalance in the relationship; you have made yourself vulnerable, giving the other person power over you; so you need them to reciprocate. The gradual peeling away of layers of the onion applies both to thoughts and feelings, and to social space. First you meet a new friend outside the home, in a pub or other neutral space; only later do you invite them to your house. At first you talk about current affairs and other relatively impersonal topics; only later do you reveal your more inward feelings and experiences.

This ethic of reciprocity appears in many cultures, but is grounded in the idea of creating relationships. We are social animals and like to form bonds and associations – friendship groups, clans, tribes, families. These groups gradually form their own traditions, rituals, and symbols, but they are grounded in the mutual relationships of the members, who help each other, forgive each other, and form bonds of obligation through the exchange of gifts and hospitality.

It can be a good thing that the money economy has developed; sometimes we do not want to enter into relationship with a person who has done something for us, because they are not part of our social group. But it is important not to confuse the practice of gift exchange with the money economy. The two “systems” work differently, and have different rules.

Traditional Pagan and other cultures had a strong ethic of reciprocity, hospitality  and gift exchange, and it is worth investigating these ideas. They can help us to understand the dynamics of gift-giving (always fraught with social minefields, especially at this time of year), and to learn to value what is of real worth (the emotional associations of a thing, rather than its monetary value), and not feel guilty about having stuff. They can also make us more aware of the underlying currents of social intercourse –  always a valuable insight for a magical practitioner who aims to be effective in all the realms (physical, spiritual, astral, social, and mental).

Reciprocity also exists in nature, in the form of balance. Birth is balanced by death; growth is balanced by decay; darkness is balanced by light. This natural reciprocity is found in ancient myths too. In order to gain wisdom from Mimir’s Well, Oðinn had to sacrifice an eye. He gave up part of his physical sight in order to gain inner sight or wisdom. In order to gain the knowledge of the runes, Oðinn hung nine days and nights on the World Tree. The gain of one thing entails the loss of another; that is how equilibrium is maintained.