Living Without A Golden Rule

Living Without A Golden Rule

Author: Jon Hanna

“The Rede is similar to the Golden Rule, a belief that is found in nearly every religion”.[1]

They say you should never cite Wikipedia. Certainly, as a source of facts or even facts about others’ opinions, it’s dicey at best. But, if you want a snapshot of what’s claimed at this point in time, it can serve even better than old versions of Encyclopedia Britannica serve for seeing what was commonly claimed at different points in the past.

So, we can take the above as indicating that at least some people out there claim the Rede is similar to the Golden Rule. I’d go further and say that this claim is quite commonly made. I have argued before that this association made between the Rede and the Rule is why the Rede is so well-known, even outside of Paganism.

Some interpretations of the Rede certainly don’t compare at all, though. For a start, you have to begin by ignoring that it’s a rede, to turn it into a rule. The interpretation of the Rede as allowing harmless actions but leaving harmful actions to be decided according to other ethical considerations and the interpretation that compares the Rede to the Law of Thelema don’t offer such comparison.

It’s only that interpretation which forbids all harm, and that which insists one reduces harm done to a minimum, which can be compared. Even here though the comparison seems poor; these interpretations insist upon avoiding harm, while the Golden Rule, in its negative form, offers a means to determine what is harmful as well as insisting it be avoided. And the point of the Golden Rule is this very mechanism by which to make such a judgement, so to warn against harm without offering this mechanism is not analogous to the Golden Rule at all. Meanwhile, the interest of many Witches and Pagans in our responsibility to beings other than humans (that is to say, and interest in environmental and animal-rights concerns) leads them to quite deliberately consider questions of harm outside of matters of how other humans are treated.

This leads to two questions. The first is: why is this comparison with the Golden Rule made? The second is much more important, especially to someone like myself, who interprets the Rede in a way particularly distant to the Rule (personally favouring the first of the different interpretations I mentioned above) : how does one justify an ethic without a Golden Rule, when the Rule is held by so many to be the beginning of all ethics?

Let’s begin by looking at just what the Golden Rule is. “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”[2] is one Christian rendering of it. In short, this exhorts one to determine what is good by examining what one would like to be done to oneself, and to then do so.

The negative form exhorts one to determine what is bad by examining what one would not like to be done to oneself, and then to avoid such behaviour. This is where we have an overlap with those interpretations of the Rede that would have one avoid all harmful action, but an incomplete one as shown above.

Perhaps the most frequently stated feature of the Golden Rule is its ubiquity. Confucius is often cited as the earliest source of such a rule, and his writings were based on earlier oral teachings. Passages claimed as examples of the Rule can be found in Christianity, Judaism, Yoruba, Buddhism, Egyptian, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Brahmanism, Sikhism, Jainism, Taoism, the Baha’i Faith, Islam and Scientology.

This ubiquity would encourage one to find a similar Rule in one’s own religious practice for several reasons:

1. The question of legitimacy. Since the Golden Rule is so ubiquitous, one can be tempted to the position that any “real” religion must also have an example of this Rule. Believing this, then to demonstrate that Wicca has a place among them, one must demonstrate that Wicca also has an example of the Golden Rule. The also encourages other Pagan practices to borrow the Rede, so that they can make similar claims.

2. Seeking a universal ethic. Since the Golden Rule is claimed as a common principle in a great many religions, this offers common ground between many different religions.[3]

3. Claiming a right to tolerance. This is implied by both the first and second reason. If we are a “real” religion and if we have an ethic in common with most or all other religions, then we can use this as a basis from which we can ask (or demand) that those other religions treat us tolerantly.

4. Outside assumptions. People who aren’t Wiccan may assume that we have an ethic of reciprocity, simply because they are so ubiquitous.

5. Inside assumptions. Indeed people actually coming to some form of modern Pagan Witchcraft, may well simply assume that there must be a form of the Golden Rule somewhere, and hence assume that the Rede is an example of this.

With so many benefits to having a Golden Rule, where does not seeing the Rede as corresponding to the Rule, leave us?

To examine this, we must abandon, at least temporarily, the advantages that proclaiming an ethic or reciprocity would give us in inter-religious matters, and look at ethics themselves before we make statements about it for the benefit of people of other paths.

But let’s first look at what how the Golden Rule is said to benefit people of those religions that do have a form of it. Karen Armstrong has given two TED talks in which she talks of her hopes of having the Golden Rule more widely followed.[4][5] In doing so she is attempting to move the focus of people’s religious thinking from differences in dogma and toward this particular exhortation found in so many religions. (Incidentally, her discussion on changes to the concept of “belief” in one of them[5] is interesting to consider in relation to the way in which Traditional Wicca, and some other modern Pagan practices, place a greater emphasis upon praxis than doctrine) .

In both of these she speaks of compassion. Her proposed charter is not called a Charter for the Golden Rule, but a Charter for Compassion. The implication therefore is either that the Golden Rule and compassion are one and the same, or that the Golden Rule is the source of human compassion.

Is it? There is a leap that needs to be made between reciprocity and compassion. One objection to the Golden Rule is that of George Bernard Shaw, “Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” The classic schoolboy objection to the Golden Rule is to ask how a masochist should act, if following the Golden Rule. Sometimes the Golden Rule is stated in terms of what the other person wants, The Golden Alliance[6], who seek to encourage people to follow the Golden Rule express it as “treat others as they wish to be treated [emphasis added]”, but this also has similar problems: Do we have to hurt the masochist?

Richard Bach’s taking this approach to the Golden Rule leads to him to conclude that he should do what he wants to do, and ignore the rule.[7] This is unsatisfying to my mind. He manages to argue against the Golden Rule, but his conclusions seem to me to be empty of any replacing ethic.

There is though a suggestion that acting as he wants, his behaviour will still be moral and ethical, but little to suggest why this may be. A more promising form of this sort of ethic can be found in Saint Augustine; “Dilige, et quod vis fac“ – “Love, and do what you want”.[8] The suggestion here is that in acting out of love, one will inevitably not only be guided towards moral behaviour, but that what one wants to do will in fact already be moral, due to that guiding influence of that love.

Thelema takes a different, but comparable approach, in its concept of True Will. When people are acting out of such an understanding of their True Will, they are guided to correct action. Such a view of True Will though, while perhaps solving the question of how we can derive an ethic in practice, is by its nature difficult to examine in theoretical comparisons of different ethics. Even if it succeeds in leading Thelemites to behave ethically, it leaves little for us to examine in terms of how our own ethics works, unless we adopt Thelema wholesale. It is worth noting though that Thelema, like Saint Augustine, talks of love, “Love is the Law, Love under Will”. While love may be under will, and hence we might suppose is subordinate to it, we should note that Liber AL vel Legis says that Love is the Law. Love is not claimed as part of the Law, but identified with it.

Shall we try to define love? I should hope not. Poets are better at writing about love than philosophers, and both the poets and the philosophers disagree among themselves (and with each other since at least the time of Plato) . I would not think I could do a better job than either of them here.

Let us instead take stock of the views on ethical behaviour encountered so far.

1. An ethic of reciprocity.

2. An ethic of compassion, claimed to come from this ethic of reciprocity.

3. An ethic of love.

Can we reconcile these?

I think we can reconcile an ethic of compassion and love. Compassion is certainly seen as a component of love. Just how closely it is identified with love (particularly with agape or brotherly love) will differ, but I think the relationship between the two is strong enough that we can claim this relationship exists, without having to best all of the poets and philosophers when it comes to defining precisely what love is.

So, how can we bridge the gap between the ethic of reciprocity and an ethic of compassion?

Armstrong seems to suggest that empathy is how these two are related. It is here that I disagree with her.

To consider “how would you feel if they did it to you?” as we might ask a small child we are reprimanding, is only the beginning of empathy. We need to go beyond this question to deal with people who have different cultural experiences to us, who have different understandings of a situation, who are different to us in level of health, or physical and mental capacity, who are different to us in any way; and everybody is different to us in some way. In short, to empathise with someone is not merely to consider how we would feel if something was done to us, but to consider every way in which they are different to us.

To empathise well, is also to understand the limits of our empathy. When someone has experienced something that I have not, it is arrogant to assume that I can empathise fully. We state this flat-out when someone is going through a particularly difficult time and we simply tell him or her “I don’t know what to say”. It is the only way we can commiserate with someone who has gone where empathy cannot follow. Without recognising this limitation of our empathy, we fail to acknowledge the other’s individuality and autonomous identity.

To emphasise is also to communicate between our position and theirs, not lose ourself in our consideration of the other person. That would be theatre, of benefit only to ourselves in its catharsis, not to them or anyone else. There are indeed people involved in some of the minority religious practices of the West who boast of their empathic capacity, but who do little more than wonder around under some sort of emotional Brownian Motion, vicariously experiencing joy and misery, and not actually being of any use.

To emphasise is to put oneself in another’s position, while also remaining in one’s own. This is where we can begin to move from empathy to compassion.

It still doesn’t go all the way though. Compassion requires us to balance the needs of one with the needs of another. It requires us to balance short-term with long-term needs, and what they desire or think they need with what we believe they need. It requires us to look not just at the way the object of our empathy feels, but other considerations.

This balancing is often the hardest part of behaving ethically. Lets face it, the ethical considerations best served by any simple rule are the easiest to deal with. They can deal with strawman cases easily. Just about any ethic will agree that it isn’t ethical to beat up innocent people for sport, but this is not a difficult ethical question. The difficult questions are about how we balance differing needs, wants, and perceived needs, and the worth of an ethic is in how well it serves these difficult questions.

I would argue also, that this balance is of greater real importance in inter-religious dialogue than anything the Golden Rule provides for. Consider that those who would convert us, perhaps even by force, to their own religion will honestly consider that this is in our best interest. They are doing unto others when they try to bring us to what they consider to be a great and wonderful truth that they are glad they were brought to, and believe they would want to be brought to, were they in our position. It’s impossible to argue on their terms that we should be left alone, but we can argue that when they are balancing what they see as our desire to remain as we are with our need to be converted to their path, that their compassion should lean toward the former rather than the latter.

I can’t claim that this is an unassailable argument. In different circumstances, we can, and we will, and we should, sometimes decide to lean towards what we think someone needs over what they think they want or need. Any responsible parent does this all the time, and it can also be necessary in dealing with other adults. Compassion is not a ruler, it is a guide. To Pagan Witches, who claim — boast even — that our ethics insist upon personal responsibility, this should make an ethic concerned with compassion rather than with reciprocity, particularly deserving of attention. As long as it doesn’t result in similar hand-wringing over compassion in various hypothetical situations, that we so often drag the Rede down to.

So, while I have not agreed with Armstrong in the importance she places upon the Golden Rule, I do personally agree with the emphasis on compassion that she arrives at. Can I argue beyond my own personal agreement, that this is a Wiccan ethic, or at least a Wicca-compatible ethic, by finding compassion in the Rede?

No. But it can be found quite explicitly in the Charge:

And therefore let there be beauty and strength,
power and compassion,
honour and humility,
mirth and reverence within you.

Compassion is right there, and if anything it’s a lot more strongly suggested by being in the Charge than being in a mere rede. While the Charge is not claimed as an irrefutable scripture, it’s not labelled a rede either, so it certainly can be considered a stronger statement than what we are told is a rede.

Of course, compassion does not exist here on its own. It is one of a set of eight qualities that we are exhorted to exhibit. No one of these is held to be more important than the other, and if anything, compassion is “sitting in the corner” by being in the middle of this set.

It is also quite strongly paired with power. In particular, we must note that while we are not explicitly told to have a balance between power and compassion, we are certainly told that we should have both of them.

Compassion without power is the easiest to exhibit in practice. It takes no moral courage to say “Oh that’s terrible, the poor thing!” but to consider oneself powerless to do anything to help. Power without compassion lets us stomp over others on our way to what we want. A lack of both compassion and power lets us idle in unconcerned impotence. But when power and compassion are both in evidence they strengthen each other into a compassionate power, and a powerful compassion.

Here then is an ethic that demands that we have the ability to act. It doesn’t shy away from power with cautionary tales of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and hand-wringing about the possibility that to act may in some convoluted causal chain of events lead to harm being done (though it certainly doesn’t encourage thoughtless action with no consideration of consequence, either) . It demands action, and for that matter while the Charge also demands humility, so too does it demand honour, and I would argue that this includes acting so as to be able to speak proudly of one’s actions. It is not a modest ethic; it is an ethic with guts.

And it also delivers what Armstrong says she has found in looking at what is good in her religion and many others. So while I can’t see the Golden Rule as anything but ethical training-wheels in arriving at compassion, we are in agreement on what is ultimately important.

Why then, is the Rede so often spoken of as a Wiccan principle, not just as if it was some sort of tenet (how can advice be a tenet? how can a praxis even have a tenet?) but as if it was the tenet? How has the Rede emerged so strongly from the entire corpus of publicly-known Wiccan lore to be referenced in popular television shows?[9]

Well, there is concision. We all like concision. The existence of quotation dictionaries shows that brevity is not just the soul of wit, but also does much to give the impression of profundity. In the age of the soundbite, our love of concision is perhaps greater than ever.

Still, while the Charge is not small enough to fit onto a t-shirt, this and some other passages are. But what we have then is incompleteness. Even the Charge in its entirety does not give anywhere near as complete a statement of anything, as something like the Credo does for Roman Catholicism. How can it? How can any passage when the focus of the Wicca is upon what we do, rather than upon what we believe? And certainly, how can my personal interpretation of one small part of it here, out of the ritual context in which it belongs, possibly hope to compete an eight-word, two-clause sentence? I would not even claim that those eight qualities are the total of Wiccan ethics; though I am choosing to focus on one of them here. The Charge itself has more to say on ethics, and the rest of our liturgy more still, particularly our oaths, and this is still not the sum of it all.

The Golden Rule, on the other hand, is often said to offer completeness. Rabbi Hillel could summarise his religion while standing on one leg, by saying it was “… the whole of the Torah; the rest is the explanation, go and read it”. Completeness is satisfying. Part of the attraction of the soundbite is the illusion of completeness.

But is this really something to build a living ethic from, never mind a living religious practice that has other aspects besides ethics? Our world is imprecise and our understanding limited. How clear is this after experiencing Mystery? This is precisely why I would favour an imprecise guide over a simple rule. The charm of the concise bon mot should always be suspected.

Part of the desire to find a parallel between the Rede and the Golden Rule may be a desire for the comfort of concise completion. It takes courage to turn from any comfort, but turning from comfort is often necessary as we work for a better understanding of our Craft. Surely, whether you agree with my thoughts on compassion above or not, turning from comfort is also necessary for an ethic ready to deal with the messier moral questions we might face.

[1] “Wiccan Rede: Interpretations of the Rede”.

[2] Matthew 7:12. King James Version

[3] Parliament of the World’s Religions. 1993. “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic”

[4] Armstrong, Karen. 2009. “Let’s Revive the Golden Rule”

[5] Armstrong, Karen. 2008. “Karen Armstrong makes her TED Prize wish: the Charter for Compassion”.

[6] “Golden Alliance”.

[7] Bach, Richard. 1977. Illusions. New York: Dell Publishing Co. ISBN: 0-440-20488-7.

[8] St. Augstine of Hippo. “Homily 7 on the First Epistle of John”. A translation is available at and elsewhere.

[9] E.g. Renshaw, Jeannine. 2007. “Mean Ghost” [Television series episode] in Gray, John (Creator) , Ghost Whisperer (television) , Los Angeles: ABC Studios, Burbank.