Beyond the Ethics of the Wiccan Rede
Author: Bill BluWolf
The Rede is known to many of Wiccan practitioners as the ethical underpinnings to be followed. While different versions exist, a common form is “An it harm none, do what ye will.” Most of the attribution for the Rede goes to Doreen Valiente, Alexander Crowley, Gardner and according to some, King Pausol. Regardless of the source, we are told we are free to do what we want as long as no harm results. It is important to note that the Rede includes admonishment against doing harm to oneself.
Another important consideration for ethics is the Rule of Three (Three-fold Law or Law of Return) . It states that whatever one puts out, it will return threefold. This is an attempt to warn the practitioner to do good works because it will come back to them three-fold. As an ethical consideration, it is not much different than the Christian’s “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12) . These ethical sayings also ring with the idea of Karma; (to use the Christian saying) what you sow, so shall you reap.
Notice that the ethics so far are prohibitive. They tell us what NOT to do. I get a chuckle from Google’s company motto that echoes what we’ve seen: “Don’t be evil.”
For Wiccans, there is a few last important ethical guides, one is well known to many especially Gardnerians: The Charge of the Goddess. A Charge of the God exists, as well as countless variations of both. Wiccan Laws exist as well, in Gardnerian and Alexanrian forms. I’ll spare you the gory details about the in-fighting regarding the Laws. Needless to say, many disagreed with them.
While the Rede and the Three-fold Law are largely prohibitive, they do so by also telling us we are urged to do positive works. I personally like the Charge from an ethical standpoint because it tells what we should do. In this way it is proscriptive and not prohibitive.
Paraphrasing the Charge of the Goddess, Doreen Valiente tells us we should:
Listen to the words of the Great Mother.
Be naked in your rites.
Meet once a month under a full moon.
Sing, feast, dance, make music and make love.
Have beauty, strength, power, compassion, honor, humility, mirth and reverence within you.
Many have taken her words and adapted them to make them suitable for different audiences and to fit other purposes.
My chief complaint with all of these ethical viewpoints is that they are largely useless in practical secular daily life. It is what we call applied ethics. For example, I am driving down the road and a deer jumps in front of my car. I have seconds to decide; do I hit the deer or do I drive into a ditch or hit a tree? Ethically, I don’t want to kill a defenseless animal. Nor do I want to harm my car, a tree or myself.
As an improvement, there is an international program (which Boy Scouts of America and Cub Scouts use) have a saying; “Leave no trace.” It is used when outdoors and the intent is to leave the place how it was found.
Leave no trace could cover a multitude of other situations, such as greenhouse gases, carbon footprints, new roads and development in protected ecosystems to ocean ecology. It also tells us what to do. Lets think of a short list.
1.Recycle. Our world’s resources are not infinite. We should be doing good management of what resources we do have and not waste them. We should re-plant the trees that we do take for our future generations.
2.Leave what you find. While walking in the woods, we don’t take things like rocks or animals. What is with our preoccupation at collecting massive amounts of material things? Like leaving only footprints, we should only collect what we need.
3.Be considerate of others. Not only this applies to local wildlife, it applies to other people.
4.Clean up after yourself. In the physical sense, it means trash management. In the spiritual sense, it means know your craft and behave responsibly. In the mental sense, it means don’t dump on others, and have a healthy outlook and healthy relationships.
What other things could you add to the list?
Leave no trace is attractive as an ethical proposition because it tells us what to do and what not to do at the same time.
As Pagans, we should look for a more responsible ethical framework. We were here before the other world religions. Shouldn’t we lead the way in ethics?
There are other ethical sayings we could use. “Be my best” comes to mind. The big flaw I see is that my best becomes a crutch when people do bad things. For example, “Well I was just doing my best.” might be a common excuse when a pedophile molests a child. If honestly applied, I do think it works, but maybe we can do better.
The one I like best is “Leave the world a better place than you found it.” It is all encompassing. It is a positive way to say that we should strive to do good works. It covers things from acid rain to gun laws to abortion. It is very simple. A kindergartner should understand this concept.
In applied ethics, it becomes fairly easy to do the right thing. In the example of the deer jumping in front of the car, we can rationalize some choices. The car may hit the deer. The car can end up in the ditch. But it is the more general context that makes it an improvement. Why did the deer do that? Are the local deer crossing roads due to over-crowding? Perhaps we should install fences and control where the deer cross the road. Maybe we should allocate more forestland for deer populations.
“Leave the world a better place” allows us to explore options, and become better stewards of our environment. It creates possibilities that did not previously exist and makes us better humans.