Ethics and Magic

Donald Michael Kraig writes a thorough analysis of the Wiccan rede, comparing it in his conclusion to the Tantric concept of karma. He points out that literally following the rede would be practically impossible, and he asks:

So what do you think? Is it time to abandon the Wiccan Rede and Three-Fold Law as unobtainable and unrealistic goals?

I don’t accept the Wiccan rede as the basis for my ethical system, and I agree with 90% of what DMK writs in this post. But . . .

I can quibble a bit with some of his reasoning (I love me my quibbles). There is the assumption here that the “right” reading of the rede is the literal. He doesn’t say that, and I doubt that he intends to assume it, but it’s a warrant of his argument that “literal” reading is correct reading. Of course, the fallacy of literal reading is the very problem of fundamentalism. In reality, there’s no such thing as literal reading: all texts require interpretation. Even recipes require some interpretation. So when a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew says “the scripture says this in plain language” I always have to tilt my head a bit.

I have heard readings of the rede that do not run into the problem of over-literalism, such as “an it harm none, do as you will” means “If you look at an action, and it harms no one, and you want to do it, go for it. If, however, it harms someone, you need to think about it quite a bit more.” This reading is not stretching the text or trying to “get around it”: after all, the rede doesn’t say “An it harms none, don’t do it.” One could argue, quite rightly, that reading it as if it does is actually misreading it: it’s not a prohibition or a commandment. It’s a rede.

As for me, I’m not Wiccan. And I think DMK is absolutely 100% right when he writes:

One of the challenges of these traditions is that in some instances they are not thoroughly considered. An individual tradition may leave out large swathes of concepts and limit themselves to small sections of reality. There is often the worship of deities, the practice of magick, divination, and healing, the celebration of festivals and holidays, but little else. As a result, for many people their spiritual tradition is merely a part-time practice rather than a way of living. (I wouldn’t limit this to Pagans, either.)

So how do we consider ethics? In my next three posts, I will discuss three ethical approaches and how they can be adopted — or not — by magical practitioners.

2 Responses to “Ethics and Magic”

  1. I come to this as an outsider, not being initiated Wicca, and only peripherally involved in uninitiated or non-trad/eclectic Wicca. But I’ve assumed a reading akin to yours, that “if it harms no one, do what you want. Think about it more if the action will harm someone.”

    But I think the non-traditional/uninitiated movement in Wicca has tended to interpret the Rede literally, and either to embrace it whole-heartedly in an almost fundamentalist way, or to reject it as a fundamentalism rather like the one many of them left behind in Protestant Christianity. When I cruise pagan tags on Tumblr and elsewhere, I see this rejection of the rede and the initiated tradition, and a much greater willingness to curse than the traditional British witchcraft.

  2. In my experience, the Rede should not be mistaken for a complete ethical system. I’m not sure that anyone does, especially outside of Internet forums.

    There seem to be many beliefs that come as part and parcel of the Wiccan community. Many people who ascribe to the religion feel strongly that there are cultural and political beliefs that simply MUST come with membership.

    Can we imagine a misogynistic Wicca, for instance? The very structure of practices would make it almost inconceivable.

    The whole definition of “harm” means that there must be more thought given to these questions.

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