Archive for the Ethics Category

Ethics (3/3) — Virtue ethics

Posted in Ethics, Magical Systems on July 15, 2013 by Patrick

Rather than rules or consequences, virtue ethics looks at the qualities that underly particular actions. If, for example, you are an honest person, you might rarely tell a lie.

As I said before, one of the favorite practices of professors of introduction to ethics is the hypothetical. One of the most famous hypothetical is this: you are harboring a Jew during WWII, and a Nazi soldier comes to your door. Do you give up the Jew to the Nazi, knowing that he will die most horribly, or do you lie to the Nazi and save the life?

A deontological view with a simple rules, like “thou shalt not lie,” says “You tell the truth. So sad, too bad.” Of course, most people espousing such moralities won’t actually say that. They either “bite the bullet” as we say in philosophy, or they find some reason that there, that rule does not apply. Neither satisfies me.

A teleologist fares a bit better: she says “Lie. Of course.” But lies often make people feel better. Should I then lie all the time? This doesn’t quite satisfy, because we have a sense that lying probably isn’t a good practice overall.

The aretologist (or Virtue Ethicist) says “I am an honest person, so I do not tend to lie. I am also a compassionate person, so I do not tend to encourage needless suffering. And furthermore, I am a just person, and the Nazis are unjust. So I lie. It’s a pity that I have to, but — well, frankly, um, duh?”

Virtue ethics isn’t about following rules or attending to the calculus of consequences, but about what you are. It’s about becoming a good person, even if that means study and practice.

Each virtue is a balancing act. For example, justice is a balance between mercy and severity. Courage is a balance between the vices of cowardice and foolhardiness. And each virtue requires the skill or quality of phronesis, of wisdom, to find that balance.

One of the reasons I think virtue ethics is relevant to the magician is that even the word, virtue, means power. Being a good person, developing these characteristics, makes one capable as a human being and thus more capable as a magician.

The Wiccan rede isn’t an artifact of a virtue ethic, but there are four magical virtues describes by Levi:

To Know: The virtue of knowledge, of knowing what one must do, and what one must not, and how to achieve one’s aims, as well as to know oneself as human. The balance between ignorance and intellectual pride.
To Will: The virtue of resolution, of setting one’s mind and clearing one’s thoughts of distraction, of basic discipline. This is the balance between weakness and grit-toothed grim gym-teacher pain.
To Dare: This is the virtue of courage. Whenever I see someone new to magic surprised or startled by magical success, I think of this virtue, the balance between excuses and obsession.
To Keep Silent: The virtue of circumspection. We don’t have to keep everythign in magic a secret anymore, but sometimes we must just shut up in the face of the ineffable. This is the balance between haughty obfuscation and blatherskite.

I’d love to see more attention paid to virtue ethic in magic, and while I respect the rede, I respect the witch’s pyramid a lot more, because it serves as a practical set of virtues to aim toward in my own life, even if I don’t always achieve them.

Ethics (2/3) — For the ends

Posted in Ethics on June 25, 2013 by Patrick

The second ethical system I want to talk about has the imposing name of “teleological ethics.”  The word “teleological” means “reasoning about ends or results.”  This is the style of ethics that considers, not the rules, but the consequences of actions.

We can compare teleology with deontology: where deontology says “Here are the rules” teleology says “Here are the results.”  Where deontology says “do not murder,” teleology asks “what are the consequences of murder?”

You can see where this is less iron-clad than rules, right?  I mean, you might just answer that question “Great fun and joy!” in which case stay the hell away from me, please.

So anyone espousing teleology has to answer a question: “What results justify an action?”  The earliest answer to this, probably, is the Epicurean answer of “pleasure,” but that’s not so easy as it might appear, because Epicureans were not idiots and had a very nuanced idea of what constituted pleasure, and what pleasures were more intense and worthwhile than others.

If you took a philosophy class at some point, you probably remember that you learned about the Utilitarians.  They were an influential movement in ethics arising in the late 18th century.  They suggested that the justification for action was twofold: increasing happiness, and decreasing suffering.  Notice they say happiness, and not pleasure: working-out might not cause much pleasure at first, but it increases happiness over time.  And in fact, you needed to consider the aggregate happiness, not just your own, in regards to any action.

I confess to having more sympathy for this position, even though it’s not my own.

The Wiccan rede, “An it harm none, do as thou wilt,” is a teleological statement.  Most people who criticize the rede do so not recognizing that, and thinking that it’s a deontological rule; it’s not.  It’s better and more sophisticated than that: it says, if you contemplate an action, and that action harms no one, then do it if you wish.  But if it does cause harm, it may not be a good action, and you should consider further.  It’s basically an if statement, not an iff statement.

From a magical perspective, teleology offers us a problem: how do you know how far to calculate out?  Let’s say I do magic to get a particular job.  Good!  It increases happiness for me, and probably for other people, since I’m suited for the job.  But jobs are zero-sum: if I got it, someone else didn’t.  How much did I increase that person’s suffering?  And then consider: I have a job that loads me down with more stress.  That increases my suffering.  More than my pleasure?  Wait, though, having money lets me buy things, which increases the pleasure of local businesses, and money, thank goodness, isn’t a zero-sum game (Hey, that should be a future post probably).  We could continue this forever, to my children, my children’s children, my children’s children’s children, until I’m considering whether my bagging groceries at the local Piggly Wiggly is somehow making my star-faring descendants happy or sad.

This gets compounded when we consider magic, at which point we have to draw a purely arbitrary line between what we’re willing to consider and what we’re not.

Still, as I said, I’m happier with teleology as a rule of thumb than I am deontology.  It suffers from a logical problem — infinite regression — but not a full-fledged logical contradiction.  And it has some merit in that happiness does matter, is important, and we can act to increase it over the long term instead of in the short term.

Modern Greek Pagans

Posted in Ethics, Paganism, Theurgy on June 20, 2013 by Patrick

They don’t like the term Pagan, apparently, but this is an interesting (and kind of infuriating, in places) article on modern neopagan movements in Greece, from the BBC.  It’s occasionally confused and confusing (they don’t pray to the gods, but they want to build temples to pray in . . . ).  The reporter takes a fairly neutral tone; the “experts” don’t.  Take, for example, Peter Jones, co-founder of Friends of the Classics, who blithely states that these people are “kooky” because “Values and virtues are entirely meaningless in ancient terms.”

This is one of the stupidest things I have ever read.  If it came from someone who was ignorant of the classics, it might be forgivable, but this is someone who claims to be a “friend” of the classics.  In this one statement, he has swept aside the entirety of ancient philosophy, most of it concerned with how to live a good life by developing ἀρετή, meaning “excellence” or “virtue.”  I cannot fathom what sort of hideous stupidity would cause one to say that “values and virtues are entirely meaningless in ancient terms.”  I cannot even imagine a context in which that might not be an asinine thing to say.  The only thing I can imagine is someone with an axe to grind and a willingness to lie and distort the classics of which he claims to be the friend.  With friends like that, who needs enemies?

I should probably do a post on reconstructionist pagans and why I’m not one at some point, shouldn’t I?

Ethics (1/3): Deontological Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Magical Systems, Paganism on June 20, 2013 by Patrick

The first ethical system I wish to address is the Deontological position, or what we might call “rules” morality. (I am using ethics and morality interchangeably in these posts, although there are those who make a sometimes-useful distinction between them.)

Those who subscribe to this moral system devise a system of rules, deriving their powers from some authority (gods, God, pure reason) that will define their duties and prohibitions. The prototypical example is, of course, the Ten Commandments, which offer ten basic rules for how to live: each is quite specific, and tries to be as clear as it can, as if they were legal contracts. For example:

“Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Clear as a bell. Of course, we run into a slight issue here: define your terms. Is it adultery if my spouse knows about it and condones it? It is adultery if my spouse abuses and degrades me? Is it adultery if my spouse leaves me but won’t grant me a divorce? And so on. You can find vast reams of scholarship about what is and is not acceptable according to such laws. A huge slice of Muslim and Judaic philosophy is just that: defining terms in order to make the commandments clear. Christianity rather less so, but Christianity is no less deontological: it just has a rather simpler rule.

36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)

And yet, look at the hither and thither that goes into defining who your neighbor is or isn’t, what it means to love the Lord with all your heart, and so on. People claim to uphold this rule who picket funerals: there’s clearly a heck of a lot of wiggle room. (A lot more people uphold this rule who are kind, generous, and Christlike, so — it’s not a bad rule.)

We run into another problem when we try to define rules. For one thing, how many do we need? For another, how can we define a rule that covers all possible situations? We can’t. A favorite technique of philosophy professors is to give their students situations, scenarios, in which these rules come into conflict, so that in trying to resolve that conflict students will find the underlying rules that govern their unexamined moral intuitions. This can be a very disorienting exercise. I remember in college, one young woman started crying when she realized that two of her moral rules were in direct conflict.

There’s another, logical problem. Where does the authority that defines these rules come from? Many religions Deontologists say “God.” Then we can ask, “If God breaks His own rule, is he then morally bad?” If they say “yes,” then that implies that moral rule comes from a higher authority than God. If they say “no,” that means that the moral rule is essentially arbitrary: God could just as well have said “Thou shalt commit adultery” as “thou shalt not.” Neither is a palatable position for most theists.

Not all deontologists are theists, though. Kant tries to establish a set of moral rules based on reason. You can go look up the results if you like reading translated German. The boiled-down version is this commandment: An act is moral if you could rationally will it to become a general rule. So, if I give someone twenty bucks, I could rationally will that everyone give money to the poor, so that act is right. If I stab someone in the nose, I could not rationally will that everyone start stabbing people in the nose, or I’d get stabbed in the nose! We run into a situation, though, where defining the act determines its morality. If I define homosexuality as having sex with only the same sex, then that act is wrong by this rule, because I cannot rationally will that everyone engage only in homosexual activity, or the species would die out. On the other hand, I cannot rationally will that we make homosexuality illegal or even think ill of it, because in doing so society will miss out on many contributions (think Allen Turing, Walt Whitman, um, me). And heterosexuality is also wrong, because I can’t rationally will that everyone only have sex with the opposite gender, ’cause I don’t want to be forced into what would essentially be a coercive relationship!

We see Deontology in magic when we see prohibitions. “Never curse anyone!” Okay, that’s good advice, especially for a beginner in magic, because curses are difficult, dangerous, and unpleasant to do — but never? What about if they’re hurting someone and it’s the only way to stop them? Can we curse a serial killer so that they get caught faster? Or we see a rule like “Never evoke a Goetic demon!” Again, good advice: dangerous, almost always overkill, and almost always unnecessary because just as powerful and less dangerous options are available. But . . . never? I have to confess that Buer did me a solid. Never work with the dead; it’s necromancy! Um, there are a lot of Tantric practitioners and other traditional paths that would disagree with that.

We also see it when we see “always.” “Always banish!” “Always work in a circle!” My favorite: “always move clockwise in the circle!” Well — why? If I invoke a God, I should end by telling it to bugger off please. How does that work? And I know quite a few successful root doctors who never step into a magical circle.

Often these magical rules assert the authority of tradition, even if that tradition is just sort of made up out of nothing.

Obviously, I am not sympathetic to this ethical approach, even though it dominates a lot of our culture’s thinking about morality. The logical problems with it are just too dire for me to leap over, and while it appeals to think that there is a set formula of rules that we can cling to, I just don’t think there are. I think there are reasons, whys, and hows, and whens. But “always” and “never” make me look for loopholes.

Ethics and Magic

Posted in Ethics, Magical Systems, Paganism on June 15, 2013 by Patrick

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.