Pagan ethics tend to the libertarian. There are no commandments revealed by a deity or list of precepts recommended by an enlightened teacher. Decisions are very much up to the individual and there is a faith in human ability to behave well when free to do so. Pagans tend to dislike notions of sin and guilt as having negative effects on human flourishing. Life is to be enjoyed, in ways that respect the rights of other beings to enjoy their lives too. Michael York (2003) characterises Pagan ethics as based on ‘honor, trust and friendship’. The Pagan perspective that all life is a connected part of the sacred, including all human life and all of nature, has implications for ethical thought about how Pagans interact with the world.
Some Pagans will quote what is known as the ‘Wiccan Rede’: ‘an it harm none, do what thou wilt’ (possibly coined by Doreen Valiente in 1964, and perhaps a response to Crowley’s ‘do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’). However, harming none (which has echoes of the ahimsa of Jain, Hindu and Buddhist traditions) can put considerable limits on the notion of doing what you like. Some Pagans are vegetarian or vegan to avoid harming animals or exploiting them in any way, whereas others think eating meat is natural, but that we should be fully aware of and thankful for the life that has been sacrificed to give us nourishment. An ethic not based on codified rules is actually quite difficult as it involves making constant judgments about what is the most loving and least harmful course of action in any given case.
Some Pagans believe that there is a natural justice in the way the universe is organised, and that ‘what goes around comes around’. They may even use the Indian term karma for this idea. Some Wiccans talk about the ‘threefold return’ that applies to magic – everything wished for others will come back to the practitioner three times as much, which is a deterrent to using magic for negative ends. Others dismiss these ideas and hold that we should behave well towards other beings without any thought of reward or punishment.
There have been a number of books published recently, that examine ethics from a Pagan perspective. Two good examples are:
Myers, B., 2008. The Other Side of Virtue. Alresford: O Books.
Restall Orr, E., 2012. Living with Honour – a Pagan Ethics. Alresford: O Books
Most Pagans also strongly believe in taking personal responsibility for one’s actions, and that taking personal responsibility should be highly visible as an indication of an ethical approach to life.
As Paganism is largely rooted in the idea of the sacredness of nature, environmental issues are a crucial part of much Pagan ethics. Pagans may be involved in forms of direct action or other political activities, campaigning for the future of the planet against the many ways in which this is threatened. Others will focus on deepening respect for and relationship with the earth through ritual and meditation rather than politics. Some Pagans blame Christianity and Abrahamic faiths more generally for having an attitude that sees humans and the divine as separate from nature, and that nature can be conquered and exploited as humans wish. This is sometimes justified by reference to the scriptural concept of human being having been given ‘dominion over’ nature. Other Pagans recognise alternative messages of care for, and stewardship of, or partnership with, nature within the history and present practice of Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Celebrating planet earth and ethical action avoiding harming the environment can be areas where Pagans can fruitfully work with those from all religions and none.
Pagans generally support human rights as understood in such documents as the United Nations Declaration, but limited by our responsibilities towards other people, other-than-human beings, and the planet as the whole. Commitment to equality and diversity is strong – whether in relationship to gender, sexual orientation, disability, age or any other characteristic.
As well as environmental concerns and human and animal rights, issues important to Pagans include war and peace, gender equality and sexuality. Many Pagans campaign against war and nuclear weapons, and were very involved in protests such as the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common in the 1980s, alongside Quakers, Catholics and other Christians, but others may see circumstances where war might sadly be the best option.
Gender equality and feminist thought is very influential in Paganism, especially Goddess spirituality, and the image of a witch as a powerful woman is very important. However, some forms of Paganism may stress traditional roles. Reconstructionists, for example, might often be aiming for as close a representation of historical traditions as possible. This will often conflict with modern life, leading to a need for a degree of compromise. The notion of the triple Goddess: ‘virgin, mother and crone’, derived from Robert Graves, is very important in Goddess spirituality, but can be criticised for defining women in terms of their fertility if taken too literally.
Respect for all sexual identities, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or the rejection of the constructs of sex as well as gender represented by the term ‘queer’, is very much part of contemporary Paganism, and people feel much more welcomed than they do in some other religions. Having said this, some Heathen and reconstructionist groups stress traditional roles and do not approve of homosexuality. Early Gardnerian Wicca had elements of heteronormativity, and Gardner himself has been accused of homophobia – but that was over half a century ago, and attitudes (as well as the law) have changed considerably. Sexual activity is celebrated and may be seen as sacred.
On moral issues such as abortion and euthanasia, Pagans tend to think it is up to the individual to make the right decision in the given circumstances. Pagans can be critical of medical practice where it is over-dependent on mechanical science and pharmaceuticals, preferring a holistic approach that treats mind, body and spirit as inter-related. Thus traditional and complementary medicine such as using herbs and healing rituals are valued in addition to modern medical science.
Social justice is important to Pagans. PaganAid is a registered charity that ‘puts equal value on ending poverty and protecting Mother Earth’, pointing out that poverty in marginalised communities such as tribal peoples can be intrinsically linked to environmental damage and exploitation caused by industrialisation.